By Natalie Muñoz
This summer, returning as an intern to Operation Exodus after my first year at Binghamton University has been surreal. I am no longer eight, wearing the red summer program shirt. I am wearing professional black slacks and pointy “adult” shoes. When I first arrived and visited the classrooms, I pictured myself in one of the tiny chairs asking my mentors how they were sure God existed. I also remember being in a classroom asking Wilbert (my tutor) endless questions about the book I was reading. My most vivid memories are of pouring my heart out, singing and dancing during praise time.
I quickly noted that the biggest change was that my old mentoring room now belonged to Dr. Mark Gonzalez, Exodus’ new Puerto Rican CEO. After researching and learning about his many accomplishments, I became even more sure that since he is here, there is space for me in the professional world too.
Despite growing up in NYC’s most vibrant Latinx community, I was always told by my family, neighbors, and even random people playing dominoes on the corner that success meant making it out of Washington Heights. When I began attending The Beacon School downtown, I came to understand that success can also be defined as staying in your community and helping others.
At times I have been a spokesperson for Latinxs simply because I was the only person of color in the room. The comfort of attending predominantly Latinx schools and programs−including Operation Exodus−at times has been replaced by the discomfort of micro-aggressions from those who didn’t understand my identity. As I enter my second year of college, it seems that already I have had to spend a lot of my young life carving out my voice and forcing my presence into academic and professional spaces.
It was when I first stepped into the U.S Navy’s Sea Cadet program in middle school that I realized my experiences weren’t similar to anyone else’s. Despite being surrounded by predominantly white men who often overshadowed my voice, the opportunities in this program were endless. I found myself being taught CPR by Naval Reservist and becoming certified at only 13 years old. Later that summer I was awarded a scholarship and sailed with a Yacht Club on the Long Island Sound with kids who owned yachts, although I couldn’t even afford my life jacket.
I traded my summers at Exodus for a place where I was the only one who would actually tan and hadn’t been sailing since I was little. I began interacting with parents who were engineers, architects, doctors, people who had careers I had only seen once a year on career day at Exodus and sometimes on T.V.
Rather than feeling like we are forcing our voices into unwelcome spaces, as Latinxs we can become positive contributors and leaders
After my first few days of working with Mark I learned that his favorite phrase was transformational leadership. Through his direction, I am learning what that looks like. While foreign to me at first, I quickly started seeing that being more conscious about our relationships with others truly allows us to serve as better leaders.
Since working here this summer, I’ve been reunited with several fellow Exodus alumni from the “O.G time” (early 2000s). It made me realize that, despite the foundation that Exodus helped us to build, we hadn’t learned how to recreate this kind of safe haven and protect ourselves when we stepped out of its doors. I have come to see that our impact can’t stop at improving K-5 literacy skills, or exposing middle school kids to possible careers once a year. Instead, we need to make sure that every student can see themselves becoming someone like Dr. Mark Gonzalez.
Returning to Exodus, while extremely scary at first, has been one of the biggest blessings that God has given me. Working here on projects that will impact my community has helped me finally give back to the place that has provided me with endless memories. I am hoping that our current Exodus students will begin to understand that they too can become lawyers, architects, engineers, and professionals in careers they didn’t even know existed.
Rather than feeling like we are forcing our voices into unwelcome spaces, as Latinxs we can become positive contributors and leaders. Working here this summer has renewed my motivation to continue working hard so that in the future, our Exodus community can have one more lawyer, one more role model.
Natalie Muñoz is a rising sophomore at Binghamton University with a major in economics. She graduated from The Beacon School where she spent most of her time traveling with her school’s policy debate team, debating Latina feminist literature. At Binghamton, she’s on the executive board for the Latin American Student Union and working with the Vice President for Multicultural Affairs working to create more inclusive programing. Natalie hopes to become a lawyer and continue work in public service.