You see that boy-scoutish looking vest with the buttons all over it? Yea, well there’s a good story there. I came to Carolina intent on trying something new with my spare time and wanting to be different than I was in high school. I’d always enjoyed singing with my cousins or, like many of us do, I partook in the occasional shower stream serenata. This made me think it would be a good idea to try out for the oldest acapella group at UNC, the Clef Hangers. With no musical background and absolutely no idea how to read music, I figured I’d just wing it and see what happened. Well, four years later that turned out to be one of the most important life experiences I’ve ever had. With the Clefs, I had the chance to challenge myself in ways I’d never dreamed of. You might think, “Oh, c’mon it’s just acapella” and I might’ve thought that too before. But the guys I spent every week making music with shared more amazing memories and taught me more life lessons that I can count. Whether it was singing Amazing Grace at Dean Smith’s Memorial service, performing at the White House for President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, being what I still think to be the most northern Puerto Rican on the planet while singing across Iceland, or belting notes with my best friend at Ponte Vecchio in Italy, being a part of this group took me on adventures I’ll cherish for the rest of my life. Most of all, it gave me a love for music that will never go away. I found a new passion, one that I can indulge in whenever I please and can be shared with anyone willing to sing along or play a tune. It gave me friends that will last a life time and the chance to see my mother and grandmother shed tears as I sang in Spanish for my family at my final concert. Fittingly, it was with the Clef Hangers that my Carolina story came to a close as we sang Carolina In My Mind at commencement. One thing is for certain, when it comes to the guys in that group with me, before me, and those to come, we will always be in harmony.
Welcome to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, or as I like to call it—Home. It’s hard to find the words to describe my affinity for this place, whose brick paths have been walked on by men and women who’ve changed the world as we know it. I remember being a wide-eyed high school senior, fresh off my acceptance latterly, laughing hysterically with my good friend as we got hopelessly lost trying to find where our future Residence Hall would be. I remember my very first day of class, waking up an hour before my alarm (which I guarantee never happened again) just to make sure I got to class on time. I look back on that first “Snowpocalypse” of early 2014 when snow balls were flying in jubilation as our Tar Heels took down Dook for the first time since I was there as a student. It’s impossible not to cherish these moments that made me fall madly in love with a plot of land.
Moments like getting to the National Championship, losing, then coming right back again and winning it all my senior year… GO HEELS. There’s just something so special about a community that impacts so many lives, from the 6-year-old super-fan to the 70-year-old alumnus, each with a unique story as to why my Tar Heels were their Tar Heels too. It’s the vivid memories of a beautiful scene on Franklin Street where thousands of strangers are wrapped arm-in-arm singing “Hark the sound of tar heel voices, ringing clear and true.” Carolina is the embodiment of the community that has built not only a tremendous tradition of excellence in all that it does, but has also forged a tradition of compassion and love that extends beyond all measure. It’s the memories of students banding together to protest injustice. It’s everyone honoring the legendary Dean Smith, who passed away my sophomore year. It’s students, faculty, and alumni working together to bring food, medicine, and education across the globe to better the lives of those less fortunate. Carolina is a place that inspired me to be the best version of myself, not only for myself but for those that I could help with the skills I learned inside and outside the classroom. I am forever grateful for the lessons learned, the late-night adventures with friends who’ve changed my life, the copious amounts of tacos from local food trucks, and most of all for making me a part of something bigger than I could’ve ever imagined. Thanks to Carolina I’m a Tar Heel Born, I’m a Tar Heel Bred, and when I die I’m a Tar Heel dead.
There are few bonds in life stronger than a boy and his dog. Oden, my 8-year-old diabetic partner in crime, has been a constant source of unwavering love in my life since I was 14 years old. When I began my journey at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I struggled with the thought of leaving my best friend behind. It wasn’t long until I would drive home to snatch him up and hide him in my Ehringhaus Residence Hall room for the weekends (don’t tell my RA). My four incredible years at Carolina wouldn’t have been the same without the awesome professors that let me bring my buddy to class for a day, or the friends who would play with him on the quad while I was giving a campus tour. In truth, Oden embodies the Carolina way because no matter where or when you crossed his path, he was sure to come right up to you and offer some much-needed puppy love. He never failed to brighten someone’s day and to me, he’s just as much a Tar Heel as anyone I know.
College is a time of drastic change. No one is immune to it. You will fail. You will overcome. At times, you will feel utterly alone. At times, you will be surrounded by the most inspiring and uplifting friends you’ve ever had. You will undoubtedly question yourself and struggle to find the answers for who you really are and who you want to be someday. The answers will not come easily, but it is during this transformative period in your life that you will learn how to truly be YOU. Sitting there, in the Coker Arboretum, I found solace. I was able to escape the brick and mortar of the academic halls and libraries for a moment to catch my breath and contemplate issues that extend far beyond academia. I had the opportunity to question my beliefs and values in order to make the changes that best suited the goals and aspirations I had for myself as a young man. I could recognize the ever-changing state of the natural world around me and allowed myself to be enveloped by its serenity as the floral paths bloomed each spring. One of the beauties of the seasons is that you can watch life happen, from the birth of spring to the dead of winter and back again. I implore you to take the challenges you’ll face with patience and work towards that inevitable bloom.
When I first arrived at Carolina I, like much of the incoming class, thought I was destined to someday be the greatest doctor the world had ever known. Then I took Chemistry and, well, I needed change of plans because my entire world was rocked. Was medicine really my calling? After everything I’d done and said up to this point, could I just change now? What do I even actually enjoy studying? Am I cut out for college at all? It was a whirlwind of self-doubt, fear, and anxiety. I was mortified at the thought of disappointing the people who believed in me most-- my mom and dad. After my first semester was over, I summoned up all the courage I had and went home to talk to my parents. “Mom, Dad, I don’t think I want to be study medicine anymore. It’s just not for me”, I said. I braced for impact thinking I was about to be leveled with some life lesson about perseverance and the importance of finishing what you started but what happened next caught me off guard. As my mother smiled the sweetest smile, my father looked me square in the eyes and said, “I know, and that’s alright. You’ve been blessed in so many ways, so go use those blessings to be who and what you’re truly meant to be.” I was stunned. They hugged me and sat with me as I told them about my passion for politics and bioethics and helped me realize that there were other avenues I could take to love what I learned. That spring semester I met an older student named Teddy Gonzalez. He was studying Health Policy and Management, a major offered through the Gillings Global School of Public Health. The way he talked about his classes, the subject matter, and the amazing professors made me realize that that was my calling. I’ve never looked back since. Being a part Gillings Community was the greatest academic experience I’d ever had. I learned about the struggles of implementing Health Policy from a professor who helped draft the Affordable Care Act. I went on a human rights internship to work with struggling communities in Cordoba, Argentina. I worked with some of the brightest young minds I’ve ever met day in and day out in the classroom on projects that affected organizations in real time. I was able to learn about and do what I really loved in the hopes of someday going home to Puerto Rico to help my people have the access to quality healthcare they deserve.
All of this was possible because my parents believed in me, they loved me, and they lifted me up when I felt most lost. I am so appreciative of every sacrifice they’ve made so that I would have the opportunity at a better life. Their love, support, and unwavering belief that I have and will continue to make them proud drives me every single day. Thank you, Mami, Papi, and all the folks at Gillings for being the bridge to my future.