My name is Nick LaBerge (he/his/him), and I am a second-year scholar from Tacoma. I am a student at Claremont McKenna College, a small liberal arts college in Southern California. Although I have not yet declared my major, it will likely incorporate a combination of science, economics, and philosophy.
My friends and family wholeheartedly accepted and supported me when I came out to them as gay in high school. For this, I consider myself extremely lucky. The support of these valued allies helped make my high school experience positive, yet it could only do so much for my sense of belonging. I only had a handful LGBTQ peers and one or two LGBTQ adults that I could look up too, which I found lonely and discouraging. This changed drastically after I was awarded a scholarship by the GSBA. I took my mom to the scholar’s dinner, where we were met by hundreds of successful and supportive LGBTQ adults. The entire night, I felt on the verge of crying with joy; joy that such a large room could be filled with people who accept me, joy that my future could possibly be as bright as any of the people I met, joy that I would be able to go to my dream college, joy that I belong. That dinner (despite me having been scheduled to speak at the very end with terrible stage-fright) is one of my most cherished memories.
Through Claremont McKenna College, I was awarded a fellowship for the summer. As an Appel Fellow, I had the unique opportunity to pick-my-own-adventure for an experience that would culminate in a meaningful writing project. I chose to spend my summer in Buena Vista, Panama volunteering for the non-profit organization Cambio Creativo.
Cambio Creativo is a small non-profit organization dedicated to the underserved community that formerly resided in Coco Solo--an abandoned and dilapidated US Navy facility. This community was recently moved to government subsidized housing in Buena Vista, where they must re-learn to survive. Cambio Creativo focuses much of its energy on the children of this community.
On school days in Panama, I tutored local youth (ages 7-18) in English, Spanish, math, and science in an after school program. I additionally helped with the the small organization's website and record-keeping. On the weekends, I taught an english vocabulary building class for all ages.
One highlight of my experience took place during one of my tutoring sessions with a young woman named Maria. She is 18 years old, recently married, and soon likely to be starting a family. She has a particularly hard time with chemistry homework, and I was nervous that its complexity would limit my ability to help her on account of my limited Spanish fluency. We decided to save it for last. She was learning how to find the empirical and molecular formulas of a molecule based on the percentages of each element's mass within the molecule--something that I remembered enough of from high school. We slowly went through each step of the problems, until she could do them on her own. She was excited that she could feel confident for her upcoming quiz, and I was thrilled to have made a measurable contribution.
I lived with an amazing host family for the entire 8 weeks I stayed in Panama, and my host brother was my best friend. I went with him to community events like bingo fundraisers for the local church, traditional dancing performances, and community beach outings. Also, I worked in the communities "centro," where lots of youth spent their free time. There, I played ping pong, chess, or sometimes just talked with members of the community.
Although my stay in Panama was relatively short and I was working in a field that I am unlikely to pursue professionally, I think I learned more this summer than I could have learned in any corporate setting. I learned about another culture and another way of life. I grew fluent in Spanish, I made friendships that will continue for years, and grew close with a small community that I think about often and that I hope to visit again soon. In a lot of ways, this summer experience reminded me why organizations like the GSBA are so necessary, as it highlighted the importance of education, friendship, community, and family. I learned that the best experiences are not always the easiest or the most enjoyable, but the reward for leaving my comfort zone can outweigh the initial cost of discomfort. And while I learned all of this, I was also reminded that there is so much that needs to be done to support underserved communities around the world.
Thank you so much, GSBA, for supporting me as I strive to learn as much as I can and expand my worldview.