Defining success on your own terms, by Juliana Villegas

February 10, 2021

Defining success on your own terms, by Juliana Villegas

Keynote address at UW’s 2020 commencement ceremony for first-generation undergraduate and graduate students (across all majors). Written and delivered by Dr. Juliana Villegas, Associate Director of UW Honors Program (Seattle campus) and Assistant Affiliate Professor of English.

It’s a pleasure to be here with you in community, and I am honored to have been asked to be a guest speaker at this year’s first-generation graduation event. Thank you to Jaye for inviting me, and congratulations again everyone! 

I was asked to speak about “Defining Success on Your Own Terms: what success means to me”. As a first generation Latina my story, and how I have come to see myself as successful, is connected to becoming visible and my commitment to tell my story and not remain hidden, which I have tended to do in my life. Remaining only partly visible has, in part, been a way of survival, or what I thought was the only WAY to survive. I have had to negotiate and deal with other people’s versions of success, as well as a societal version of success, and this has influenced how I see myself. This manufactured version of success became part of me, causing me to be my own worst critic, my own enemy. 

Like many people who are first generational, I have created my own paths and my own bridges, to go above, around and through roadblocks. I’ve battled with my internal voice’s self-destructive instructions (i.e. acting on a fear of failure and also fear of success, which both relate to imposter syndrome): “don’t take that publication offer, don’t say yes to that graduate school offer, keep in the shadows, keep agreeing when you disagree, keep that toxic mentor instead of switching to a nurturing mentor. I came to understand that nurturing and intellectual rigor are not mutually exclusive and that, in fact, the nurturing and kind mentors allowed my own critical thinking to be more freely expressed, without as much internal censoring that could often hijack my breadth and depth of creative intellectual expression. I had to create strategies to go through these doubts and to return back to my own self-knowledge and self-worth, and, ultimately, to allow myself to be seen.  Sometimes one needs to do the stealth work before knowing when to walk into the light to make oneself seen and heard.  

I did a lot of hiding when I was a kid and also, to some extent, as an adult. For me it was books and writing that created a way to become more fully visible to myself – the creative space was where I did not have to censor or fragment. Writing was a safe space and saved me from retreating from myself, as I was already in retreat from a chaotic and confusing environment. Reflective and creative writing saved me from disappearing. Growing up, I heard mixed messages about being American and about being Mexican. My father’s ultra-American nationalism and my mother’s nostalgic Mexico were confusing extremes – if neither extreme existed then where was my alliance? I am a product of their visions, their histories, and regrets, their imaginings of family, self, nation. Writing down my daily experiences helped me to understand the complexities of my identity and the intersections between complex familial, cultural, and national dynamics, all influencing my future direction. 

Juliana Villegas in cap & gown with flowers in UW's Sylvan Grove
Juliana Villegas after earning her B.A. in English (in UW’s Sylvan Grove)

Education helped me to understand what was possible in a supportive community and, at the same time, caused me to develop more protective strength and resilience tools.  I entered college, the first in my family to go beyond high school, feeling extremely out of place and insecure. In my early 20’s, I moved to Seattle, transferring from the University of New Mexico to the University of Washington, and it was during my second-year in a gender studies class that I was introduced to Gloria Anzaldúa’s and Cherrie Moraga’s activist writings and to community at the university engaged in their theories. Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza and Moraga’s Loving in the War Years were my guidebooks. Their writings transformed my education and inspired an agency in me that I had not allowed myself to use. I grabbed that agency and control over my story before others could continue to represent me in their own image. 

I added my Mexican familia to my story and, in the process, I made myself more whole, more fully storied, connecting myself to communities and family across national borders.  It was not easy, there were many tears and many doubts, and there were certainly naysayers, but I never considered giving up. I look back and realize how determined and strong I was and, perhaps because not much was ever expected of me and because I was given many messages that I would not succeed, I was even more persistent. 

I had also found my community through the Office of Minority Affairs and the Early Identification Program, finding mentors who did not allow me to shrink, who pushed me, sometimes not too gently, out into the spotlight (again, being nurturing and tough are not oppositional forces). It was scary, but, again, I persisted. Going through the rigors of graduate school allowed me to become even more of an intentional border crosser. 

I did not know then that I was doing resistance work and that I was part of a community of writers and latent activists revisioning my story through what Gloria Anzaldúa describes as allowing in La facultad, “the capacity to see in surface phenomena the meaning of deeper realities, to see the deep structure below the surface…an acute awareness mediated by the part of the psyche that does not speak, that communicates in images and symbols which are the faces of feelings, that is behind which feelings reside/hide” (Anzaldúa 1987: 20). 

It was stealth work. I quietly but persistently, and as I mentioned earlier, not without a lot of doubt, and many layers of imposter syndrome, continued to rework my narrative, to rewrite my story.  I persisted and completed my dissertation publication The Racial Shadow in 20th Century American Literature. This writing addressed border identities in American literature and, what is now called, Critical Mixed Race Theory. 

Dr. Villegas stands in foreground. Several students stand in background, dipping their heads into what appears to be floating umbrellas.
Dr. Villegas leads students through “Borderlands” art exhibit at King Street station in Seattle – Honors cultural outing October, 2017

Those years of sustained writing practice and critical self-reflection allowed me to see that my individual story was part of the narrative of the nation and its social constructs of race, class, and gender. Writing one’s story is a way to engage publicly in pushing against narratives and dangerous constructs of identity. Working in the often rigid and hierarchical environment of a university, I’ve used mixed genre writing to integrate academic research with creative expression, crossing genres and pushing through binary forms of expression. 

I encourage you to listen to your own voice and to use writing, or any creative reflective process, as a way to detangle the chaos and create a reflection that allows you to see yourself truthfully, to understand how you interact with yourself and with others–your friends, family, work, community, society, and those who have different lives and perspectives and backgrounds. When you connect deeply to your inner knowledge you will have a deeper and more meaningful connection with others. Through the creative reflective process, explore your values and what influences you, and then live them.  As the saying goes, “We are always more than the sum of our parts”. We need our humanity and our hearts visible and connected. Find your voice and find your humanity, in yourself and in others. Now more than ever, we must act on our humanity and understand ourselves; our stories must ring true. 

As a dear friend of mine said to me recently, “Rather than working to diminish yourself, allowing the release of more of YOU would be so much easier.” Unleash rather than spend your energy holding back. Infuse yourself in everything you do, and as I’ve been advised in the past, “If you are not at the table you will be on the menu”. Be an agent of your self-liberation. We need all of you fully present, here together on this planet, so keep yourself at the table!