Each time I am asked to speak to our students at Highline College, I quote the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The speech that I tend to cite is when King asks young people, “What is your life’s blueprint?” In this speech, King encourages young people to keep on keeping on toward their goals, even if it means studying well into the night. He also says, “If you can’t be a bush, be a tree. If you can’t be a highway, just be a trail. If you can’t be a sun, be a star. For it isn’t by size that you win or fail. Be the best of whatever you are.”
I tend to quote this speech because I strongly believe in our students and want them to believe that, no matter their circumstance or path, that they can reach their goals.
Our students are varied and come from diverse backgrounds. Our students are the first in their families to go to college/higher education. Our students include immigrants, refugees, and Running Start and International students who come to us from all over the world. Our students come from varying degrees of economic statuses and different ethnic/cultural backgrounds. I believe that those, like our students who have not traditionally been seen in colleges and universities, should be represented in higher education.
Because of all of this, I have remained in my current position as Dean of Instruction for Transfer and Precollege Education at Highline College. Just like in King’s speech, I am empowered to create policies and influence change so that our students can attain their own life’s blueprints.
Just as important, when I hear our students’ stories, I am mindful of where I came from and whose shoulders I stand on.
My father, Roman Ragajos Flores, was a Sakada, the first wave of single Filipino men who came to the Hawaiian Islands back in the 1930s. He left the arduous life of the Philippines and the work of his family of making salt. He decided to leave his homeland at the age of 15 years old with only a 2nd grade education. He was lulled into being a plantation worker and soon found out about the awful pay and lived in slave-like conditions. Plantation life was grueling and taxing on his body.
When I was growing up, he told us about these experiences of adversity and being a fighter for himself and for his self-worth. His stories continue to motivate me in my current work and service in higher education, especially in the community college setting.
Although my mother’s story was slightly different from my father’s, the themes of struggling through adversity and persevering are prevalent in her story, too. My mother, Angelita Pasion Baclagan, finished high school with dreams of going to technical school to be an administrative assistant.
Because her family did not have enough money, she dropped out her first quarter and stayed home to cook, clean and do chores around the house. When she was 24 years old, my grandparents forced her to marry my father who was looking for a wife after his divorce.
With some strategic pen pal writing from my mother’s uncle, my father was led to believe that my mother was truly interested in him. He came to the Philippines to marry my mom after a couple of months of correspondence. He was 56 years old and she was 24 years old. He was 32 years older than my mother and older than my mother’s father. In essence, she was forced to marry him because her family told her that she was “lucky” to marry him and because of this she and eventually her entire family could come to the United States of America. When my mother came to the Hawaiian Islands, she worked at a chicken factory and from there worked in housekeeping at a Waikiki hotel for 30 plus years until her retirement.
This is my parents’ story of wanting a better life for my sisters and me. They labored and sacrificed themselves to afford a college pathway for my sisters and me. In doing so, I was the first to go to college. With love, support from family, friends and community and my own motivation, I attained the highest degree, a doctorate. I stand on my parents’ shoulders and all those who have helped me to see that I, too, belonged in higher education and I want to do the same in my role as Dean.
Chief Seattle stated, “Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.” It is because of my parents’ experiences, similar-like stories from my students, and providing tools for navigating higher education for students and my own two children that truly motivate me. I want to make a difference in students’ lives especially through higher education. I want to be strategic and humane in being part of a movement to level the playing field of education. Equity and inclusion are important to me and these ideals should be more prevalent in higher education institutions. Changing the system of power and privilege and having higher education reflect our students, their strengths and their stories is what keeps me coming back to serve.
Dr. Rolita Flores Ezeonu received her Bachelor and Master degrees from Washington State University and holds a Doctorate in Educational Leadership from Seattle University. She is the Dean of Instruction of Transfer and Pre-College Education at Highline College since 2008.