Recently, we interviewed three High School seniors from Samueli Academy who recently traveled to La Push, Washington, with Xperitas for a Community Partnership Program. (For more information on the group’s leader and benefactor, see our interview with Adrienne Matros.) While Violeta, Jailene and Daniel come from different backgrounds and life experiences, they all share one thing in common: their transformative trip to La Push, where they worked in solidarity with the Quileute tribe.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your background.
Violeta: I have six siblings, five of them younger than me. I can’t pinpoint the exact place where I grew up, because I moved around a lot when I was younger. By high school, I reached about fifteen different schools. I moved to Mexico when I was in middle school. At the age of thirteen, I had to move back to California, and I’ve been here five years now. It’s the longest I’ve stayed in a place.
Jailene: I’ve lived in California my whole life. My mom is a single parent. So, a lot of what I do and what I try hard to do is because of her, because I want to put ourselves forward. I’m an only child, so we are really close. And one of the biggest things I take away from her is that she always tells me to explore.
Daniel: My family is originally from Mexico. We all moved together to southern California to start a new life. I’m the baby in the family. I have four older brothers. We have all lived together basically for all our lives, so we all have this strong message and theme of unison and being together and getting through it all together.
Q: What kind of feelings did you have leading up to the trip?
Violeta: It was exciting more than anything – not so much scary, but really exciting. I love Washington. I lived up there when I was younger, and I always wanted to move back. And being in Seattle and going to La Push, was a neat experience, kind of like being back, reminiscing about journeys I had when I was younger.
Jailene: It was the first time out of state, so I was looking forward to everything. And I’m not one who is particularly fond of the sun. In Washington, it rains a lot and there are clouds, and I was just so excited for the weather.
Daniel: A lot of excitement mixed with some sort of projected fear from my parents, you know, leaving the family, trying something alone without them. We’ve always stayed together, so it was something that they felt a little uncomfortable about when we first brought the idea up. But then we had the parents’ meeting. We discussed things with them to make them feel a little more comfortable.
Q: What were some of the differences and similarities you noticed between your own cultural background and the culture you were immersed in in La Push?
Violeta: In La Push, it definitely felt like a family. Since my family tended to move around, we weren’t as close. But being there in La Push, everybody knew each other, everybody knew what they were doing, and they often came to have dinner where we were staying. They wanted to know more about us, and we wanted to learn about them. So, they told us their story. They told us their struggles, and they let us know more about themselves. They really included us in their daily activities and made us feel like being part of their home.
Jailene: Well, to me, the biggest thing that stood out was the family feel that everyone had. As a tribe, they all knew each other and who was related to who and who liked to do what. That’s really different when you think about here in California or in other states where you don’t really know your neighbors. You know their face, you know who they are, but sometimes you don’t really talk to them. You just know that they live right next to you. And in the Quileute tribe, that was so different. Everyone knew everybody and usually had each other over for lunch or dinner. I could see how close their relationships were, and that was something that really changed me. Something I noticed similarly, though, was that the love that they have is the same everywhere, it’s the same kind of family love that you see, and that was really comforting to me, being away from home for the first time. It was nice to see that kind of affection.
Daniel: One of the unique differences was how close everyone was in La Push. Here in California, or at least where I live in Santa Ana, there are a lot of homes that – you know, you just kind of walk down the streets and you don’t know who’s behind that door. You never really talk to them. You never really have lunch or have dinner with them. But in La Push, we often had people come over for dinner and then we’d chat about what went on in our lives and how things were going. So, that was really different, and I really liked it. It was like having a family away from family, so it was similar in that sense, in that I felt like I was home, but I wasn’t. These people really cared. They were always on top of things with each other, and it was really caring. So, I felt like I had a family away from home.
Q: How has your perspective shifted because of this experience?
Violeta: After that week of doing the cultural exchange program, I did not want to leave. I bawled my eyes the night before leaving. These people have really touched my heart beyond belief, and I want to continue building our relationships and making sure that we’re still connected, even though I’m in California. There are so many more things to learn about about different cultures. This is not the only place that I can make a difference.
Jailene: After coming back, I realized that when I was in Washington and Seattle and La Push, I was happy. I wasn’t worried about the things I would worry about here in California, school, family obligations, and I want to return to that state of mind. I felt like in Washington, it was where I was really happy.
Daniel: I really appreciated how I felt independent when I was away, and I felt that that difference really made an impact on the way I sort of developed after the trip. I began to do things on my own. I didn’t really try to rely as much as I did before on others. It was kind of like a wake-up call. I feel like maybe if I didn’t go to that trip, I would still be, you know, a super dependent person and I wouldn’t make the effort to try things on my own, which is why I want to go on another trip. It was really life-changing.
Q: Have you stayed in touch with the community?
Violeta: Even now, I talk to some of the people. We connect either through Instagram, or we’ve connected through Snapchat or something, or email. We still talk to this day. It’s going to be a year now that we’ve left and we haven’t lost our connection, and so I think that was valuable.
Daniel: Not as of lately, but we have received letters from one of the ladies that we worked with on her house in La Push.
Q: What advice would you give yourself, or what advice would you give to someone about to embark on a Community Partnership Program?
Jailene: I would probably tell them to live in the moment. The days just fly by. And before you know it, you’re leaving. You’re packing up. Keep track of what you do. Take a lot of pictures. Keep a journal, because when you come back, it really comes in handy and it’s just a way to visit again without actually having to go there.
Daniel: Just do it. Don’t think twice about it.
What are your plans for the future?
Violeta: I am now admitted into the University of Washington in Seattle. I’m not planning to go to Seattle just to be in Seattle but also to travel to La Push, whether it be during breaks or on the weekends.
Jailene: The trip to Washington really changed the direction that I thought my life was headed. So, after I graduate, I’m going to attend college at the University of California-Riverside. I plan to move back there (to Seattle) after I finish college. I want to study sociology and get a degree in education, because I really love English and I feel that the sociology degree can help me teach English as a foreign language. I want to tie in traveling with whatever my career holds.
Daniel: After graduation, I do plan to attend a four-year college. I applied to Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle and that was due to the trip we took, because I got to explore the city and state. So, that definitely had an impact. But because of finances, I think I’m going to go to another art and design college in California. I want to study commercial and advertising art. It’s either local or really far away. I’d be comfortable with both. I don’t think I would have applied to the school (in Seattle) if it weren’t for the trip, because of going away and being independent. My trip had a large impact on my decision to consider out of state schools.
Q: Anything else you want to share about your experience?
Violeta: There were times when we would just simply listen to stories and learn life lessons, because these people have been through a lot, more than I could ever imagine. And going through each activity, I learned that I love learning about people and culture. And this is why we’re going on a second trip, because it was such a great learning experience. Learning about different cultures within our nation is very valuable.
Jailene: I just would like to say that my trip to La Push was really life-changing. When I returned, I realized that I was using the qualities that I saw from the people there: conservation, showing people the same kind of kindness that you would to anyone else, and just being a good person, because that’s what it was all about over there, and that was what I really liked.
Daniel: When this trip came up, it was a little hard for my parents to let me go to experience something on my own. It was something new, some new waters to test for them. But nonetheless, I came back and I told them about it, and they were totally delighted with everything. Also, the three of us got really close because of the trip. At first, we thought we were kind of like an oddball group. But at the end of the week we all established a connection that was due to that trip. Everything that we did throughout the week, everything we talked about, everything that we did together, you know, all of us being away from home, we kind of made each other a second family, so I think that really made an impact. I feel like maybe if I didn’t go to that trip, I would still be a dependent person and I wouldn’t make the effort to try things on my own. It was really life-changing.
About Samueli Academy: The idea for Samueli Academy in Santa Ana, California, began about ten years ago, with Susan Samueli and Sandi Jackson, two philanthropists and members of the Board of Directors of Orangewood Foundation. Susan and Sandi were concerned about the low high school graduation rates among teens in Orange County. They decided to explore new educational opportunities for local high school students and research best practices around the country. The result was Samueli Academy, whose mission is to provide a transformational learning environment to underserved and foster teens and provide stability, support, and a community in which to belong, thrive, and grow into successful, independent adults.