An Invitation To Speak
Michael Vidal's Story
He’s got energy. Thought after thought race out of his mouth, one left dangling unfinished from his lip while the next takes a leap of faith. Warm laughs and wide smiles provide cushion.
The lively story he’s telling here in a small office on campus is how a boy from New York City came to be a man standing on a large stage, alone, in front of hundreds of people in the Johnson Theatre, telling a different story.
The man is Michael Vidal, a senior psychology and international affairs dual major. As part of the University’s Martin Luther King Jr. celebration, Michael was chosen by the organizing committee to speak to the UNH student body about actively promoting fair and equal treatment and opportunity for marginalized groups in the U.S.
Michael knows a thing or two about the subject of marginalization. As a boy who did a fair amount of moving around (he lived in New York, Massachusetts, the Dominican Republic, and once more in Massachusetts before settling in Nashua, New Hampshire, in sixth grade), he often felt like he didn’t quite fit in, he says. Sometimes this was due to his Latino heritage, sometimes his American nationality, sometimes the jarring turn from inner-city to rural life, sometimes the language transition from English to Spanish or Spanish to English, and sometimes just because he was the new kid in town.
When he got to Nashua, the experience of being different was intense.
“I was completely bombarded with difference,” Michael recalls. “I came from a bilingual school to New Hampshire where there is no bilingual system. I was coming from many different places and most students in my elementary school in Nashua were natives of New Hampshire. We had very different interests. I struggled a lot. I had been getting As and Bs in the past and now I was getting Cs and Ds.”
In high school, Michael began to understand the complexity of the no-man’s-land he felt himself in. While the high school had a more diverse population of students than his elementary school and junior high, a new set of problems appeared. He felt stuck between his white friends on one hand and his Latino and black friends on the other.
“There were racial disparities within the city in terms of where people lived and what they did,” notes Michael. Those disparities were reflected in the culture at school. Michael was one of few of his friends of color who eventually worked his way into honors classes, producing tension between what other students—from both dominant and marginalized groups—thought a student of color could achieve and the reality of what he was achieving.
Michael recounts a time when a white boy stopped short upon entering a classroom and questioned whether he was really in the honors class when he saw Michael sitting there. Another time, a Latina friend dropped an honors class after only three days because she had convinced herself that she couldn't handle the work.
“As a result of these challenges, I developed a kind of empathy for other folks who are marginalized, so I felt for women a lot. I felt for friends who were LGBT. I felt for friends who were low income; they couldn’t afford to get into sports or even stay for afterschool programs because they had to go straight to work to help their parents pay for bills. So I always kind of felt that I was advocating for them,” says Michael.
That empathy eventually found an outlet at UNH when Michael got involved with the Martin Luther King Leadership Summit, a 3-day intensive training in developing leadership skills around issues of multiculturalism. The summit introduced him to people on campus and a supportive community at UNH that opened a world of opportunities. Michael eagerly embraced that community: he studied education access in London and Ghana as part of the McNair Program; he became a Connect peer mentor; he was a University Dialogue Student Fellow; he serves as president of the Diversity Support Coalition; he serves on the President's Commission on the Status of People of Color; and he serves on the UNH Bias Response Team.
For all the difficult subjects and discussions—not to mention personal experiences—that arise around issues of diversity, discrimination, equity, and the like, Michael remains positive and hopeful, exuberant even. Just ask him about his hometown, Nashua. You’ll get a cascade of reasons why it is an exciting time of growth for that city and why he keeps his connections there very much alive.
Michael is involved in the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs’ Nashua North and South High Schools’ multicultural mentoring initiative that pairs high schools graduates with UNH students who identify as multicultural. With all that he has on his plate at UNH, why does Michael spend time and energy in Nashua?
“I love Nashua. I’m an advocate,” says Michael. “I think the reason why I’m so intrigued by Nashua is because of the way that the demographics are changing, it’s becoming more diverse, and we’re seeing this change right before our eyes...I’m so excited because now is the opportunity to say maybe we should have a class that all students are required take about XY and Z. As it is now, people spend all this money and all this effort to do something if something bad happens, but why do we act just when something bad happens? These things should be built in now. Have a program that encourages students of color to go into your honors and AP classes. Get them up there.”
That Michael himself “got up there” is due to persistence and supportive parents, he says, who urged him to follow his passions and work hard.
Work hard he has. In addition to his dual major, Michael will complete two minors, one in race, culture, and power and the other in women’s studies. He admits that he hasn’t had the normal college experience in terms of leisure time but says he’s made sure he’s had fun along the way.
“It's 10 o’clock and I say, 'okay time to go to bed.' That’s just what I kind of decided to do with my time here and my experience, and I think that’s reflective of the fact that I’m a first-generation college student and I wanted to make the most of my time because I didn't know where I was going to end up next. This was kind of like 'whoa, I got to college!’”
Michael plans to continue on to graduate school next fall to pursue social justice studies and is now anxiously awaiting word from the three schools he’s applied to. Unsure of his exact career path, he knows he wants social justice education to be part of it. Maybe he’ll lead workshops, consult in businesses, or be part of a non-profit, he says, just as long as he stays connected to people and makes a difference in terms of social equity and inclusion.
That drive, focus, and passion is what propelled Michael onto the Johnson Theatre stage to tell his own story of inclusion: how in his freshman year at UNH, a Latina student, Karoline Goulart, took initiative, introduced herself, and invited him to a meeting of Mosaico, the Latino student organization on campus. That invitation led him to a community that changed his life. His message to the UNH student body was another invitation—to be like Karoline was in that moment: take initiative and live the words of Martin Luther King Jr., as if each of our lives is inextricably linked to another’s.
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