When I was preparing to move across the country to start my Ph.D. program, my parents invested in a printer with a flatbed scanner. I was 24 years old at the time. For nearly two decades up to that point, I regularly read and interpreted their mail for them — daily when I lived at home and then monthly or so when I’d come home to visit while attending UC Irvine.
For the duration of my time living in New York, my parents’ scanner became the mechanism we’d use to ensure that urgent items wouldn’t erroneously end up in the junk mail pile. In between researching historical human trafficking trends and teaching undergraduate classes, I continued to read and interpret my family’s mail despite the thousands of miles between us. I know my story is all too familiar to countless hardworking first-generation students across the country. It’s because of these students that I proudly serve as the vice president of the Bakersfield College Alumni Association Board of Directors. My mission is to give it all back in gratitude.
Learning English as my third language growing up, I was the first in my family to have the privilege of becoming fully literate in any language at all. I learned at about age 5 that words were my superpower. I discovered I could use the power of language and literacy as an act of love and appreciation for my parents. Reading the mail was just one way of doing so.
Despite insurmountable challenges, while never spending a dime on themselves, my parents bloomed a life full of options for my siblings and me. They are the epitome of tenacity and courage. As much as they tried, life circumstances didn’t allow them to fulfill their educational aspirations, which is why I cherish the roads I’ve traveled in higher education. That transformative journey began in a Bakersfield College classroom and changed our lives forever.
Like many first-generation students, I was lost. I remember holding my first FAFSA form feeling overwhelmed, intimidated and uncertain. I questioned my ability to accomplish anything significant in life. What I didn’t know at the time was that I would soon learn I was capable of so much more than I had imagined. As time went on, my vision for the future steadily grew and in my sight was a whole world out there that desperately needed compassion.
Imprinted on my heart is the encouragement I received from the late Jack Brigham, who instilled in me the values of social justice. Initially my history professor, he mentored me throughout my academic career until his passing. I will also never forget my second time on a plane. Don Turney, our former dean of students, took a group of us to D.C. for a student leadership conference. I remember buying my first blazer for that trip. With people like Jack and Don by my side, I understood for the first time that I had a purpose and contributions to make toward creating a just world.
After graduating from BC, I earned a B.A. from UC Irvine, and then pursued my Ph.D. in sociology to further my expertise in human trafficking-related issues. I’ve spent the last 20 years of my life countering human trafficking in communities, sitting in numerous airports, and have seen so much of the world. This is all because people at Bakersfield College believed in me.
When I eventually decided to take a hiatus from my doctoral studies to help lead anti-trafficking efforts on the ground, I found myself back in Bakersfield. Upon my return, I immediately reunited with the BC campus. This time around, I vowed to walk the halls in support of students and in honor of those who have poured into my life. Everyone deserves to find their path. I invite fellow community members to join us in lighting the way.
Sandy Woo-Cater is the lead for CommonSpirit/Dignity Health’s national Violence and Human Trafficking Prevention and Response Program and co-director of the Kern Coalition Against Human Trafficking.