Emerging Voices creates safe space for student struggles

Honor Students share stories of self-realization and discovery


Mayra Figueroa Vazquez

Mesa students speaking in the first ever student driven symposium. Photo Credit: Mayra Figueroa Vazquez

Mayra Figueroa Vazquez, Staff Writer

       Lead by Professor Jorge Villalobos, four San Diego Mesa College students shared their captivating stories of self-discovery and hard upbringings. Held on National Coming Out Day, English 105 honor students sponsored the first student-driven symposium in the Mesa Commons while Villalobos explained the importance of students having a safe place to share their stories.

       Villalobos said, “this concept of coming out does not only refer to sexual orientations or gender identification, it can also pertain to self discovery or taking risks”.  

       Merveille Kouekabakilaho, 19, read a poem titled “Survivor.” Using Wonder Woman as representation for her poem, Kouekabakilaho did a dramatic reading of her story of survival.

       “I am who I am today because of all the challenges I have been through,” she said. Among her difficult challenges was surviving the war outbreak in North Africa. Recalling her story of survival when the civil war hit her home, Kouekabakilaho went on to describe her memories as “bombs, fire, death surrounded me, then there was starvation.”

       When asked why she would share her story, Kouekabakilaho said, “ I have stories people need to know about, they need to know what I have been through to inspire them.”

       Jessica Butterfield, 28, shared her story of bravery and self reliance titled “Freedom From Fear: Coming Out And My Childhood.” From an absent father to an abusive stepfather and an ignorant mother, Butterfield bravely shared the story of her youth that made her the person she is today.  

       A life filled with emotional and physical abuse lead her to find self harm as a means of escape. Threatened to sent to a group home or foster care year after year, and being the denied her right to an education, young Butterfield found herself fed up with the life she had been living. “There was no one there to stand up for me, not even myself,” she said.

       “Several attempts at running away and a fight with my mother lead me to my freedom,” says Butterfield. Despite her harsh upbringing she credits her dysfunctional family for showing her what kind of life she doesn’t want to live.

       Among the speakers was Steven Milunovich, 32, who shared a roadmap of his life. His story “As I Am” depicts the stories of his childhood, his grandparents love that lives on, and his connection with his mother who he says gave him her blessing to move on and write a new chapter in the book about his life.

       “My entire life I had been trained coached and influenced by my family and teachers,” says Milunovich. When he moved to Fort Myers, Florida to begin a new journey he recalls relying on the people in his life to find “as sense of self.”

       Last to speak was Ariel Pingol, 22, who shared a story of discovery while stationed with the Navy in a sovereign island nation in East Asia. His short story titled “Where We Come From Shapes Our Identity” depicted the story of a night out with a Japanese man who helped Pingol escape the harsh limitations to express oneself the Navy enforces.  

       Being a closeted gay man in the Navy wasn’t easy for Pingol, he says “ being in the Navy for four year, when you’re freedom is taken away, when you can’t be with your loved ones, when you are told that your hair can’t be a certain length, what hair color you can’t have, what facial features you can’t have, things you can’t do, it deters you from being the person that you want to be.”

       That night gave him a new understanding of what LGBT means to him. “It doesn’t matter who you may be what matters is being open to love one another regardless of sexual preference and gender, showing affection to a guy in public and not having to care about any of the consequences,” says Pingol.  

       Professor Villalobos hopes to continue this tradition going, in hopes that more students will be inspired and what to share their stories of diversity.