Just about a week ago, I listened to a young woman give one of the most inspiring speeches I’d heard in a long time. It wasn’t full of big words or even particularly big ideas, but it came from the very big heart of a young woman who pursued and achieved a dream she once thought impossible. An immigrant from Mexico, Reyna Pacheco attended Access Youth Academy in San Diego, learned to play squash there—becoming a five time Urban Team National Champion, and is now a senior at Columbia University where she competes on the squash team. She was invited to speak about her experience to over one hundred young women who were celebrating National Girls and Women in Sports Day at the StreetSquash Center in Harlem.
The Street Squash players—some from immigrant families like Reyna’s—were totally rapt by Reyna’s talk. This was a young woman whom they could relate to, who had had so little, but had achieved so much, who was cheering them on. I believe that Reyna’s words and message will stay with them for a long, long time.
Here is the speech Reyna gave at StreetSquash. Perhaps her words will also inspire you . . .
About seven years ago, I walked through the doors of my urban squash program, Access Youth Academy, in San Diego. At the time, I did not know what Squash was. I believed that dreaming big was not an option I could even begin to contemplate. If someone had told me I would be where I am today, I would have probably laughed. I was standing in your shoes. I was not only scared to trust the strangers who would day in and day out ask me to trust them and trust the process, but I was also scared that I would fail. I had grown up seeing too many things not work, not for lack of effort but for lack of opportunity. I grew up in a neighborhood where most of my peers were immigrants and low income—the probability that I would ever achieve anything much bigger than working at a grocery store was pretty low.
There were times where I felt that I wanted to quit my program because I was frustrated that I was learning to want things badly. I was learning to always want more. I was learning to think bigger. I was learning to think differently than most people around me. I was becoming a bit more confident in thinking that I could break down walls, that I could go against the odds and become successful. This kind of learning made me incredibly scared.
I share this with you because I believe it is the small series of decisions that I took everyday that helped form the woman I am today. It was not immediate, but with time the way I thought began to change. Instead of being scared to fail, I began to be scared about the possibility or idea that anyone would go to bed at night having worked harder than me. I became fixated on learning from the volunteers and squash members at our club. Everyone around me in the Squash world was so different than the people in my daily life. They had all obtained college degrees and grew up in ways that allowed them to think about big dreams. I had grown up not knowing anyone who had attended college. My parents, the people whom I love the most, worked so incredibly hard to give us as much as they could. I saw them work so incredibly hard to pay the rent each month and to fill our fridge with groceries. Survival every single day was the thing in our minds. It was not by any means what college I would go to or what I would get on an SAT exam. The world that Urban Squash and Education introduced me to was completely opposite than the world I had grown up in.
Being an athlete – specifically a Squash player definitely changed my life forever. I was the last person in the program to learn how to hold the racquet properly, I would go to bed holding my racquet in hopes that I would learn faster. There was a time that I took the racquet home and began to pick up everything with it to make sure I felt that the racquet was just a extension of my hand. I stopped drinking soda and I began to actually think a little more about the kinds of foods I was eating. But those are just the little things compared to the discipline and belief that Squash gave me. It was inside the Squash court where I learned that everything was possible. Seeing myself work hard and then see results made it feel a little bit more possible. Inside the Squash court where I came from did not matter; all that mattered was my effort. I also couldn’t just go around yelling at people or picking fights. I needed to learn a kind of respect for my opponent and my teammates that was unlike anything else I had experienced before. There is something about being an athlete that constantly tests you; it tests the ways in which you are willing to push beyond your limits, the ways you treat people, the kind of consistent effort you are willing to make, and especially the kind of trust you allow yourself to have with the people you are working with. Squash regulated my life when I was in my urban squash program. It became my safe haven. Being an athlete challenged me because it exposed me; it exposed my weakness in ways that nothing else did. I liked the challenge.
I have always thought about what I would say to you guys if I ever had the opportunity to do something like this. I constantly think about you. I think about the journey you are going through and I wish I could really explain to you how special you are and how much hope you not only represent to your parents but to your entire communities. I have recently decided to pursue a professional career in Squash because it not only is a huge passion of mine but most importantly because I want to step on court and represent all of us. To represent us in a larger stage because there is something so special about doing something you are not expected to do. Most of us will end up in fields where we are the only woman, black, hispanic, minority in the office and that is powerful. Even through your time in college you will have to juggle a world that is new to you and you will meet people who have had an entirely different life experience than you. I have always loved that, I have learned to love people who are different than me because it means I have that much more to learn from them and from life. I now truly believe that I—and you—can achieve just about anything.
—Reyna Pacheco at the SL Green StreetSquash Center, February 5, 2016