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John Miller (right) at his living memorial with his partner Robert Bixler (left) and Carlos Alamo-Pastrana (center). Alamo describes Miller as a mentor who taught him how to dream. Courtesy of Carlos Alamo-Pastrana

Professors: What is a topic, idea, theory or breakthrough related to your field of study that you find absolutely fascinating or feel very passionate about? Explain why.

I vividly remember the day some twenty years ago when my Spanish Professor, John Miller, demanded I see him in his office shortly after our seminar on U.S. Latina/o Literature. Assuming I had done something wrong, I was mortified. I followed Professor Miller to his office, and as he opened his door, he looked at me and said that we needed to discuss what my career plans were. I looked at him a bit puzzled. No one had ever bothered to ask me such a question. I sat down and nervously mumbled some words about possibly being a high school history teacher and football coach. He returned my puzzled look. “Well what about graduate school?” he finally mustered.

As a first-generation low-income college student, the idea of graduate school never entered my world of possibilities. Even more honestly, I had no idea what he was talking about or what graduate school even was. In the hour that followed, El Profe, as I came to call Professor Miller affectionately, spoke to me about pursuing higher education and thinking of the ways I could explore in more detail all the topics and ideas that I raised in his classes. No one had ever told me my ideas were interesting or important. To be told that I had something important to say as a young Latinx student meant the world to me. More than anything, in that hour, El Profe taught me to dream.

At every stage of my academic career, I’ve been fortunate enough to have incredible mentors who have helped me dream, to find value in my ideas and to work through difficult moments in their offices. Sometimes these mentors have looked like me, and sometimes they haven’t. None of them have ever formally identified themselves as “my mentor.” Instead, they’ve modeled and offered their support in ways that always felt comfortable and organic—never paternalistic. These mentors have always helped me see myself as a crucial and valued member of an educational system that is often lacking in diverse and engaged voices. Most importantly, I learned that some of the most transformative moments in a student’s career in learning about the world and themselves happen beyond the classroom and inside an office. The way students feel and are engaged in my office matters to me because I know what the stakes are—where I am today is the direct result of a one-hour meeting twenty years ago.

Two weeks ago, I traveled to South Jersey to celebrate being a part of a living memorial in honor of Professor Miller’s life. John, as I now refer to him, has battled cancer for the last ten years, and he recently learned that his cancer is now terminal and has spread throughout his body. As I sat with John that night, we laughed and cried as we reminisced about our time together. For a brief moment, it felt like we were back in his old office. A mentor, through and through, John and I continued to dream together and make plans for the days ahead.

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