In the age of emails, text messages and emojis, Jeniffer Flores ’19 is a believer in the power of a handwritten letter. She mailed more than a few to the individuals who touched her life throughout her four years at Gettysburg College, and wrote a special message to the institution at large.
“I didn’t get to Gettysburg or graduation alone,” said Flores, who double majored in economics and public policy and is the first in her family to graduate from college. “I had such a strong support system there, and so many community members that really invested in me and wanted to see me succeed. I’m really a big fan of written letters, so I wrote a couple saying how much they impacted my life.”
Flores immigrated to the US from the Dominican Republic at a young age, and she and her family settled in the Bronx borough of New York City. In high school at A. Philip Randolph Campus High School, she took part in a non-profit, college readiness program called Sound Business, Inc. that introduced her to college options, which included Gettysburg.
“Gettysburg was not on my radar at all in high school until the director of the Sound Business program, Charles Thompson—who is such an important person in my life—put it there,” Flores explained. Thompson has a longstanding relationship with Gettysburg and with Darryl Jones, senior associate director of admissions and coordinator for multicultural admissions.
When Flores visited Gettysburg for the first time, she felt an immediate sense of community. She said, “I saw people walking by and almost everyone knew each other. I was like, ‘Wow, this is so crazy,’ because that doesn’t happen in New York City. Everyone’s just hustle and bustle, but at Gettysburg, people are holding doors for each other and saying hello. It just felt really warm.”
Quickly, Flores realized Gettysburg was where she wanted to be and commented, “Everyone thinks that New York City is the place for opportunity; I would never have thought that I would leave NYC to find opportunity at Gettysburg.”
One of the first letters Flores wrote after her December 2019 graduation was to Thompson at Sound Business Inc., who shared it with Jones, expressing her thanks for introducing her to the possibilities at Gettysburg. A segment of that letter reads:
Dear Mr. Thompson,
Gettysburg College (GC) changed the trajectory of my life and for that, I am always grateful.
I am so thankful you encouraged me to go away for school, Mr. Thompson! I loved living on campus all 4 years because it allowed me to form meaningful relationships with people who I now consider family. My classmates and I shared so many laughs studying together late night in Musselman Library or the Economics Department. I loved waking up before class for breakfast with my friends, Servo brunches on Sundays, and the annual Gettysburg Thanksgiving dinner!
Having graduated from GC in December, I often find myself reflecting on the memories I made there. I remember my move in day as a freshman and how nervous I was to begin this journey. I understood that a Gettysburg College education is a privilege that very few people can experience so it was up to me to take full advantage of it …
Finding her voice… and her moxie
Flores did take full advantage of her time at Gettysburg and was encouraged to find her voice and use it. In her letter to Thompson, she referenced an IT internship and other experiences that helped her find her voice:
…. Not only did I find a voice and space at Gettysburg, but I was also encouraged to use that voice. I found this voice and space throughout the different learning opportunities I pursued on campus. I interned for our IT department, became the student leader of the Entrepreneurship for Social Innovation Initiative program, became a leadership mentor at the GLC, and researched minimum wage policies with my economics professor.
That economics professor was Prof. Charles Weise, whom Flores calls her mentor and one of the biggest influences in helping her find her voice on campus.
Her introduction to Weise was in his Intermediate Macroeconomics class. When she stopped by his office hours early on, he went above and beyond, spending time to get to know her interests and passions, she said. That support never stopped.
He also described her with a phrase she’d never heard before, as having moxie. “He said it was an older term to describe someone who is brave and has character,” she said. “This was so nice to hear because, at the time, I felt pretty shy and nervous in his class.”
“He encouraged me to speak in class and to have confidence in myself,” she added. “He’s someone who really cares about people and in affecting positive change in society. To have somebody like him on my side really gave me the confidence I needed to do more on campus and be more vocal. He’s definitely a huge part of my Gettysburg experience. To have faculty members that care about your development that much is just amazing.”
Weise also mentored Flores through a summer internship on the Gettysburg campus as a Railing Grant Recipient. Together, they researched the impact of the minimum wage on campus and within the surrounding communities. Flores surveyed a number of campus employees and the research results influenced campus-wide discussions on wages and compensation.
She reflected, “It felt really empowering to help elevate the voices of our workers on campus and to work closely with Prof. Weise.”
Flores’ letter to Weise reads:
Dear Professor Weise,
I don’t think I am capable of expressing with words how grateful I am that I had you throughout my Gettysburg journey. Thank you for always making me feel like I am capable, like I belong, and like what I have to say matters. I only hope that I can pay it forward and help someone the way you helped me when I was beginning my journey. I’ve learned so much from you … thank you for your kindness, support, ear to listen, wisdom, and all of the laughs. I’ll never let go of my moxie.
Discovering values reflected at Gettysburg
Beyond the community of support that Flores thrived in at Gettysburg, she felt affirmed and seen in her identity as a woman of color, and reassured that the college continues to do the work of diversity and inclusion, which is a never-ending process of learning and bettering, she noted. However, when she first arrived on campus, she wasn’t sure that would be the case.
“As a woman of color at a predominantly white institution, at first, I felt like I didn’t belong and that I wanted to shrink to occupy less of the white spaces on campus,” Flores explained. “As my education evolved at Gettysburg, I became empowered by what I was learning. I was fortunate to have brilliant professors that became mentors and who guided me towards uncovering many truths about our nation’s history. Knowing your history in a world that tells you that you do not have one is a revolutionary act.”
Originally, Flores worried that a college situated on a historic battlefield and steeped in history would be stuck in the past and not future-focused. She had concerns that her values would not be mirrored on campus. That wasn’t the case, and she found learning history, particularly her own history, to be most salient to her own development.
“I wanted to go to a school that reflected where our society is heading, not a stagnant school that only placed importance on the past or tradition. However, Gettysburg exists between the past and the future. Its location is so rich in history, but they put huge emphasis on their community and a commitment to public service and impact. That really aligned with my values,” she said. “That goes along with the work of inclusion and diversity. It’s something you have to constantly work towards, and Gettysburg is a place that wants to work towards that and wants to create more awareness and opportunity.”
Identity and impact
Flores found that commitment reflected in her academic coursework, and particularly remembered her favorite class with Prof. McKinley Melton called “The Literature of the Civil Rights Movement.” She explained that the course positioned today within the context of historical moments that came before, helping her to understand parts of her own identity and empowering her with the knowledge to be a lifelong social justice worker.
She explained, “This was a class on the Civil Rights Movement, but it began with the Reconstruction Era to understand how we got to that place. And then it connected to where we are today with Black Lives Matter and all of the movements that are emerging, and where we want to be—because they’re all connected. For example, the institutions of slavery and ideologies of racism were not created overnight, just like it will take more than a single movement to dismantle them. Breaking the chains that keep us bounded to injustice requires education on race relations in the United States and awareness on the struggles that our fellow citizens face.”
Flores said that her coursework gave her context to better understand herself, our collective history, and how she wants to catalyze change in the world. She also studied and explored different aspects of her identity in classes like “Society and Politics in Latin America,” for example.
“It definitely was not an easy experience, but I think it was one that taught me so many lessons. It really forced me to ask myself a lot of questions about my identity and what impact I want to make on this world. It really encouraged me to come out of my shell, to find my voice and speak my voice, and to advocate for other people of color that are embarking on similar journeys as mine,” she said. “My goal is to do everything in my power to make education, specifically history, accessible to groups that do not have access to this information, because knowledge is power.”
A thank you to Gettysburg
Flores credits Gettysburg with facilitating her “educational awakening” and making her an “engaged citizen who actively advocates for those who have been silenced.” She wrote one final letter: this one to Gettysburg College--the institution and the community--that helped her develop her confidence, sense of self, and purpose.
I still can’t possibly say in a letter everything I’d like to. How do I express the comfort I felt when I entered Servo on my first day of freshmen year, only to be greeted by Regina telling me I looked “like the sun?”
How do I express the simultaneous sensations I felt of fear of the unknown and excitement when I left NYC to find opportunity in rural Pennsylvania?
The trying times, the uplifting moments, and everything in between have contributed to the formation of who I want to be in this world and the kind of impact I want to make.
I look forward to making my alma mater, and everyone at Gettysburg that was a part of my journey, proud. I pledge to continue doing good work in hopes of a better tomorrow.
Upon graduating, Flores is already fulfilling that pledge. She received a job offer to work full-time as a research and development analyst for a NYC-based non-profit that provides support and shelter to homeless populations and returning citizens in New York City and Washington, D.C. She’s also completing a real estate development program at NYU. She hopes to attend business school in the spring and eventually “pay it forward.”
“I’m really passionate about connecting with other people and different cultures. I want to continue my commitment to public service. That’s always at the forefront of anything that I do because I do believe in community, and that we don’t walk this world alone so we should help others,” she said. “Gettysburg College showed me that again and again.”
By Katelyn Silva
Photos courtesy of Jeniffer Flores ‘19