Trumpets blasted and cymbals clashed as Selene Castillo walked among the other student representatives across Alumni Park last month. She sported a black and red robe, but it wasn’t her graduation day — she was taking part in Carol Folt’s inauguration as USC’s 12th president.
As she held the wooden rod of the Bovard flag in her hands and stood around the fountain, watching faculty and staff roll in and listening to the announcer, Castillo could barely contain her excitement. She had just started her first semester at USC a month before, and she was already representing her cohort of Bovard Scholars, a feat she never would have imagined a few years prior.
“The previous night, I was talking to my mom, and I was telling her about how I would have never imagined that,” Castillo said. “I was telling her, imagine I was born — we’re from Mexico — and the doctor telling her, ‘You know what? Someday your kid is going to be at USC.’”
Castillo, a freshman majoring in international relations, considers herself lucky.
She’s a Bovard Scholar, a Norman Topping scholar and one of the only students from her high school in Thermal, Calif., to attend USC in the last few years. But her successes are not simply accidents — they’re a compilation of years of hard work and sticking to her goals.
“A lot of our kids, you know, the day it gets hard, they quit,” said Gustavo Sandoval, Castillo’s high school anatomy and physiology teacher and baile folklórico instructor. “Selene is just that rare type of kid that she thrives on the pressure. It’s like, if it wasn’t hard, it wasn’t fun for her. And the other thing is, she never gave up.”
Now in college, her goal remains the same: to pay her family back for the sacrifices they have made since coming to the United States. Castillo remembers the long days her mom would work in the fields and the summers she would spend picking grapes in the 120-degree heat alongside her.
Castillo also recalls her junior year of high school when her grandmother fell ill. She was back home in Guanajuato, Mexico, when her grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Castillo and her family would not be able to see her before she passed away. Castillo and her parents are undocumented, so making the return to Mexico would be permanent.
“At the time, my dad would say [to my mom], ‘You know what, I don’t care. We’ve been here for so many years. It’s OK if you leave. If you want to do that for your mother, it’s OK, we’ll leave,’” Castillo said.
But her grandmother made her mother promise not to leave. And it’s a promise that has kept Castillo going. As the oldest of four, she is the only child without papers. Her three younger siblings are all citizens, but Castillo was born in Guanajuato, a home she left when she was 2 years old.
“It’s like that promise that my mom didn’t leave because of me — there’s no going back for me. I just have to keep on pushing forward,” Castillo said, her voice cracking.
And her hard work has been recognized.
“Just to hear how much she’s accomplished, so much, it’s just gratifying as an educator,” Sandoval said. “It makes you feel like you’re actually doing a difference because the biggest thing for educators is, ‘Do we impact somebody?’ And here’s someone that I can tell you that we had an impact on her. And I know she’s going to have an impact on a bunch of people as well.”
For Castillo, coming to USC was a bit of a culture shock. Though she’s a resident of El Sol y La Luna, Fluor Tower’s Latinx floor, there are not as many Latinx students on the floor as she expected.
“I come from Coachella Valley, so we’re all Latinos,” Castillo said. “My high school is 99.9% Latino. Our teachers are jamming out to Mexican music from class to class, like it’s paisa, it’s Mexican, Mexican. Being here is a totally different atmosphere. Talking to other friends on the floor and just comparing music taste and stuff is just — I’m in another world.”
Castillo misses switching back and forth between English and Spanish, using Spanglish words and translating for her family and acting as an interpreter for parents at school.
“It’s just a few people that actually speak Spanish to me on the floor,” she said. “Sometimes I catch myself speaking in Spanish, and I have to apologize and translate it to English. So, for me, that’s really hard. It’s something that I have to overcome.”
For Castillo, the most important part of her journey has been helping her brother and two sisters aim high so that doors continue to open for them like they did for her. She’s especially happy to see her own motivations rub off on her second-grade brother Emiliano, the youngest, whose excitement about the future matches Castillo’s.
Emiliano has followed in her footsteps quite literally, as he has taken up baile folklórico just as Castillo did throughout middle and high school and has already set his sights on college.
Castillo couldn’t help but smile as she recalled his reluctance to leave her dorm room on move-in day. As her mother helped her set up her bed, Emiliano defiantly told with her about how he was going to move in with Castillo, and there was no one who could stop him.
“If I can’t change the world, at least I know I changed his mentality, and I’m happy,” Castillo said.
Getting to USC wasn’t easy for Castillo. She said that the counselors at her high school did not provide much help or resources for students applying to four-year universities like USC. But Castillo’s main support came from the Bovard Scholars program, which she discovered accidentally when she sat down next to a friend at lunch and saw the program’s flyer among his belongings.
“She’s so bright, she’s so eager,” said Jennifer Colin, the executive director of Bovard Scholars and summer programs, who works with Bovard Scholars like Castillo. “And then she has this added personal mission, which really comes through when you talk to her. She is glowing about inspiring students to our summer community and showing them life outside of the valley and really encouraging them to see beyond their immediate circumstances.”
Outside of class, Castillo’s main release is baile folklórico. She has danced since seventh grade, when she wandered into a high school dance group after learning about it from a woman at a conference she attended at school. This is a passion Castillo continues to pursue 100 miles away from her usual dance floor.
USC’s Grupo Folklórico was the first thing she looked for when attending the campus involvement fair in September. Now, a few afternoons a week, the space in front of Heritage Hall becomes her studio. She’s exhilarated as she dances, empowered by bailes like el jarabe tapatío of Guadalajara, Mexico. The bailes provide a bridge between her passion and her daily life.
“She’s resilient,” Castillo said. “In the dance, she has to stomp as hard as the guy, she has to manage the faldeo and do all these things at the same time. I feel like that’s what I’ve been doing, just like balancing all these things at once but trying to be resilient and trying to have that smile on my face and push through the pain.”
As Castillo looks toward her next few years, she’s not quite sure what to expect. All she knows is that her next steps will be rooted in her culture and the values she’s grown up with.
“Soy Mexicana de corazón,” Castillo said. ”I’ve always been super in touch with my culture. And that’s why I do baile folklórico, and that’s why I like to speak Spanish. And it’s something that keeps me connected and reminds me every step of the way, who I am. I’m a DACA student and I’m from Mexico.”