Chapter 05 – Freshman Year

Like many things in my life, I found my college-move-in experience to be very different from the traditional stories that most of my friends tend to tell. Apparently, some people have parents that help them move in and decorate their rooms. They take them to the bookstore to load up on school gear and make sure everything is properly taken care of.

But, that’s not how it went for me.

My sister Hilda picked me up from the airport, she took me to lunch, and then she helped me move the boxes I had mailed her into my new dorm room. Ironically, it was Hilda who had dropped me off for my first day of kindergarten fourteen years earlier who now had the duty of dropping me off at college.

As I hadn’t done any research or preparation for my move to Santa Clara, the admissions office required that I arrive a few days earlier than the rest of the student body to attend the very last Freshmen Summer Orientation session. So, once we dropped my boxes in my room, my sister left and my college experience was officially under way.

One of my first appointments was with the Dean of the Engineering School to discuss any concerns I may have. As I was just a freshmen, I thought that my schedule was extremely aggressive seeing that I was enrolled in 19 units and full time enrollment was only 12 units. But, when I addressed this with the Dean, he quickly dismissed my concern: “You want to be a Computer Engineer? You have to take 19 units starting now. We’ve actually already laid out your entire schedule for all four years of your undergraduate degree. You can see here that you will have the opportunity to take one elective course in the Winter Quarter of your Junior Year, but that is only if you never drop a class. Drop or fail more than one class and you won’t be able to graduate in four years. This is the way everyone does it. If you don’t like it, pick another major.” Then he looked at me sternly and said “Any other questions?” and motioned that I get out of his office. Hello, College.

Aside from that appointment, Freshmen Orientation was actually all about exploring the campus community. Being such an extrovert, I took advantage of this fresh start to meet as many people as could. Everyone seemed super nice and outgoing and excited. My roommate Jon was a badass and the dorm I was living in was amazing; It was called “Unity House” and it was a bit of a social experiment. First off, it was a multi-cultural dorm where diversity was heavily celebrated by the 100 or so students living there. Second, it was a co-ed dorm where it alternated male room / female room all the way down the hall and third, it housed Freshmen through Senior students. What this equated to was an all out party! Latinos, Asians, African-Americans, and couple of really cool white folks all hanging out together. Everyone’s door was always open, music was always playing, everyone was friends with everyone, and there was always someone wanting to hang out.

That’s when I learned about the three S’s of college: Sleep, Study, and Socialize. The catch was that you could only choose two of the three S’s. Of course, I chose to Socialize and Study, in that order. Sleep happened only when I couldn’t hold it off any longer. And so went my first quarter at Santa Clara: Go to class from 8am to 4pm, hang out with everyone in the dorm until about midnight, and then study until about 4am. Wash, rinse, and repeat.

Some people might not think this was a sustainable schedule, but I managed to maintain it for the entirety of undergraduate career. Sure, I wasn’t very effective in my morning classes, but it was a conscious sacrifice that I made in order to spend an adequate amount of time hanging out with the amazing people that I had access to. For the first in my life, I was surrounded by people who were equally, if not more motivated than I was to succeed in life. The most appealing part about this environment was that so many of them “looked like me”. They came from diverse backgrounds, spoke foreign languages at home, had parents who were immigrants, and they were on scholarships too. Not only was this the first time I had encountered highly motivated Latinos (outside of my family), but we were all together in a place where historically we didn’t belong: On the campus of small, affluent, private university in the center of Silicon Valley.

Finally, I felt like I fit in. Or at least that I wasn’t alone since I was with the rest of the people who didn’t fit in. But, even that feeling didn’t last very long.

As amazing as the fall quarter of my freshmen year was, the natural segregation and formation of cliques had begun by the time everyone returned to school after our month off for Christmas Break. Since I was still carrying so much emotional baggage from my junior high and high school experience, this was a tough thing for me to witness. The political Latinos joined MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan), the Filipinos joined Barkada, the Chinese joined the CSA (Chinese Student Association), the Indians joined Intandesh, and the African-Americans joined Igwebuike. Fortunately for me, this time around there actually was a group with whom I strongly identified with. They called themselves NAKs.

The first time I met the Brothers of Nu Alpha Kappa Fraternity was the weekend before school started. My roommate Jon and I were tagging along with Elias who was one of the upperclassmen on our floor. He took us to some apartments that were just off campus where the NAKs were having a birthday party for one of the bros. As soon as we walked in I met Lorenzo, Brian, and Jesus. It was Lorenzo’s birthday and being the gracious host he is, he handed me a Corona and introduced me to a bunch of the guys and girls who were there.

In retrospect, this was an incredibly pivotal moment in my life in that it was the first time I met these guys who would later become both my brothers and my mentors.

At first, I had no desire to be part of a fraternity, primarily because I only knew of the traditional, stereotypical fraternities that I saw in the movies and I knew that I wouldn’t fit in with them. But, over those first few months as I met more of the NAKs, I found that I got along with all of them really well. It was actually kinda crazy… Though NAK is a small Latino-based Fraternity that only had about a dozen active brothers at the time, it seemed like these guys were everywhere on campus. From the gym to the engineering quad, from the parties to the community service and cultural events, these guys were super involved in campus life. Not to mention they were hella funny! These guys would talk some of the funniest trash I had ever heard and as weird as it may sound to some, this really made me feel at home. In my immediate family and in my circle of friends, teasing each other is one of the many ways we show our love for each other. Not with the intention of being hurtful, though sometimes the teasing can go too far, but all in the spirit of making each other laugh. It’s always in good fun, though it may seems rather rough to an outsider. But the NAKs understood this art of trash talking, so hanging out with them was immediately reminiscent of spending time with my family and my best friends. Additionally, they were all highly motivated, extremely social, and appreciated a backyard bbq as much as I did.

Finally, I found my clique.

There was only one problem: As chill and accepting as the NAKs were with me, I wasn’t one of them. I was their friend and I could go to their parties and hang out whenever, but I wasn’t part of their familia. In order to become one of their brothers, I had to complete their pledge process.

For the stereotypical traditional fraternity, the pledge process I understood involved a large group of freshmen who drink in excess and endure a decent amount of unnecessary hazing, all in order to have the privilege of paying huge fees each quarter to remain an active member of the group. However, as NAK wasn’t a traditional fraternity, they didn’t have a traditional pledge process.

For starters, where many fraternities have multiple pledge classes per year that consist of 30 to 50 pledges each (if not more), NAK only has one pledge class per year where the average class consisted of about 4 or 5 guys. Second, the NAK pledge process is a DRY Process, meaning that pledges are 100% restricted from consuming alcohol for the duration of their pledge period. Third, a uniform haircut is required for all pledges. It used to be required that you maintained a “high and tight” flat top, but the policies have been modified in recent years. Additionally, you were required to carry a NAK binder with you at all times (even to bed and the shower), attend weekly activities and study hall hours, perform community service, and travel to other chapters to meet with pledges from other schools. Last, but definitely not least, there was no predefined length to the pledge process. Each class progressed at their own pace and you remained a pledge until the brotherhood deemed you worthy. As such, some pledge classes finished in as little as a couple of months, and others lasted as long as six months or more.

Knowing all of this information well in advance of Rush Week (which was when prospective members declared that they wanted to pledge for a particular organization), I was still very unsure about whether or not I was going to pledge. Where many of the other fraternities described joining their group as casual and “a fun thing to do”, the NAKs seems to take this way more serious. Having witnessed the close knit group that they were, along with the amount of responsibility that each of them had to carry due to the small size of the organization, I knew it wasn’t a casual commitment. Heck, their motto was “Once a NAK, Always a NAK, Until the day we DIE!” As such, I didn’t take this commitment lightly either.

When the time finally came to make this incredibly important decision, I had determined that the NAKs valued and embodied most all of the things that I aspired to be. So I said yes and submitted my bid for Nu Alpha Kappa.

Unfortunately, I was the only one.

While most years saw an average of 6 or 7 guys begin the NAK pledge process with only 4 or 5 actually finishing, that year, I was the only one who even wanted to start. I believe that the primary cause for the lack of interest was that NAK had been on the Santa Clara campus for about six years and a new Latino fraternity that had just started that year was garnering a lot of attention. Either way, the fact remained that I wanted to be a NAK. Not because there were a bunch of other guys who also wanted to pledge for NAK, but because of the guys who already were NAKs.

But there was an issue: Pledging just one guy was unheard of in the NAK organization. The whole purpose of pledgeship was for the pledge class to bond with each other and then bond with the greater organization. So, rather than simply cancel the pledge class for the year, the NAKs decided to extend Rush for a couple more weeks to see if there was any more interest.

The second time around, two more guys decided that they wanted to give pledging for NAK a try. Thus, the Epsilon Pledge Class of the Eta Chapter of Nu Alpha Kappa was born. But it didn’t last long. Though there were three of us at the beginning, one of the guys quit after about two days and the other guy quit after the first week. And just like that, we were back to square me.

Though it was frustrating for me to go through this process, it was equally tough to see the NAKs deal with this lack of motivation. For the past six years, they had been gaining a lot of momentum and really establishing their organization on campus. To have a solid group of guys work so hard, only to reap a harvest of one pledge, was demotivating for them at best. Especially when the new Latino organization on campus had a pledge class of twelve.

Once the other two guys had quit, the NAKs were again faced with a very difficult decision: Should pledging be cancelled this year or should we attempt to continue forward with just one pledge? At this point, they asked me how I would like to proceed and I immediately responded that I wanted to continue on with the process. I told them that I didn’t start the process because because I wanted to be part of a pledge class, but instead that I wanted to be a part of the existing organization. And that when they extended Rush, I didn’t stick around hoping that a ton of other guys got on board, but that I stuck around because I wanted to be a part of the existing organization. And now, that the other guys had quit, my desire remained the same. As such, I told them that if they were willing to give me the opportunity to continue pledging, I would gladly accept.

So, we embarked on the unknown together and I became the first one-man pledge class in the history of Nu Alpha Kappa Fraternity.

Pledging for a fraternity might not sound like a big deal for most people, but this process was incredibly challenging for me. Not only was fulfilling the responsibilities and completing the requirements of pledgeship regularly difficult, but I had to do it alone. Which is ironic, seeing as how my main motivation for pledging was because I fit in with these guys and wanted to be part of their group. Nevertheless, pledgeship was a lonely time.

What made pledgeship even more lonely was the idea that it wasn’t intended to be a solo act. While the other organization’s pledge class had twelve guys, I was by myself. Whether or not anyone actually took notice, I definitely felt like they did. Which again was ironic: I was pledging to fit in, not to stand out, and I stood out now more than ever. Rather than simply being able to go with the flow and follow the crowd, I was going against the grain. Rather than casually associate with a group, I was having to fight to be a part of something that I believed in. And rather than find strength in numbers, I was challenged to find strength in myself.

As hard as it was, I was determined to complete the process. Partially, because I wanted to be a NAK and partially because I had already made the commitment to both the organization and to most everyone I knew. Countless times throughout my pledgeship I was questioned by my friends outside of the organization as to whether it was really worth all the hard work? To which I would respond: “Nothing in life worthwhile is easy.” So, I continued on.

Then, on April 30, 1999, after two and a half months of pledging by myself, the brothers of Nu Alpha Kappa did something they had never done before; They crossed a one-man class into the fraternity.

Finally, I found a place where I fit in.

But, not exactly.