Guest Speaker: Follow your goals wherever they lead

June 26, 2017

As with generations of immigrants before him, Abel Cruz Flores arrived in the United States with a dream, and little else. But that dream, combined with hard work, persistence and the generosity of local benefactors, is now firmly within reach as this graduate of Columbia Gorge Community College pursues his doctorate in linguistics from one of the nation’s leading research institutions.

Cruz Flores came to the Hood River Valley from a rural village in the State of Jalisco, Mexico, at age 17; his family still lives in Mexico. He arrived in pursuit of an education, knowing this to be the key to a better life. But he also knew it wouldn’t come easily, as he explained in his June 16 commencement address to Columbia Gorge Community College’s graduating Class of 2017, where he was guest speaker.

Cruz Flores told graduates to nurture their curiosity, and ask hard questions.

Curiosity, for him, included curiosity about his native language and how its usage has been adapted by native Spanish speakers in different parts of the world. That curiosity led him to study linguistics after graduating CGCC in 2010, first at Portland State University, then the University of Arizona, and now, in his third year of a five-year doctoral program, at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.

It’s a long way from field work in the Hood River Valley, where Cruz Flores secured one of his first jobs upon arrival in the United States.

“I was working in the fields, and wanted to go back to school. I attended HRVHS but was not academically ready for a four-year university,” he explained.

Columbia Gorge Community College provided the transition he needed between high school and university, with financial assistance through the generosity of a local family. Cruz Flores worked the fields in the mornings, then attended classes in the afternoons. His field work not only helped him pay for college, but made him even more aware of the challenges confronting today’s immigrants; those conversations and experiences led him to establish the Multi-Cultural Club at CGCC, assisted by former Pre-College Department chair David Mason.

After graduating from CGCC, Cruz Flores attended Portland State University to obtain his bachelor’s degree in linguistics; with finances still constrained, he slept on a friend’s couch for his first year in Portland. It was at PSU that he learned of Georgetown University’s reputation as a center of international studies and research. He applied to Georgetown but was rejected, so decided to pursue his master’s degree at the University of Arizona.

Master’s in hand, he again applied to Georgetown, and this time was accepted. Today, Cruz Flores is working toward his Ph.D. in Spanish linguistics at Georgetown, where he’s the vice president of the Graduate Association of Mexican Students; the organization lists among its goals improved collaboration across Georgetown’s Mexican community and promotion of Mexican culture across the university and the greater Washington, DC, area.

Cruz Flores’s academic specialty delves into the science of language cognition and its relation to neuroscience; for instance, medical scans of the brain reveal biological responses to grammatical structure, which in turn can influence how language is interpreted in such fields as artificial intelligence. He is fascinated by the works of Noam Chomsky, one of the most influential scholars of the 20th Century. Chomsky, considered the father of modern linguistics, studied the “why” and “how” we speak from a biological perspective. Chomsky was especially intrigued by the speed at which young children pick up new languages, and his research has greatly influenced how we teach languages today.

What advice does Cruz Flores have for aspiring students of any culture? He quotes advice he heard directly from Chomsky, whom he had the opportunity to meet at the University of Arizona: “’Do what you have to do, as long as you follow your goals,’” Cruz Flores recalls Chomsky telling his students.

“For me, my goal was to go to school. If I had to work in the fields, that’s what I had to do,” he said, even though that meant leaving his family in Mexico to live and work in the United States, as generations of immigrants have done for centuries.  “Education can change your life, but you have to choose your path.”

In his commencement address to CGCC’s graduates, Cruz Flores listed four personal values and invited the Class of 2017 to take these to heart: “Knowledge, curiosity, character and passion.”

He encouraged students to read as widely as possible, and to “make a difference,” especially by exercising their right to vote, he said. “If you’re not happy, make a difference. Go vote. Do what it takes to make a difference.

“Educated people need to question the good, the bad, and the unknown. Curiosity is a core principle of our generation. It is your responsibility to ask questions. This will define your future, and the future of the world.”