After Robyn Barrios learned his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, he dropped out of high school and worked a job at McDonald’s to support his family. When Barrios was accepted to UCLA, he wanted to tell his story, but was not sure how.
Students like Barrios had the opportunity to share their stories in The Facing Project at UCLA, a program organized by the undergraduate student government Community Service Commission that pairs storytellers with student writers.
The Facing Project is a national program that publishes people’s stories into books. Five hundred free copies of the UCLA compilation were distributed at a release party in the J.D. Morgan Center on Wednesday.
Neil D’Silva, a first-year microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics student, was the writer paired with Barrios, a fourth-year psychology student. D’Silva said he was inspired by Barrios’ story about overcoming adversity.
Barrios immigrated to the U.S. from Guatemala at age 13. When he first went to school in Massachusetts, he struggled to speak English.
“I isolated myself socially because I didn’t want to embarrass myself,” Barrios said. “I spent 26 weeks watching movies, reading and doing anything I could to improve my English.”
As Barrios transitioned into high school, he took on a job at age 14 and found high school very different from what he expected.
“I thought (high school) was going to be the epitome (peak) of my life, but I wasn’t allowed to think freely,” Barrios said. “I was brainwashed into thinking that life ahead was going to be easy.”
Barrios dropped out after his mother was diagnosed with cancer because he didn’t know how much longer she would live. But seeing his mom fight cancer inspired Barrios to go back to school and succeed in life, D’Silva said.
Barrios went back to high school and graduated two weeks before his 21st birthday. He moved on to study ecology at Santa Monica College, and after two years he transferred to UCLA.
“I was looking down Bruin Walk for the first time and saw that these students had something I didn’t have,” Barrios said. “I saw future politicians. I saw students that would shape the future.”
It wan’t easy for Barrios to make the transition, but he knew he could succeed despite what other people thought of his abilities, D’Silva said.
Tiana Austel, a second-year psychology and communication studies student and editor-in-chief of the book, said storytellers were either recruited through personal connections to the staff or heard about the project and came forward to share their stories.
Madison Davis, a first-year biology student, wrote about Amir Hakimi, a fourth-year neuroscience student who developed projects to help the less fortunate.
Hakimi is involved in various student groups such as the Mobile Clinic Project at UCLA and Swipes for the Homeless. He also started two programs at UCLA, Furnish the Homeless and Career Closet.
“He realizes people don’t always have the same opportunities as (he does),” Davis said. “He wants to make a difference in their lives and focus on having a long-term effect on people.”
The Facing Project aimed to give students who don’t know how to tell their stories a chance to express themselves, D’Silva said.
“All the editors and writers have really enjoyed working on the project,” D’Silva added. “It’s definitely something we hope to keep working on in the future.”