Education: My Letter to Ellen

For much of our lives, we struggle to keep positive. But what happens when you become POSITIVE to one of the most deadly diseases of our time? For many, it’s simple. It vanishes faster than your immune system during initial infection. In October 2010, at the age of 21, I found out that I was HIV positive. From then on, I would have to in one way or another, struggle with being positive.

I can't say I have always been on the right path, but over the past few years, I have made it my priority to work as hard as possible to finish my education and spread love and awareness. I have come so far in learning to love myself and now that I am secure with who I am, I will do whatever I need to do to ensure that I accomplish my goals. I have decided to share my story, in hopes of spreading awareness about HIV/AIDS and raising money to pay my tuition. I have stared death in the eyes, been homeless, endured countless overnighters and more, I can NOT give up. Thank you so much for your time and for visiting my page.

In the last month, I have been writing, rewriting and debating how I am going to write this letter to Ellen and the world, something all too familiar with the countless scholarships I have been denied for. Am I doing a good job at indicating my need and showing that I am an investment to this world? Am I leaving too much out or rambling on? No matter what I do, I will not be able to vocalize my potential, nor sum up the struggles I have been through to get where I am now. All I can do is start writing, hoping for a chance to finish my education.

People may ask why I am doing this. I respond in saying that it takes love, honestly and courage to make a difference in this world. No one is perfect. All we can do is continue growing, hoping for those chances to continue on in our journeys of self-discovery, knowing that with enough determination, love, and courage, we can change the world. I have faith in you, Humanity.

I was originally born and raised in East LA, a city that demanded a strict code for surviving the gang violence around us. I can’t say I have bad memories living there though, since my family did a great job with sheltering us. But they were not able to protect me from the daily torment I received from classmates for not being like the rest of the boys. To this day, I still cringe to the words ”Faggot” and “Gaylord”, words that left me crying myself to sleep almost daily. My only confidence came from my family assuring me that I was special and loved, convincing me to concentrate on my academics. Eventually we would relocate to another city after a family friend was killed just around the corner from us, giving me a sort of fresh start. Teasing would diminish, but deep down I was struggling with the reality that I knew I was gay. My social life and academics were going so well, so why was I constantly breaking down into tears at home? I came to realize that it was my own reflection that caused me so much pain. I was gay, and there was nothing I could do about it.

As I got older, I began finding distractions, hoping to find happiness through friends, music, “girlfriends” and my religious beliefs. No matter what I was doing though, everything went back to my sexual identity. By my senior year, I was forced to start talking. It was a long transitional period that caused distance from some, closer to others, and isolated from the rest. I realize some of it was in my head, but I was reassured daily that my church, family, friends, and our society didn’t understand. For the next few years, I would continue on a downward spiral, moving major to major, school to school, activity to activity, desperately trying to find my place.

By the age of 21, I had gotten close to some gay friends that introduced me to the gay club scene. At first it was a culture shock, but I convinced myself that it was where I belonged. I found myself so excited about the attention I was receiving and the fun I was having. As the months went by, I began losing myself, going against things I had grown up to believe.  This continued until I was delivered the news about my status after getting tested for the first time. This was a sure product of the lifestyle I was living and one specific irresponsible night that I had blacked out for. My life was over. I was now a walking biohazard, a failure, someone surely being punished for straying away from so many aspirations. And although my family made it clear that they still loved me and were there for me, no amount of help could get me to find worthiness in my life. I asked myself, “If I die today, what positive impact have I made in the world?” I didn't have a good answer to that. It took me months of sulking to finally realize that I still had a chance to make something out of my life. I am fortunate to live in a time and place where a positive status is not a death sentence. I was blessed with love and support from loved ones and family who helped in my transition of coming to terms with it all. And I was blessed to find out that with medication, my health was finally getting better. Whether for myself, those who believed in me, or for the countless people who have died and are still dying, I decided to get up, work, save, and apply to go back to school. A year in the making, I ended up moving to attend the University of San Francisco as an Architectural major, one of the most demanding majors that college has to offer. My focus would to be to help the design of the built environment towards sustainability, something our world was in dyer need of. I also decided that I would utilize my school’s reputation and location to focus on Social Justice in the field of LGBTQ equality and the HIV/AIDS Epidemic, something now very close to my heart.

I knew it wasn’t going to be easy to go support myself in San Francisco as a returning student, but I was determined more than ever to succeed. I had chosen to be a victim for so long. This time, I would prevail. As I began my first semester, I quickly got a reality check that my preparation was not nearly enough. I was welcomed to an unfair system that favored high school seniors, who did well in high school and simply had to maintain a minimum GPA, over returning students who may have not had the best track record, but were excelling now. I worked job after job, often overlapping, and made priority out of maintaining a high GPA in order to be eligible for a University Grants and scholarships. But I was left ineligible for the majority of scholarships for many of the same reasons, as well as for my age. By my second semester I had run out of money and began making sacrifices in order to survive. Travelling back to my apartment was too costly, sleeping was minimal, and eating was a luxury. I found shelter on dorm floors, received food from friends who had extra university dollars to spare, and showered in my school gym to stay clean. By my second year I had moved into a living room, hoping my finances would improve. But it still wasn’t enough as I was forced to make the same sacrifices, only going back to that apartment 8 times in the course of 3 months. I was forced to endure dozens of sleepless nights, where I was met by the harsh realities of the side effects from my medication. Headaches, nausea, anxiety, all hit me full force, affecting my ability to finish school work. I am not proud to say this, but I often made the irresponsible decision to forgo nights of medication in order to work through the night and finish projects. By winter break, I had lost my spot in my apartment and began desperately reaching out to my school, asking for help with housing. But they were not able to help and was forced to take my stuff to the architecture studios, often sleeping on their couches. That first night was the hardest, bringing my bags to the studio and crying myself to sleep in the hallway from the realization that after months of feeling homeless, I was now literally homeless. I told myself that I had stared death and failure in the eye and I was not going to give up.

My last two years have not been all bad though. I have achieved much success in my academics, done great work, and have had countless friends and family there for me. I can’t even begin to offer appreciation to those of who took me in, fed me, loved me, offered me a shoulder to cry on, or even distracted me from my own thoughts. I have also been welcomed by tremendous love and support from my parents who have shown me that their love for me is constant. They have done their best to offer all they can, but unfortunately have limited resources. I have finally got to a place where I am living regret free, knowing that the mistakes I have made and the struggles I have endured have been a huge part in becoming the man I am today. I am most proud to be working towards HIV/AIDS awareness at my school. I decided on transparency about my status, becoming an advocate in my Theology of HIV/AIDS Contexts class that focused on religious and social responsibilities in context of the epidemic. I was welcomed with an amazing response from my class and professor, who helped guide me to push myself further. Using this experience as a launching pad, I started talking with my school about establishing resources on campus that assist in creating awareness and education. This led to discussing a plan to possibly create a presentation at new student orientation, educating and reaching out to the new students. This is important because of the city we live in, which is heavily impacted by the epidemic. We also have a large population of LGBTQ young adults who are learning so much about themselves and are incredibly vulnerable to much of what I went through. Feeling assured, I began disclosing my status to close friends and spreading awareness. This transparency unfortunately led to my first experience with discrimination, but most likely not the last. I had been offered a temporary place to stay in a vacant nook a few weeks prior, but when I decided to disclose my status out of respect, I was asked to leave. They were as kind about it as possible, assuring me that it was more so because I had showed disrespect in not disclosing the information prior. No matter what their excuse, I was shattered during an already difficult semester. I proceeded to pack my bags; head back to my school studio; and then broke down into tears. I was met by friends who showed tremendous love and support, people who helped me focus on school projects. But deep down, I was broken. And although the majority of my semester was spent in their dorms, I was occasionally forced to take refuge in the studio, where I was eventually woken up by officers who questioned why I was sleeping there. Humiliated, I started sleeping under furniture to remain hidden, not sleeping at all, or sneaking into dorms to sleep on friend’s floors. I spent the rest of the semester as an emotional wreck who was somehow able to continue with the help of uplifting music, inspiring speeches on Youtube, and Ellen clips online that helped put life into perspective. I had to remind myself that there was beauty in the world and that I still was blessed. This may have gotten me through, but by the end, I was stripped of all my pride and confidence.

After all of that, I am now unable to continue my education due to an outstanding balance from last year. I have been denied for countless scholarships (even while maintaining Dean’s Honor Roll), been denied a private loan without a qualified cosigner, and have no way of paying the $5,000 balance. And despite being offered a scholarship to study abroad in Copenhagen, one of the most sustainable and progressive cities in the world, I cannot utilize it without being registered at my school. All I want to do is finish my education and continue working towards my goals.

Owning my mistakes and vulnerabilities has been hard. But I believe that using courage and honesty will ultimately be effective in implementing change and spreading love. We still live in a world in need of progression withtheir views towards what is different and unknown. I have spent my life struggling to love myself despite and in spite of all I that I am and all that I have gone through. I have come to realize that these intolerances,  inequalities, and people's ignorance leave us vulnerable to a life of self doubt. I AM gay and I AM HIV positive. But neither of those defines who I am. They define a huge part of me, a huge part of my struggles, my mistakes…. They define the reasons I fight for what I believe in today, why I open my heart to love, and how I became the man I am today. If the world wants us to assimilate, they must show us love and support. If our communities want to be loved, we need to show love and educate. The LGBT community is lucky to have role models like Ellen and countless others who use their status to spread awareness, love, and joy into people’s hearts. I hope to one day have the same POSITIVE influence on the world as they have. But I need help.

As a last option, I am reaching out. I hope that their are people and resources out there that can ensure that I can continue my education by helping me pay the rest of tuition and follow my dreams. I ask that you please help and/or share this, so that it can reach people who may be able to help or people who may have something to learn or relate to.

Thank you so much for your time, love, and support. God Bless
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Ricardo Torres 
Upland, CA
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