Photo by Peter Julian

As a high schooler, Bryan Paula Gonzalez ’19 remembers hating history class. But last summer, as a teaching fellow at Roxbury Prep, he was determined to give his students a different experience.

“I wanted to make it relatable,” he said. “Roxbury Prep has predominantly black and brown students, so bringing their voices into the history and connecting it to what’s happening today was something I really wanted to emphasize.”

It was Gonzalez’s first time leading a classroom, and it was as much a test of his own abilities as those of the ninth graders he was teaching.

“I did it because I thought, ‘this is the last chance to figure out if this is what you want to do with your life,’” he said, laughing. “And I loved it. Every step of the way, I loved it.”

If you had asked Gonzalez about his career goals when he first arrived at BC, the word “education” wouldn’t have entered the conversation. He wanted to be a veterinarian, and enrolled in the Gateway Scholars Program for STEM, which provides academic support for first generation and students of color. But despite working harder than he ever had in his life, Gonzalez struggled through his premed classes.

“I was staying up insane hours trying to learn material but I wasn’t doing well,” he recalled. “I would sit in class and my classmates knew stuff that I didn’t know.”

Gonzalez was born in the Dominican Republic and moved to New York City when he was eight years old. He attended urban public schools and was the first person in his family to go to college.

It wasn’t until he took a friend’s advice and spoke with advisors at the Lynch School of Education that Gonzalez began to fully understand how the social context in which he was raised contributed to his early academic struggles. The conversations resonated with him in a way his premed courses hadn’t, and prompted him to shift his focus to applied psychology and human development.

“Getting those bigger answers changed my life,” he said, “not because they gave me excuses but because they got me into educational policy and the idea of using my experiences to advocate for change.”

Another turning point came his sophomore year when Gonzalez enrolled in BC’s PULSE service-learning program, a year-long course that pairs classroom study of theology and philosophy with service work at a local nonprofit. For 12 hours each week, Gonzalez answered calls placed to a helpline run by Samaritans of Boston. Many of the men and women he spoke to were repeat callers struggling with loneliness, depression, and suicidal thoughts.

“It was heavy stuff for a 19-year-old,” he acknowledged. “But it made me see that there are different ways to help the world beyond being a doctor or being an engineer. It changed my idea of who I was and what I was interested in.”

Gonzalez has remained involved with PULSE ever since. As a member of the PULSE Council, he serves as a resource for other students taking the course, helping them connect readings by Plato and Socrates with their work in the community.

He also coordinates an English Language Learners program run by the University’s Volunteer and Service Learning Center that matches BC students with Dining Services employees looking to improve their English skills. His supervisor, VSLC Associate Director Kate Daly, praised his ability to gently coach students with no previous tutoring experience.

“He’ll walk them through what different topics they might want to cover and make them feel comfortable and confident with their own ability to be relational with someone else,” she said. “Because he’s so good at relationships and being in community with others he just creates that space for other people.”

As he looks ahead to graduation and pursuing a master’s degree in education, Gonzalez credits his BC experience with helping him find his voice, and encouraging him to use it in pursuit of his passions.

“As a freshman, I wasn’t really vocal, but now I’m so comfortable with my voice and my experience and I want other people to hear it,” he said. “I want to speak up for people who can’t speak up for themselves because I know what that feeling is.”

—Alix Hackett | University Communications | November 2018