The Aurora of my Life by Gabriel Melendez

I would like to start my story by quoting a portion of the lyrics of a beautiful song that was first performed by Chilean musician Violeta Parra called “Gracias a la Vida (Thanks to Life)”. One of the artists most associated with "Gracias a la Vida" is the Argentine singer Mercedes Sosa. Later, it was folk singer Joan Baez who brought the song to American audiences in 1974 when she included a cover of the song on her Spanish album by the same name.  

Gracias a la vida que me ha dado tanto
Me ha dado la marcha de mis pies cansados
Con ellos anduve ciudades y charcos
Playas y desiertos, montañas y llanos
Y la casa tuya, tu calle y tu patio

Gracias a la vida que me ha dado tanto
Me dio el corazón que agita su marco
Cuando miro el fruto del cerebro humano
Cuando miro al bueno tan lejos del malo
Cuando miro al fondo de tus ojos claros

Thank you to the life that has given me so much
It's given me the  march of my tired feet
With them  I walked  cities  and puddles
Beaches and deserts, mountains and plains
And your house, your street  and your yard

Thank you to the life you've given me so much
It gave me the heart that stirred  his frame
When I look at the fruit  of  the human  brain
When I look at the good  so  far from the bad
When I look at the bottom of your clear eyes

I was born into a humble home. I am the son of a father who died when he was just 33 years old without the opportunity to finish primary school and a mother fighting to the point of exhaustion, not having the opportunity to even start primary school. Despite my humble upbringing, I feel fortunate to have had such a successful life. I am especially grateful to have witnessed the professional education of my daughters. I also love to reflect with satisfaction on the efforts they themselves have made to help their children also achieve success.

When I was young child, every morning I had to get up at 5:30 a.m. to prepare a breakfast, usually oatmeal, for me and my sisters. After breakfast I had to walk about 4 miles to go to my elementary school. After school I had to walk back home around 1:00 p.m. to buy whatever was possible to feed my sisters and take care of them. After finishing elementary school, I went to the only public high school in the Salvadoran capital, the Instituto Nacional General Francisco Menendez. During those years, my father died, my mother fell seriously ill, and one of my sisters was went to live with one of my father's sisters. My refuge was my studies. I struggled hard to be one of the best students in high school. Our institution fought tenaciously to graduate bachelors of the Republic with the highest grades. We even competed with the best private institutions, such as Esternado San Jose (HS founded and directed by the Jesuit order), El Liceo Salvadoreño (Marist order), and other very wealthy institutions. With all my limitations and fighting as hard as I could, I was able to place fifth in all the Republic's high schools. Consequently, this honor also prepared me to enter into the School of Engineering of the National University of El Salvador and eventually receive a scholarship to pay for my university studies.

When I started my university studies, I had an unforgettable experience. Since I was used to getting only outstanding grades in my exams, especially in mathematics, my grade on the first partial exam in calculus was a disappointing 60%. After handing out the graded examinations, the professor said something that still resonates in my mind. His examinations were not only based on the class notes, the examples, or the exercise sets given, but mostly in our textbook. Students were expected to read the material in the textbooks and do the exercises at the end of each section covered, as well as to consult similar books that might have been listed in the syllabus or not. From that point on I changed my study habits to get back the grades that I expected, and on which my scholarship also depended. After that, I was able to achieve my goal as well as to graduate in record time so I could get a job right away.

Due to my good credentials in my studies, and the democratization of the University that was taking place at the moment, producing an incredible expansion in the student population (an increase of 602% from 1965 to 1975), I was asked to join the mathematics faculty.

El Salvador is a country of just over 20,000 square kilometers in land area and is well known as the most densely populated nation on the American mainland. Unfortunately, during these years, El Salvador was a prime example of a profound economic inequality plaguing Latin America. An oligarchic control of land (by 1975 0.7% of property owners held 41% of the land) produced peasant poverty and dislocation. A history of repressive military rule, in a country with increasing population pressure, resulted in social unrest and the cause of the civil war.

In 1972, the Molina regimen ordered the army occupation of the National University in San Salvador, saying it had “fallen into the hands of communists.” The military based its belief on the fact that the curricula and faculty of the National University were “oriented to favor the poor” and trying to create a new class that could reform society and the nation as a whole. The military increased their attacks on the progressive organizations to the point that soldiers and paramilitary groups murdered six Jesuit priests at the University of Central America in November of 1989.

The National University was closed for more than one year, so I went to work as a night engineer supervisor at a quality meat-packing plant. I did not know anything about this job but my experience, based mainly on reading manuals and related literature, quickly helped me to understand and learn what I needed to do. After more than one year working there, I was an expert. CEOs wanted me to continue working there when I announced that I would be returning to be a professor in the University of El Salvador. They made good financial offers, but my love for teaching was greater that any offer they made.

The Alliance for Progress (Spanish: Alianza para el Progreso), initiated by U.S. President John F. Kennedy in 1961, established economic cooperation between the U.S. and Latin America and helped prepare qualified professional, especially university professor and researchers. The Fulbright Latin American Scholarship Program of American Universities (LASPAU) also known as the Fulbright Faculty Development Program provided grants to individuals to strengthen higher education across the Americas through scholarships and help build university innovation programs.

Being a young professor at the University of El Salvador, I was granted a LASPAU scholarship to come to the USA to get a degree in applied Mathematics. In June of 1997 I received my M.A. in Applied Mathematics from the University of Tennessee. With the illusion that I could use what I had learned and participate in substantial academic advances within the Mathematics Department, I returned to my country. Unfortunately, civil war had intensified in the country and the National University was in turmoil and chaos; consequently, it was possible to do any academic work. I was basically a foreigner in my own country. I suffered persecution and defamation by radical groups, simply because I had studied in the USA. I was kidnapped by far-right groups after living at the university. Everything was in complete chaos, and I was in the middle of a war being fought in all directions. The fact that my daughters were young and in grave danger, forced me to leave of the country.

I was fortunate to achieve a Fulbright Scholarship to do some post grade research work at Rice University in 1986. I received the support of the faculty there and given the rank of visiting Lecturer and research scholar. After, the J1 visa regulations forced our family to leave the USA. Not being able to go back to El Salvador, we decided to move to Canada. This was not an easy decision: our daughters loved Houston and did not want to move, but there was no alternative.

Before coming to MVCC, I worked as a Sessional (Term) Professor at Red Deer College, Alberta, Canada. I spent 5 years in that position and with the promise that, in a near future, I would obtain a permanent position. Being in such an unstable position is uncomfortable, to say the least. Consequently, I decided to look for a permanent position and applied to several places both in Canada and in the US. There were several offers, mostly term positions, but 2 or 3 were tenure track positions. I received a phone interview for a Tenure Tract position at MVCC, and then an invitation to do a presentation at the Utica Campus. I clearly remember when Prof. Mark Miller greeted me at the Syracuse airport, and drove me to the ‘now-called’ Knights Inn Hotel. The next morning, he arrived early to pick me up and drive me to the college for all my interviews and presentation. On the way to the campus, he pointed out all the local attractions, such as the Valley View Golf Course. I was impressed by the beauty of the surrounding areas, the mountains, lakes, rivers, all of which transported me to my birthplace. In addition to all this natural beauty, all the important metropolitan centers were relatively close. I was surprised to learn that Ottawa was closer in driving distance than New York City. Other interesting places not too far from the region were Boston, Montreal, and Toronto, where my oldest daughter and her family lived. Other nearby places are Niagara Falls, Thousand Islands, the Great Lakes, Finger Lakes, Oneida Lake, and so on. Therefore, although the salary was lower than I had been earning at Red Deer College, I did not have to think twice about accepting the position I was offered more than 25 years ago.

Norayne Rosero was Chair of the Search Committee at the time, a person whom I admired for her dedication and enthusiasm in the work she did. She always asked my students how they felt regarding my teaching, which shows her responsibility in everything she did. I was fortunate to have Prof. Mark Radlowski as my mentor. At the time, it was required of new faculty members to participate in the Correctional Facilities Program, and this was the only instance where I had visited any prisons. I enjoyed the program because I felt we were doing something good for others and for society: approximately 80% of the inmates who passed the program did not come back to prison and became productive members of society. Another interesting aspect we observed is that the inmate population in general was behaved well. They were respectful, responsible, courteous, and in general, behaved better than many of the prison guards.

I have organized or participated in activities that have benefited communities needing support at that moment. One of the most important was when with the help of a Canadian colleague we organized a caravan to El Salvador, in 1992, bringing humanitarian aid to the neediest people of the Salvadorian population victims of the 13-year devastating civil war, which killed over one hundred thousand people and displaced more than two million people all over the world. This effort was supported by local authorities, who offered us a storage facility in a nearby airport to store the goods that were donated by businesses and the community. All this work and distribution of the collected goods to people in need was reported in the local newspaper. In a second instance, I organized activities at the college to collect contributions to help the Honduran and Salvadorian flood victims of the devastating hurricane Mitch, at that moment considered to be the fourth strongest Caribbean hurricane in this century. The collected money, several thousand dollars, was given to the international Red Cross, and again, this event was published in the local media.

I organized a two-week mini course at the Polytechnic University of El Salvador. More than 20 faculty members of that institution participated in the crash course about the applications of differential equations using graphic calculators. I believe that is our moral responsibility to promote and encourage the incorporation of modern instructional techniques to enhance the teaching of mathematics to motivate the newer generations. This goes in agreement with the MVCC goal to support globalization of education and international initiatives.

When I joined the college, I worked to organize the Latino Student Union (LSU). One of the first dilemmas I encountered was whether to use “Union” or “Club” in the name. “Club” is a loose reunion of members, whereas “Union” seems more integrating, more united. The other term discussed was Hispanic versus Latino. The term "Hispanic" was adopted by the US government in the early 1970s during the Richard Nixon administration based on the recommendations of an ad hoc committee that believed that a common designation would better track the social and economic progress of this group. The term “Latino” seems to be more ethnical and cultural, and derived from “Latino Americano.” For example, everybody understands the references “Latino Music,” or “Latino Culture.” For both reasons, we opted for “Latino” and “Union” in the name.

Since the beginning, LSU was intended to be an all-inclusive, Latino-based organization dedicated to exploring and disseminating all aspects of the Latino culture. We welcomed members of all ethnic groups and we were proud of having a broad and diverse membership. We were interested in investigating current issues within our community, as well as our rich, intricate history and diverse global roots. Through this exploration, we aimed to create a truly multicultural experience.  In addition, we were dedicated to unifying our community by tapping into this inherent connection. Our ambition was to create a support system where members could find inspiration for personal development and community service and develop leadership skills.

I created the Calculus Summer Program at the college. I remember the first summer I went to see Mr. Willner, the Chair of the Mathematics Department, and I proposed teaching Calculus 1 and 2, the former from 8:00 to 10:00, and the latter from 10:30 to 12:30, both from Monday to Friday. We went for the total number of hours required in a regular semester, which meant that we dedicated between six and seven weeks to complete the courses. Mr. Willner accepted my proposal and since that summer, the Calculus Summer Program has been a success. Most of the students enrolled in the program come from other institutions across the area. The program has been gaining reputation. Many students have told me that when they ask their advisors where to enroll to take Calculus for the summer, they are informed that if they decide to study at MVCC, their credits would be recognized without any problems, but if they go to any other institution, they might not be guaranteed the transferability of the credits.

I have been the Campus Coordinator for the NYSMATYC Math League Contest for several years. I receive and review the materials that we use in the contest (test and solutions) and check the materials for any errors or improvements. I have to mentally prepare the students with the strategies they can use when taking the test. On Blackboard, I also post old tests that the students can use to become familiar with the types of questions they might face. I make copies of the test and distribute them to the instructors who will administer the contest. Then, I grade all the papers and select the best five scores that will represent our college. Subsequently, I send the report to the NYSMATYC Contest Coordinator and return the graded papers, along with the corresponding complete solutions, to the students who participated in the competition. I think that this test gives students the opportunity to acquire new strategies and improve their skills to solve math problems, and in the process, learn new material, and open opportunities to be recognized at the state level. In most academic years, MVCC has ranked in 6th place in all the state. This is impressive because there are usually more than 25 colleges with more resources and larger populations in the state.

I would like to end my story with a beautiful and inspirational poem by Amado Nervo (Juan Crisostomo Ruiz de Nervo.

En Paz
Artifex vitae artifex sui

Muy cerca de mi ocaso, yo te bendigo, Vida, 
porque nunca me diste ni esperanza fallida, 
ni trabajos injustos, ni pena inmerecida;

Porque veo al final de mi rudo camino 
que yo fui el arquitecto de mi propio destino; 
que si extraje la mieles o la hiel de las cosas, 
fue porque en ellas puse hiel o mieles sabrosas: 
cuando planté rosales coseché siempre rosas. 

…Cierto, a mis lozanías va a seguir el invierno: 
¡mas tú no me dijiste que mayo fuese eterno!

Hallé sin duda largas las noches de mis penas; 
mas no me prometiste tan sólo noches buenas; 
y en cambio tuve algunas santamente serenas…

Amé, fui amado, el sol acarició mi faz. 
¡Vida, nada me debes! ¡Vida, estamos en paz!

In Peace
Architect of life, architect of destiny.

Very close to my sunset, I bless you, Life, 
because you never gave me neither unfilled hope, 
nor unfair work, nor undeserved penalty; 

Cause I see at the end of my rough road 
that I was the architect of my own destiny; 
that if I extracted the honeys or the gall of things, 
It was because in them I put gall or tasty honeys: 
When I planted rose bushes, I always harvested roses. 

… True, my blooms will be followed by winter: 
But you did not tell me that May was eternal! 

I certainly found the nights of my sorrows long; 
but you didn't just promise me good nights; 
and instead I had some holy serene ... 

I loved, I was loved, the sun caressed my face. 
Life, you owe me nothing! Life, we are at peace!

Here the whole version of “Gracias a la vida”:

Gracias a la vida que me ha dado tanto
Me dio dos luceros, que cuando los abro
Perfecto distingo lo negro del blanco
Y en el alto cielo su fondo estrellado
Y en las multitudes la mujer que yo amo

Gracias a la vida que me ha dado tanto
Me ha dado el oido que en todo su ancho
Graba noche y día, grillos y canarios
Martillos, turbinas, ladridos, chubascos
Y la voz tan tierna de mi bien amado

Gracias a la vida que me ha dado tanto
Me ha dado el sonido y el abecedario
Con el las palabras que pienso y declaro
Madre, amigo, hermano y luz alumbrando
La ruta del alma del que estoy amando

Gracias a la vida que me ha dado tanto
Me ha dado la marcha de mis pies cansados
Con ellos anduve ciudades y charcos
Playas y desiertos, montañas y llanos
Y la casa tuya, tu calle y tu patio

Gracias a la vida que me ha dado tanto
Me dio el corazón que agita su marco
Cuando miro el fruto del cerebro humano
Cuando miro al bueno tan lejos del malo
Cuando miro al fondo de tus ojos claros

Gracias a la vida que me ha dado tanto
Me ha dado la risa y me ha dado el llanto
Así yo distingo dicha de quebranto
Los dos materiales que forman mi canto
Y el canto de ustedes que es mi mismo canto
Y el canto de todos que es mi propio canto
Gracias a la vida que me ha dado tanto

When I think about where my life began, all of my accomplishments and those of my children, I think I can raise my head with sincerity and spiritual peace and say to life, “Thank you!”