On October 28, Packer's Alumni honoree Lillian Rodriguez Lopez ’79 returned to campus to speak with Middle and Upper School students as the 108th Founder’s Day keynote speaker. Lillian first attended Packer in 1975 as a scholarship recipient, via the educational access program A Better Chance. Since graduating, she has devoted her career to representing and advocating for the Latinx community in both the non-profit and corporate sectors, and currently supports government relations and communications for CC1 Companies.
Lillian spoke about her time at Packer — including the challenge of being one of four Latina students in her grade. The Chapel filled with laughter as she candidly relayed her experiences in high school and beyond. Though she shared many jokes with the audience, she also offered important bits of wisdom to share with the community: “Be bold, take risks, but be kind to each other. Be compassionate, understand that you live in a society and in a world that has gotten increasingly difficult in certain places, and you need to make it better.”
Following her speech, Director of Alumni David Minder moderated a Q&A with students. Read an excerpt below.
Izabella L. ’20: I'm interested in learning more about your experience as a Latinx student at Packer in the late 70s, when Packer was predominantly a white institution. I'd like to know more about your experience in the classroom as well as outside of the classroom with your white counterparts.
Lillian Rodriguez Lopez ’79: It could be tough sometimes. You had some people who were very genuine and authentic and kind, and they got past the color differences. Then, every once in a while, you would have to remind people: Do you see this? We are all equals. We sit here as equals. In this classroom what we are learning, we are not defined by all of those other things of color and class and culture and all that. It wasn't always chocolate and flowers, but at the end of the day it was a great experience, and I wouldn't have traded it for anything else or gone to any other high school.
Faridat S. ’20: How did you take what you learned at Packer to your college experience and beyond that?
Lillian Rodriguez Lopez ’79: What I learned from Packer was how to have a great appreciation for diversity. I was describing to you how [it was when I was here in] the 70s: I'm living in the Bronx, I have working-class parents, and most of the people that are around me have the same kind of economic experience. I was living in a community where everybody looked like me, they talked like me, they acted like me.
When I came to Packer, I became a lot more agile in my relationships. It strengthened my communication skills. I was able to learn how to navigate other social situations, and that's really important in college and in the work world. Because not everybody is going to look like you, not everybody is going to eat what you eat, and you've got to be able to understand how to navigate in this space.
Packer taught me how to code switch. I could show certain aspects of who I was here, and then when I got on the train and as I was moving into the Bronx, I needed to become a different person — not so much because the person I needed to be at Packer wasn't a great person and wasn't empowering, but because I was moving into a different environment.
Have any of you ever had to take the the 4/5 train for an hour? There's a certain toughness [you need], and I think most of you have it. You won't realize this, by the way, until you leave New York. We have a certain toughness from being born or growing up in the city that is not represented in the rest of the country.