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First-Gen Performance

July 01, 2017 - 6 minute read

Diego Perez standing with trophy

At this year’s National Speech tournament, senior Diego Perez advanced beyond preliminary rounds in four events and finished ranked #10 nationally. He is one reason Concordia University Irvine’s speech team is edging closer to the kind of national stature and dominance that the debate team has enjoyed as #1 or #2 in the nation for the past five years.

Perez grew up in the Bay Area and transferred to Concordia University Irvine from a community college there. He discovered speech in high school and placed third in the state championship tournament. His coach encouraged him to pursue it in college.

“Once he said it would help me pay for college, I was hooked,” says Perez. “I am a first-generation student and first-generation born here in the U.S. Both my parents were born in Mexico. I wanted to continue my education.”

Concordia University Irvine started recruiting Perez after his freshman year in college, when he won silver in two events. But his own coach at the community college downplayed it.

“He said, ‘Don’t waste your time. Concordia is not even on the map,’” Perez recalls. His goal was to attend the University of Texas at Austin, a speech powerhouse.

At the national tournament during his sophomore year, representatives from that university pulled Perez aside after one of his poetry rounds and said, “You really fit us. We want you to go to our school.” But by that time, Concordia had become an attractive option. In the end, Perez headed to Irvine, not Texas.

But for his family, even that distance of separation was hard to take. Perez’s mother didn’t understand why he was going so far away to college, or investing so much time in making speeches and dramatic presentations.

“My mom didn’t want to me leave,” Perez remembers. “I said, ‘Yeah, but Concordia is giving me a good amount of money and I won’t be in debt a lot.’ The day I left was like this crying party. Mom was on the porch looking to the ground, crying, thinking I was leaving forever. I was like, ‘I’ll be back for Thanksgiving.’”

Driving down the coast, Perez wondered if he had made a mistake.

“I thought, ‘I won’t know anyone. I don’t have the money some people do. I’m Latino. What will they think of me? Will they think I’m a thug?’”

The differences between home and school were often jarring.

“At Concordia, it was the first time I had my own room,” Perez says. “I could decorate it any way I wanted. When I went to dinner (at the cafeteria) it was like a nice restaurant. I had dinner with the president of Concordia University Irvine, and did all these nice things, but when I came home I still shared my bedroom with my little brother in a two-room house behind my grandma’s house.”

As supportive as his parents were, they couldn’t help much with essays, schoolwork or financial aid forms.

“Filling out the FAFSA was so frustrating that at one point I broke down,” Perez says. “I was thinking, ‘How am I going to do this if nobody helps me?’ But I wanted to be a good example for my little brother so he could see he could do it, too.”

I am a first-generation student and first-generation born here in the U.S. Both my parents were born in Mexico. I wanted to continue my education.

Going home always offered relief, he says.

“School is fast-paced. I’m busy working with academics, speech,” he says. “At home I get a nice little job, keep it casual, hang out with friends. Sometimes I found it too materialistic (in Southern California).”

Perez credits the speech program for “guiding me through school.” He also credits his “great coach,” Yaw Kyeremateng, a former top competitor in speech nationally.

In spite of doubts about his own abilities, Perez reached the quarterfinals in one big tournament, and made the final round in another in his first year at Concordia University Irvine.

“I realized I could do it,” he says.

During his second year at Concordia University Irvine, Perez worked even harder to become the best speech-maker he could be. Konrad Hack, director of forensics, says success in speech requires a work ethic and talent.

“Diego has both,” Hack says. “He would come in and run a piece over and over. After a while he couldn’t make a mistake because it was so ingrained. It’s clean and it’s perfect. Diego is incredibly personable. He’s got a charisma about him. He knows what he has to do and he goes for it.”

Kyeremateng says, “I don’t know if anybody on the team has grown as much as Diego has. Being at Concordia has helped him grow personally and even more successfully as a speech competitor. He worked tirelessly in the practice room, always bugging me for extra coaching hours. He’s a really good role model.”

Perez advanced further than any Concordia University Irvine speech student has before in major tournaments leading up to nationals. At a large spring tournament which draws the nation’s best talent, Perez advanced in two events and won first place in oral interpretation and second in drama interpretation. It was the first time Concordia University Irvine had reached the finals, or won an event there.

Hack says that unlike debate people, “Speech folks have more of a performance bent and are less about proving you right or wrong.” Perez excelled at creating performance pieces that arrested attention and gripped the heart. Going into nationals he prepared and memorized five different 10-minute speeches for each of five events: informative speaking, prose interpretation, poetry interpretation, program of oral interpretation and dramatic interpretation.

“Nationals was a big deal,” says Perez, who admits he was nervous going in. “I didn’t know whether I would finish up to par. There was a lot of stress. A lot of coaches came to watch my performances.”

His goal, he says, was for judges and observers to “be amazed.”

His prose interpretation, about a boy struggling with a disability and social acceptance, made it to quarterfinals. His poetry interpretation, about Mexican journalists being killed for writing about cartels or government issues, made it to semifinals.

His program of oral interpretation made it to finals and took sixth place. His subject hit close to home as he argued that so-called “anchor babies” — children born to Latina women while in the U.S., allegedly for the purpose of gaining citizenship for the mother — are more myth than reality. Perez played a character whose father was being deported to Mexico, forcing the boy to make a choice to stay in the U.S. or go with his father.

His highest finish, third place in dramatic interpretation, came with a heart-wrenching enactment of a father coming to terms with the death of his son. Perez’s point was that “Latinos have machismo and don’t show emotions as much. We need to make them feel welcome in therapy so they connect more.”

Diego is incredibly personable. He’s got a charisma about him. He knows what he has to do and he goes for it.

Perez ended the year ranked #10 in the nation. Concordia University Irvine's speech program has moved from a top 50 program, to top 20 last year, and top 10 this year. Next year, Hack says they are aiming for the top 5.

“We wanted to create a program where instead of having to go to the Midwest to shoot for a national championship, students could do it here,” Hack says. “Based on what Diego did this year, it’s definitely possible.”

For Perez, “Knowing that I advanced in four events is rewarding. I was humbled the whole time I was up there thinking, ‘Finally, I’m up on stage after seeing all these amazing performers up there.’ The lights, crowd, cameras in your face. It was pretty intense. It was great.”

He also appreciates his two years living on campus. “I acclimated really well, and made a great group of friends,” he says.

Perez is still amazed that he achieved what he did. “Before this I never thought I was capable,” he says.

What’s next?

“Anything to do with performance and entertaining people,” he says.

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