Thousands of miles from home, Sarabi Rodriquez kept her parents updated as she traced United States history from Boston to the nation’s capital. She sent photos posing in New York and of her with the Massachusetts governor. Rodriquez texted from the U.S. Capitol and from a squash match she played with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) .
Her mom responded in Spanish from Rodriquez’s home town of San Diego: “We miss you a lot, but we know you are doing great things.” Rodriquez’s friends sent an Emoji icon of a squash (the vegetable) — after five years in the program, it’s still an ongoing joke — while she was on a nine-day trip across the country thanks to a sport most of her neighborhood thought came in acorn, butternut and spaghetti.
Rodriquez, 16, is one of 22 high school students who went on the National Urban Squash Education Association’s inaugural Urban Squash Citizenship Tour. The students came from communities where squash, a sport typically reserved for prep schools and elite colleges or clubs, is not an option: Harlem, Roxbury (Mass.), South Chicago and in Rodriquez’s case, Logan Heights, in central San Diego.
The association’s member programs recruit students from these areas in middle school and provide them with support on the court and in the classroom. Rodriguez applied to the tour by submitting a video talking about the importance of citizenship and the value of community service. Rodriquez came to the United States from Mexico when she was 4 years old and has had temporary U.S. citizenship.
In Boston, the group met with the founder and CEO of Massachusetts-based SquashBusters and also with Gov. Deval Patrick, who explained his journey from the South Side of Chicago to his office as “improbable.” Rodriquez asked him how to make the journey from the inner-city to political office more probable for students of her background. “Better teachers to inspire students like them,” he said. That’s what Rodriquez got from San Diego’s Access Youth Academy.
She wanted to play sports in middle school, but her parents didn’t have the resources for team or equipment fees. She tried out for Access Youth Academy’s program in seventh grade and despite initial confusion — “My daughter is playing a vegetable,” her mother kept telling friends — she was hooked on the feeling she got on the squash court. Rodriquez’s mind goes blank, she said, and she doesn’t have to think about school or finances or her family — just the ball, the racket and the court.
“I can let it all out,” she said. “All the stress goes away.”
The program was there for her last year, when her family’s already precarious financial situation grew worse. Mentors from the program came to her house and talked with her parents about helping Rodriquez keep her grades up while working, and she was able to get a job at the squash club in San Diego. Some of the members reacted like some of her private school opponents. They were surprised at seeing her in a sport normally reserved for the white and wealthy.
At first, Rodriquez took solace in being able to beat some of the players who gave her odd looks. Then she realized it’s better to get to know the other athletes, rather than see them as an enemy.
“Instead of taking satisfaction in beating her, I got to know her,” Rodriquez said of one club member.
Once you’re on the court, it doesn’t matter who you are or how you got there: a good drive or tight serve or nasty drop shot wins against governors or inner-city kids, alike. The students learned that against a sneakily competitive Patrick.
“He knows his way around the court,” said Elaine Negron, a 16-year-old from New Haven, Conn. “It was surprising, he hit a drop shot on me. I was like ‘I’m so young.’ He said it wasn’t competitive, but I think it was.”
Seeing Patrick on the court, instead of in a setting that was “all professional,” demolished the idea that high-level politicians were inaccessible people in unreachable positions, financial and geographical worlds away.
“When you think of a governor, you think of a high-class, elite person,” Negron said. “But when we met him, he was very down to earth.”
Gillibrand, who played squash at Dartmouth, didn’t take it easy on anyone when the tour reached the Hill on Tuesday at Results the Gym. The students responded in kind, chasing her around the court after drop shots and big serves.
“She’s good,” one of the students whispered to another in the bleachers. “I think she’s better than Deval.”
At one point, Gillibrand collided with Negron as the latter chased down a shot. The senator stopped and apologized — and in her hesitation, the point was lost. Negron smacked a perfect shot back into the corner to raucous laughter and a sigh from Gillibrand. The players were chosen for their commitment to citizenship and public service, but they weren’t deferring to the leaders they met.
They met former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis in Boston, and one student asked about the experience of running for president. The association contingent listened with rapt attention, and so did Patrick, who cupped his ear and leaned toward Dukakis to listen, too.
With Gillibrand, the students asked about the issues most important to her — about sexual assault on college campuses, about women in politics, about student loans.
“Phew, all serious questions,” Gillibrand said as she wiped the sweat from her face and answered the questions after the squash match. “Any lighter ones?”
Easy questions didn’t come, because the students’ commitment to public service was more than just lip service so they could go on the trip.
“I want to meet all these politicians and learn how they approach different problems in society, learn how to contribute — us as citizens — how to fix those problems as well,” Benny Sanquintin said. “Obviously we can’t get to their position right now, so I’m trying to learn ways to help make change, outside government.”
Sanquintin, who will head to the University of Massachusetts this fall, doesn’t plan to play squash in college, but he says his experience in Squash Busters has “taught me a lot of things.”
“I notice that integrity is the most important of all,” he said. “Where I come from, on the squash courts, when it comes to volunteering. That and appreciating everything you get, this opens a lot of doors.”