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Lion Profiles: Dan-el Padilla Peralta

Born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Dan-el Padilla Peralta came to the United States with his family at the age of four. He received his B.A. summa cum laude from Princeton University, where he was chosen salutatorian of the class of 2006. He received his MPhil from the University of Oxford and his PhD in classics from Stanford University. He is currently a Mellon Research Fellow at Columbia University.

Where are you from?

I was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

What were you interested in studying/becoming when you were younger?

I had all kinds of interests when I was younger.  At various stages of my life, I wanted to become a neurosurgeon, an entomologist, an engineer, a biologist, and a classicist, the last of which I am right now! I was interested in law at some point but didn’t really want to practice it. I preferred learning about the academic side of it. That should give you a sense of some of my aspirations.

What is your current position? What do you enjoy most about it?

I’ll give you the full title of my position, which will make me feel really empowered! I am a Mellon Research Fellow in the Society of Fellows at Columbia and lecturer in classics. Essentially, I am a post-doc with an affiliation in the classics department. I have several responsibilities: I teach in the Core and I have my own research in the study of Roman religion.

How do you like it here?

I love being here. I did my PhD in Stanford and completed it in 2014 before coming here. I appreciate the contrast between the two institutions because Stanford is a very different place from Columbia.

What brought you to Columbia?

I did my master’s at Oxford and my B.A. at Princeton. It was at Princeton that I realized I wanted to pursue classics as my profession. I chose Columbia for my post-doctoral research because of the interdisciplinary fellowship. One of the most productive sides of this society is thinking about your own field, understanding other fields, and creating connections between them. I study ancient history, and having folks that work in early American art history and other different fields makes me realize my contribution to their studies. That is why I love being here.

However, I was drawn into getting my masters at Oxford because, along with Cambridge, Oxford really prepares you for a concentration in classics. Oxford is very unlike any U.S institution. One difference is that at Stanford, Columbia, or Princeton, one central administration oversees the study life of students. At Oxford, these responsibilities are distributed into different colleges. This lack of centralization allows you to do pretty much whatever you want, especially the graduate students. For some people it can be very good, and for some, it can be really bad.

How has your upbringing impacted how you approach your current position?

I immigrated to the United States from Dominican Republic when I was 4 years old. My family and I were undocumented until I left for Oxford. The question I always asked myself was, what do I become? My mom made the decision to stay in the States because she thought her children would have the best education here. That put pressure on my brother and me.

Do I simply pursue the things that give me joy and help me intellectually grow? Don’t get me wrong, for some people, being a lawyer or doctor gives them the joy that I was looking for. However, there is the fact that I was undocumented because I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to go to college. I was lucky enough to have great mentors, tutors, and teachers who helped me build my way through college, so my background had everything to do with long term professional outcomes that have been and will shape my life up to this day. However, one should be patient with figuring out one’s interests. When I arrived to Princeton my freshmen year, I had a huge list of classes I wanted to take. I was also under the impression that my interests would never change. After taking five courses my first semester, I realized I had more interests that I wanted to explore than I first thought. So, the moral of the story is that your interests will always evolve and that is perfectly fine.

When you were growing in homeless shelters, did you have any potential hesitations for not only going to a college like Columbia, but going to a college at all?

I’ve had several inspirations growing up: my mother and my mentors. I had an art instructor at the homeless shelter who had tremendous amount of faith in me. He gave me educational access so I could start private school at 7th grade in the Upper West Side, Manhattan. He made sure that I always kept the mindset that going to college is something I should expect from myself. I had amazing teachers too. My Latin/Greek teacher in high school was so committed to me buying into the idea that not only would I go to college, but I would also get into a great classics program. She is one of the people that inspired me to apply to Princeton. She had a great determination to teach her students not to be deterred by obstacles.

However, I do feel comfortable telling you this one thing. I’m still not quite sure to this day if it was a nightmare I had or if actually happened in real life, but one of my instructors at the homeless shelter told me that my family and I would never be able to leave the shelter. I was only nine, so I wasn’t sure if she was being serious, sarcastic, a hater, or just trying an alternative way of inspiring me to succeed. So, the haters will always be there and they have a way of pushing you to do better.

How did your socioeconomic status affect your college life when you were an undergraduate?

When I was an undergrad, I was really broke but I had a full ride. The major difference I had with my friends was they could take up the extracurricular activities and social lives that couldn’t afford. Like, who is going to buy the snacks? What are we going to do after the study break? As I got older, these small experiences would scale up in a very dramatically big way. For example, Princeton had eating clubs, similar to fraternities at Columbia. 70% of the upperclassmen population were members. The eating clubs were usually divided into two groups: the clubs for those who were rushing as members and the clubs that were open to anyone. Back in my day, it cost around $5,500 to $10,000 to be a member of an eating club. However, the clubs were not owned by the university, and they were funded by the alumni and other supporters, which meant my scholarship would not alleviate the cost if I were to apply to an eating club. I’m actually returning to Princeton as an Assistant Professor in 2016 after I complete my post-doctoral research here at Columbia.

I’ve been waiting for my green card since 2012 and I know you’ve had visa appeals from people like Hillary Clinton.  Could you elaborate more on that process?

I was undocumented all through my senior year of college. Then, I met someone from Cornell Law. His name was Steven and he helped me throughout the entire process of trying to retroactively change my status. If I could show that I couldn’t change my status when I was a child because I had neither money nor time, I would be able to change my undocumented status to F1 visa. So, I would be “normalized” and hold a legal status that could help me pursue opportunities after college.

After I graduated from Princeton, I had a dilemma of either going to Oxford for my master’s, which carried the possibility of me not being able to come back to the United States for 10 years! So I made a brave move and took my chances with Oxford. It was very likely that I wouldn’t be able to come back. But then, I knew if I did stay in the States, then I wouldn’t be able to have a job anyway, even as a Princeton graduate. When I finished my master’s at Oxford, Steven helped me apply for tourist visa but it was rejected the very same day I applied. I got lucky when Princeton offered me a job as a research assistant. The only reason I was offered this job was because I had a specialized training to help a project about the study of Roman history and the digital data base. Through that, I was eventually granted a work visa and a waiver! But the story does not end here…

When I got back to the States, I decided to get my PhD. Stanford was the best choice for a doctoral study in classics. However, I was not able enroll as a student since I had work visa. I had to go to my “home country” to get a student visa since I was considered an international student. So I applied for student visa as an undocumented immigrant living in the United States since four, and despite the rare chance of my application being accepted, I was granted a student visa! The story still does not end though…

After finishing graduate school, I still needed a work authorization to work at Columbia as a fellow. After obtaining my work authorization, I decided to propose to my long term girlfriend. Currently I’m waiting on my spousal documentation!

Lastly, any advice for low-income, undocumented/documented immigrant students at Columbia University? As I’m one of them, and I would love to hear some!

The most important thing I can emphasize is to remember to remain curious and open in both the classroom and your extracurricular activities. And remember to ask questions, lots of questions! Trust me, the instructors love when students ask questions. They get excited and actually appreciate those questions because it shows thinking and an effort to understand the material. Also, don’t forget that in college, the learning experience doesn’t strictly happen in a classroom setting. It also happens when you interact with your friends because they take different courses and participate in different activities. That is why it is important to remain curious and open and to hear and learn from others.

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