Adriana Tache | SIPA Class of 2017
I met Thomas Guerra during my first week at SIPA. I watched him winning the votes for the presidency of SIPASA, the school’s main student association, without knowing that behind his charisma hides years of trauma. “It’s important to tell this story so that I can move on” he tells me just a few weeks ago. Guerra is a 30-year-old, born in the military based town of Yuma, Arizona. He is a graduate of MIT and a second-year SIPA student, concentrating on Urban and Social Policy.
His drive to work in the public sector, on poverty alleviation, stems from his own upbringing. “I want to help not just my family, but my people, of low-income, for as long as I can”, Guerra told me in a recent interview.
Liberating to admit his family was poor too
The child of a very religious mother and a former Marine father, he recalls moving around because his parents could not always afford the rent, were running from bill collectors, and/or escaping from gang affiliation. Although they were often on food stamps and other government programs, he knew other people were still worse off. While volunteering at the Health and Human Services division in San Antonio, a county agency that provided poor families with utility and rent assistance, AC and heating units, and other social services a girl from his middle school and her family walked in. Embarrassed, she started crying because Guerra could see how poor her family was. “That struck me. I shared [with her] that my family was in the same programs as well. It’s something that we always tried to hide, but once it was revealed it was liberating”. After that, they became close friends.
His experience with poverty started after his father left the military. When Guerra was in elementary school, he remembered, “One school had uniforms. Because we didn’t have any money and because at the time I was very husky (uniforms for husky guys were the most expensive), I was only allowed to get one pair of one outfit at the beginning of the school year, while my brothers and sisters had up to 3. Once little funds came in or I got a side job selling lollipops or candy on the bus, we finally had enough money to buy me a second pair of clothes.”
Couldn’t even take a full shower
After his parents’ divorce, 5 years-old Guerra and his three siblings went to live with their mother and abusive step-father. A cracked skull, and attempts to suffocate him with a pillow and drown him in a pool, caused Guerra to begin running away from home. Only after his step-father broke his mother’s arm, did she and the children move in with their grandmother. It was one bedroom, “but at least it was a stable environment” he told me. “We were very tight on money all the time. You couldn’t even take a full shower. You would have to use the sink water” or follow a routine where “you turn on the water in the shower, just quick enough for you to get rinsed; then you turn it off, you soap up, wash yourself up, and turn it on again [to rinse]. My grandma would time us because there were so many of us and we didn’t have the money to pay for these utilities. At times, we would just use the showers at schools or other people’s houses”.
Thought about ending it all
Guerra and his siblings, later, returned to live with their stern, military father and bipolar step mother. A different type of abuse began – mental abuse. Guerra, who is gay, was often the target. “I was just trying to survive until I could get out of there”. Some of his family members were trafficking drugs from Mexico across the border to Texas. He would routinely see raids or hear gunshots. “People who were looking for my family members did not know exactly where we lived, so at least we had some sort of cover”. Things worsened so much that one of his siblings attempted suicide. After that, the idea of taking his own life occurred to Guerra twice. Once, he went on a hunger strike for three days; another time, he jumped from a roof. Fortunately, he could never go through with his suicidal plans because he felt too guilty abandoning his siblings. “Who was gonna save them next time [the abuse started]?”
Accepted to MIT with a full scholarship
After years of ordeal, Guerra got accepted into MIT with full scholarship for playing the French Horn. His family was not happy with him choosing a secular school over a military career. His father disowned him and never accepted the idea of him being gay. It took Guerra six and a half years to graduate from MIT. Lack of monetary support from family forced him to work during the school year and double-up during summer. “That took away a lot of my time, I was constantly in work-study and doing side gigs for even more money”. The emotional trauma he lived through and his father denying him as his son, also impeded his performance.
After he got his degree from MIT, Guerra continued to take classes at a university’s extension until he applied for grad school. “I worked and went to school…that’s all I did for the 7 years” in order to build competitiveness in areas where he lacked good training.
Over the years, he learned how to deal with a number of his insecurities. Columbia SIPA is a place that fits his personality, because here he found people who “cared about the society’s well-being or the well-being of things greater than themselves”. I know I’m at my best when I’m around people who care and are trying to make positive difference in the world for the betterment of society. I knew Columbia SIPA was the place for me”.