East Bay scholar travels world collecting stories as citizen journalist

BERKELEY — For more than 20 years, KPIX 5 has been telling the stories of Students Rising Above scholars. Now, SRA scholar Brenda Vasquez is leaning into her own story-telling skills as she travels the world.

Vasquez is a collector. Postcards, artwork, and knickknacks from past travels are scattered all over her apartment. The items are reminders of the 18 or so countries she’s visited.

“This one… it’s from Russia,” said Vasquez as she showed off a piece from her growing collection. 

“Over 100 probably because I collect something from every country that I go to,” she said. “It takes me back to like either the store I was in, the place in life I as at, like how I ended up there…it’s like a little flashback.”

But it’s her collection of stories that Vasquez treasures the most. Vasquez is developing a podcast that will also be an audio collection featuring someone from every country she’s visited; friends she’s made along the way. Vasquez says the podcast will be “a platform for people all over the world.”

“I realized, like, throughout my travels, I would just run into people who would just open up and start talking to me,” explained Vasquez. “It’s kind of like you’re stepping into their home, and you get to see how they make sense of life.”

Her own travel log started with a trip to the library.

“In elementary school, we would go to the library and I became obsessed with this atlas,” recalled Vasquez. “It was a literal atlas book. I don’t know why but I ended up checking out the same book every time.”

The atlas provided an escape for Vasquez, at a time when her family was at its most vulnerable. When Vasquez was just 7 years old, her single mother, a childcare worker, found herself out of work after breaking her leg on the job.

“She wasn’t working, and like the worst thing that came to my mind was CPS coming and saying that she wasn’t fit to care for me,” said Vasquez. “That was my worst fear, being taken from her when my whole life has just been me and my mom.”

The experience forced Vasquez to grow up fast.

“Just not having that security, not knowing, like, would we actually be okay,” she recalled. “My mom always was, like, yeah we will be okay. We’ll be okay.”

She was right, they are okay. Her mom regained her health, and Vasquez graduated from Berkeley High School, then from Cal State Long Beach before receiving a Fulbright scholarship.

Soon Vasquez was traveling the world, making friends – and collecting stories – at every stop, stories she will share in the podcast she’s developing. Vasquez says this project has become her favorite souvenir.

“How did we all come to be? How did our paths cross?” asked Vasquez. “Once you’re telling a story, you have my complete attention.”

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