‘A light at the end of the tunnel’
Anthony Vargas’ journey to student advocacy
At just 17 years old, Anthony Vargas didn’t know who was watching when he spoke in front of the United Nations on the International Day of Peace in 2014.
His speech was internationally televised. He may have even been in the same room as President Barack Obama. He wasn’t sure.
What he did know was he shared the stage with renowned scientist Jane Goodall, along with 11 other students, as he spoke about his passion: an anti-bullying program that –– four years later –– is now in the process of being implemented into New York State law.
It was a lot of pressure for a 17 year old.
But Vargas, a senior sociology and criminology major at UB, has never seen age as a barrier, after taking his bullying experiences at age 11 and transforming them into a career in advocacy. When he transferred schools to evade his schoolyard tormentors, Vargas began a campaign to implement peer-to-peer mentoring programs throughout NewYork City’s school districts. Vargas, now president of the Latin American Student Association, amassed over 1,500 signatures on his online petition and brought his resolution to the New York City council. Now he plans on using his passion for helping others as a starting point for his rising political career. Vargas wants to be the first Hispanic police commissioner for the NYPD and eventually run for state senate.
“[Reaching this goal] would mean that the hard work that my mother and my family have put out had paid off. Especially all the long nights and the days that my family has worked two jobs to sustain us,” Vargas said.
Vargas, a first-generation U.S. citizen whose mother came from the Dominican Republic, was first bullied in middle school.
His mother suffered from severe injuries in a car accident which left her on crutches two years later. As Vargas’ mother dropped him off at school, his peers mocked him and called his mother “handicapped.” He didn’t have anyone to turn to for help.
Vargas lived in Washington Heights in Brooklyn, where he says bullying was the least of anybody’s concerns. His neighbors were used to “shootings and stabbings.” He knew that he didn’t want to continue on the cycle like his peers, many of whom turned to a life of crime after high school.
“Sometimes I’d come out of my house and there’d be crime scene tape right in front of my apartment building,” Vargas said. “There’d be blood on the ground, and detectives.”
Vargas, after seeing the crime in his neighborhood, joined the New York Police Department’s Explorers program at 14 years old. He worked directly with the NYPD and acted as a mentor and advocate for children as he rose through the ranks of the program, soon becoming a three-star chief.
His service inspired him to further help his country.
He joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 2016, wanting to give back to others and protect his family and friends.
He recently volunteered with the Naval militia as a part of Operation Lake Ontario to prevent flooding in the Rochester area. The Marine Corps has not deployed him, but as a member of the reserves, he could be at any time.
At age 17, Vargas became a national youth councilman on Roots and Shoots, Goodall’s global youth empowerment program. He joined the council board with a platform on student advocacy and anti-bullying practices, and was soon invited to speak at the UN about his own experiences and his work with the program, which was globally televised.
He called the experience unreal.
“It just goes to show you that no matter what you go through there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel, or multiple lights along the way,” Vargas said.
Vargas brought his ambition to Buffalo for college, despite a “rough” transition from city life. He discovered LASA as a freshman and has been a member his entire time at UB. He chose to run for the e-board after dancing onstage at International Fiesta in 2018.
“When I joined [LASA], it was literally like my home away from home,” Vargas said. “This year I decided to run for the e-board to advocate for the changes LASA needs and advocate for the Latin American community. I’ll literally die with my last breath fighting for people and for what’s right.”
Vargas considers his “afro-latinx identity” important. His passion for advocacy extends beyond grade-school bullying, as he dealt with discrimination on UB’s campus. He recalls an incident his freshman year where two white students called him a “homeless s--c.”
This only pushed Vargas to foster an inclusive community within LASA. The club, comprised of a diverse group of students interested in Latin American culture, exists as a platform to educate others about different ethnicities and cultures.
Ming Chen Deng, a sophomore business administration major, is the vice president of LASA and works closely with Vargas.
“Anthony is a person I have a lot of respect for, and not just because he’s a Marine, but because he’s a leader,” Deng said. “I would like to point out that Anthony doesn’t play around. When there is work to be done, he gets it done.”
Deng has seen positive changes in LASA since Vargas took charge, including strict office hours for the e-board, to show that the club is always there for its members.
TJ Long, a sophomore accounting major, met Vargas while working alongside him as a resident advisor in Clement Hall and says Vargas takes his leadership roles seriously, whether at the UN or UB.
“He genuinely cares about making others feel comfortable and tries to incorporate all his coworkers and residents into as many activities and conversations as possible,” Long said. “He always goes the extra mile without being told to and is always willing to let people pick his brain about what his plans are.”
Vargas’ experiences have pushed him into a leadership role, and perhaps they’re pushing him to the biggest one in the nation.
Soon enough, Vargas hopes to be president of the United States.
“I heard a quote once that said, ‘Everyone has a voice. Some people are just not heard,’ and I thought it was completely true,” Vargas said. “I feel like that’s something I try to do in every aspect of my life –– whether I’m an RA or a member of LASA or a bullying advocate –– It’s not about giving them a voice because they have one. It’s about letting them be heard.”
Samantha Vargas is the senior features editor and can be reached at Samantha.Vargas@UBSpectrum.com and on Twitter @SamMarieVargas.