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Rafael Baptista '12Rafael Baptista '12

Baptista '12 and his family on graduation dayBaptista '12 and his family on graduation day

Baptista meeting Gov. John Kitzhaber as a fifth-graderBaptista meeting Gov. John Kitzhaber as a fifth-grader

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New Willamette graduate strives to help others assert their political rights

In many ways, Rafael Baptista’s Sunday began like many others. He slept in until 9 a.m., cleaned his apartment and ran some errands.

But when he finally donned his cap and gown, the magnitude of the day’s event began to feel real. At long last, Baptista ’12 was graduating from Willamette University.

“It’s been exciting and nerve racking to say goodbye to the place I’ve called home for four years now,” he said. “This is thrilling.”

Baptista was one of 427 students from the College of Liberal Arts who earned their diplomas May 13. Representing 23 states, these students are taking the lessons they learned at Willamette and applying them to the next phase of their lives.

Some are pursuing their medical and law degrees. Others are teaching abroad, and still more are launching professional careers close to home, finding their niche in everything from psychology and anthropology to science and computer technology.

As for Baptista, he will spend the next 10 weeks learning how to manage political campaigns through the Oregon Bus Project. Afterward, he plans to spend a year engaging with a political candidate or cause he supports.

“I’ve seen what people with drive can accomplish if given an opportunity,” said Baptista, who double majored in politics and Spanish. “I’ve learned the importance of owning up to your mistakes and learning and growing from them.”

Political ambitions

Baptista’s interest in politics began as a fifth-grader. While touring the state capital with his classmates, he wandered into the governor’s office. He asked for an appointment, and a week later, met with Gov. John Kitzhaber.

“I figured why not. It never hurts to ask,” Baptista said.

As he grew, so did Baptista’s interest in politics. While still in primary school, he attended a political rally for former presidential candidate Al Gore. His mother had brought him to the Portland event, but because she was not an American citizen at the time — and not eligible to vote — the two were denied access.

Since then, Baptista — whose mother is Brazilian and father is Angolan — has dedicated himself to helping the disadvantaged.

He’s interned for state Congressmen, the governor and lobby groups, he’s helped Oregonians register to vote and he became a senator for the Associated Students of Willamette University.

“I got into politics because I wanted to have a voice,” Baptista said. “The government is here to help us. I want to do the same.”

Leading by example

At Willamette, Baptista joined the debate team, became the tour guide coordinator for the Admissions Office and traveled to Chile through a study abroad program.

Through this latter experience, he saw students protest for an affordable education, which gave him a renewed appreciation for Willamette’s own democratic process.

“As a student, I have a lot of say with how this university runs,” he said. “Seeing how motivated these students were was really inspiring. It taught me that you have to fight for what you want.”

Having known Baptista for the past three years, Beth Dittman has seen the results of Baptista’s motivation. As the assistant director of student activities, she’s worked with him on the Willamette Events Board, which organizes campus events.

She’s also helped him coordinate various aspects of Family Weekend, a fall program that welcomes students and their families to campus by engaging them in fun activities.

“He’s very professional, especially considering his age, but he’s also very adaptable,” Dittman said. “He’s a leader of his peers, and he definitely has a fiery personality. I’m excited to see where he goes next.”

Sue Corner, campus visit coordinator for the College of Liberal Arts Admission’s Office, agrees. She said Baptista is a conscientious and responsible person who has greatly improved campus tours for perspective students.

“He’s ethical, kind and smart,” she said. “I can see him being a leader in whatever he ultimately chooses. He just is that way.”

Giving back

By attending Willamette, Baptista said he was taught how to think critically. He forged strong relationships with his professors — who helped him secure internships at the Oregon State Capitol — and he aided Salem’s homeless community by participating in Willamette’s Take a Break program.

“The ability to integrate student life and academic life is really seamless at Willamette,” he said. “I hope to take everything I learned at Willamette with me into this next phase. It’s really a supportive, positive community here.”

Baptista’s mother, Izzy Baptista, agrees, adding that Willamette was the ideal university for her son. While its mission spoke to his personality, she said its intimate size enabled him to grow as a person.  

“He took advantage of everything this school could offer,” she said. “It was an excellent fit for his personality, his ideals and his future. I hope that whatever he pursues, he finds the same type of fulfillment he found here.”

Although much about his future is undecided, Baptista knows one thing for sure. Like Willamette’s motto, “Not unto ourselves alone are we born,” he is committed to giving back to his community.

“When I’m done with something, I want it to be a little bit better because of my role,” he said. “Willamette has really nurtured that. It has increased my passion.”