Editor’s note: Missioner SarahJane Cauzillo compiled her interview with fellow missioner in training Stephanie Ashley Caban, who shared her journey to FMS and towards a sense of cultural identity.

It’s early in the morning. The sun has yet to grace us with its presence, and the grass still glistens with the night’s dropping of dew. A small group of yawning, sluggish FMS missioners and DC Service Corps volunteers walks towards the Franciscan Monastery down the street for morning Mass. One missioner, however, skips ahead of the others. With little hops in her steps her heels click together and her long, curly black hair bounces along with her rhythm. She spins around every few moments to smile at her sleepwalking companions, checking that they are keeping up. She might let out a small giggle or her eyes might light up at the sight of them, and she continues forward right into Mass. This is Stephanie Ashley Caban.

Before moving to DC for the overseas lay missioner program, Stephanie spent the 22 years of her life in New York City. Stephanie’s heart is rooted in her Puerto Rican heritage and yearning for a deeper grasp of this Latina identity. Growing up, she spent her days in her middle class, primarily white neighborhood of the Bronx. Although a daughter of Puerto Rican parents, she spent much of her young life associated as white. “I looked white,” says Stephanie, “and I never took the time to explore it [her heritage]. I wanted to be white, I wanted to avoid the ‘minority’ stereotype.”

Although she took many trips to Puerto Rico in her lifetime to visit family, it was a mission trip to the Dominican Republic after graduating from the State University of New York at New Paltz that captured her heart and changed her entire outlook. “It was my cultural conversion,” she says of the trip.

Stephanie grew up hearing Spanish at home but is not fluent in the language. Armed with her Spanish dictionary, she found herself to be the translator in her group and loved it. She gave up trying to be perfect and dove right into speaking Spanish.

“Where are you from?” someone from the Dominican Republic asked her right before leaving the country.

Without thinking twice, Stephanie responded, “I’m from Puerto Rico.”

“Ah, you are my neighbor,” the Dominican responded. Stephanie walked away from that conversation with a whole new understanding: she is Puerto Rican and proud.

She does not associate herself with a negative minority stereotype anymore and she is more aware of who she is in her own skin. “Now that I see it—I am proud. I realize that it is important to have a little bit of me—a Latina—in group settings.” With roots planted in her Puerto Rican heritage, she is growing into the beautiful Latina daughter that God created her to be.

Her passions for her identity and people are matched only by her love of service. Stephanie spent the year following graduation and the Dominican Republic mission trip as a volunteer organizer with AmeriCorps Vista. She recruited over 1,000 volunteers through diverse partnerships in Manhattan and Queens to be reading tutors in schools with large populations of students affected by poverty.

Her spirit of servant leadership is evident in the way she speaks about her AmeriCorps experience: “I [was] serving my country, and I [was] helping kids read,” she says with confidence and vigor. This formative experience also allowed her to create genuine, life-giving relationships with her fellow program participants. She shared the struggles and successes with the other fellow AmeriCorps volunteers, who learned how to collaborate, share all of life, and love one another.

In completing her service year with AmeriCorps, she was presented with the question of: What next? Stephanie is blessed with an incredible gift of faith, and she took a leap to follow the Lord’s will for her life. Knowing the desires of her heart (a yearning for her Latina heritage and a desire to serve and love others), He called her to FMS. Now in the Formation program in DC, she brings the radiant light and pure joy of Christ to all those around her.

Bouncing down the sidewalk on the way home from Mass at the Monastery, Stephanie looks up at the sky blushing with the sunrise. Her energy for life and creation propels her up the stairs to Casa San Salvador where she lives with the other missioners in training and DC Service Corps volunteers. She smiles another large grin—shining at the beginning of another day. This is Stephanie Ashley Caban.

Reflection question: How has your identity and level of self-acceptance changed over time?