Dominique Bocanegra ‘13 will never forget the advice that changed her life. It was from an inmate.
Bocanegra had just graduated from Chaminade University with a degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice, returned to her hometown of San Francisco and landed a job at a jail helping inmates to transition back into the community. The work was challenging: recidivism rates were high and success stories rare.
One day, Bocanegra was working with an older man who was just about to be released and — she believes looking back on the moment now — he likely caught onto just how much she was struggling with her role and how little she could do for men trying to begin their lives again in their 40s, 50s and 60s.
“He told me, ‘Dominique, if I had had someone like you when I was young, I probably wouldn’t have lived the life I lived,’” Bocanegra recalled, in a recent conversation with Chaminade Magazine. “He was telling me to work with youth. To let them know this — in jail — is where you don’t want to end up.”
The inmate’s words inspired Bocanegra and started her on a journey that would take her to the Episcopal Service Corps, grassroots work with youth in communities and finally to Harvard University, where she now helps to oversee an innovative project to archive hip-hop’s rich and ever-evolving story.
Looking back on her path to one of the world’s most prestigious institutions, where she serves as administrator of the Hiphop Archive and Research Institute and works with a team of rising researchers and young scholars, she credits her time at Chaminade with helping her realize the importance of service and reflecting on the positive change just one person can make in the lives of others.
“The Marianist heritage and values. Campus Ministry. I remember that being a big pillar of my experience at Chaminade — finding ways to reflect,” she said. “The service, the search for justice and peace, I believe that was something really engraved in all of our teachings at Chaminade.”
Finding her way to Chaminade University
Bocanegra grew up in a little town in California called Brisbane (population: 4,000). It’s outside San Francisco and was the kind of place where a kid could be a kid. She grew up playing lots of sports, but it was soccer that she really loved. And it was soccer that would take her to Hawaii the first time.
Bocanegra was in fifth grade and traveled to the islands for a soccer tournament. She ended up not staying in Waikiki, but at a friend’s family home in Nanakuli. The surroundings and ambiance were everything that she’d imagined: sunny days, balmy nights and the food! She felt right at home.
“That was the start of the story,” Bocanegra said.
Years later, in high school, she was pondering where she wanted to attend university. She knew she wanted a campus with small class sizes and a strong criminal justice program. It was about that time that Chaminade made a visit to her campus. After sitting down with an admissions counselor, one on one, she knew she’d found the right place. “I felt like everything was individualized,” she recalled.
More than that, Bocanegra said that from her first day at Chaminade she felt like she was part of a family. And there was rarely a moment where she wasn’t growing as a student and a person. She walked onto the soccer team in her first year and later played on the softball team and became president of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. She also participated in the Hogan Entrepreneurial Program and Campus Ministry.
Bocanegra acknowledged that she did feel homesick during that first semester at Chaminade. But support was never too far away. She fondly remembers one afternoon when a fellow student-athlete grabbed her and some other friends and headed up to the North Shore. It was during that excursion Bocanegra realized that she needed to enjoy the gift she’d been given and come out of her shell.
“I told myself, ‘I need to see what Hawaii has to offer,’” Bocanegra said. “It really helped me out.”
It also drove her to better understand Chaminade’s mission. As she sought to build on her own knowledge and consider her future career options, she started to ask herself, “How can I be of service doing the most justice I can? It was such a big part of Chaminade, including Campus Ministry.”
From Chaminade University to the Hiphop Archive and Research Institute
After graduation and that life-changing advice from an inmate, Bocanegra turned her attention to youth-focused initiatives. She enrolled in the Episcopal Service Corps, living on a stipend and seeking to help build better communities. After serving in Los Angeles, she moved to Boston with the Corps.
She later transitioned into part-time youth ministry and sought additional work at universities.
It was actually through a temp service that she landed a job at Harvard. Not long afterward, she was offered a full-time position at the Hiphop Archive, a center for exploring the scholarship and teachings of the hugely-popular musical genre. “It’s a complete lifestyle,” Bocanegra added. “A celebration of poetry and art. It has solely come out of the United States and spread around the world.”
In her current role, she works with a host of research assistants on new initiatives and develops community service projects aimed at engaging, inspiring and empowering youth. “As a hip-hop listener, I can tell you … it’s always had an undeserved negative connotation. Some call it ghetto music,” she said. “That’s inappropriate. Hip-hop music is a way to understand and celebrate modern America.”
Bocanegra added that it is so important that an institution like Harvard show its support for this artistic movement, not least of which because of the message it sends to young people. “We’re taking this research and using it for community-building activities. That’s so powerful,” she said.
And wherever Bocanegra goes, she brings Hawaii (and what she learned at Chaminade) with her.
“A big part of my job is to bring the aloha everywhere,” Bocanegra said, adding that she’s become known as the woman who wears aloha shirts and throws shakas. “It’s just letting folks know there are different ways to the world and that a smile is often the start of important conversations.”
Paying it forward
The 2013 graduate also stays connected to Chaminade through friendships with other alumni.
She’s remained very close to two fellow Silverswords — also former student-athletes — and they’re hoping to spearhead the start of a scholarship for student-athletes at the University. “We’re trying to find ways to be good stewards for the future. How can we give our time, talent and treasure?” she said.
That’s also got them looking ahead to their 10-year reunion, which they hope to hold on campus.
As she reflects on her time at Chaminade, she said her biggest takeaway was the power of the aloha spirit. “There’s nothing that can top my experience at Chaminade more than walking away with my love for others — the people, the place and staying true to that aloha and that mission every day,” she said.
Bocanegra added her message to current students at Chaminade is one of strength in fellowship: “You’re part of a bigger community, whether it’s those who came before you or those who will come after you. You are there to receive and then leave something even better for the next students.”
And that, she said, “is what countless Chaminade alumni have tried to do for you.”