A special welcome to the new members of the community who have traveled from many countries and states to become a part of the Luther experience. A hearty welcome to our returning members. You can now say, “been there done that.” The start of a new semester is always a good time to celebrate, to express new hopes and some fears. It is usually a time of great excitement and high energy. It is a time that I remember when I was in the shoes of the new students. Let me share a few of these memories with you.
A long time ago (what my son calls ancient times) I was a first year college student at the University of the West Indies, Mona campus in Jamaica. I was the first in my family to attend college and the only one of my siblings to eventually earn a graduate degree. I remember arriving on the campus scared out of my wits but knowing that I had to do this not only for myself but for my mother who was my support, cheerleader, and motivator. I arrived on the campus without any idea about how college works. I was given the “orientation” schedule and expected to find my way to the various locations with a map and no tour guide. I registered for classes in the respective academic department offices without the assistance of an advisor. I chose classes based on what I thought my major was going to be and no, it could not be undecided.
After all these years, in spite of my failing memory, I can still recall most of the feelings I experienced then as well as my absolute ignorance about many of the little details I needed to know. Looking back I can hardly believe that I really thought that I had on-campus housing even though the housing office had not responded to my request. I was coming from rural Jamaica and I was a first year student. How could they not have a space for me! Imagine my shock to discover that I was homeless. Talk about naiveté and ignorance! Fortunately, someone in the housing office noticed my dilemma and gave me useful information about where to find suitable housing close to the campus.
There were other surprises and confusing moments during those first months. Many of these occurred in the classroom. For example, in spite of the fact that I had matriculated having successfully passed the Cambridge Advanced Level Exam (a post-secondary grade 13 university entrance exam taken by students in Britain and the ex-colonies), I still found it challenging to understand most of the content being shared by some of the professor and peers. It was as if they were speaking another language to which only they were privy. The vocabulary was sophisticated (elitist) and it made those of us who were not upper middle class feel as if we were dumb. Looking back, it is clear that I initially lacked some of the social and cultural capital that would have made the transition easier. Nevertheless, I had other things going for me; I had the values and attitudes developed during my years growing up in rural Jamaica. Both my parents were part of the peasantry, that group of hard working small farmers that saved many West Indian economies from total collapse when the sugar industry failed. Talk about grit and resilience! They lived it and this is the stock from which I sprung. I knew how to be persistent (stubborn according to my mother) and work hard. The bottom line was that I could not let myself or my mother down.
It obviously all worked out. I did graduate and even went on to graduate studies later. Missing from this very short story are the details about the daily struggles and the low points when I would spend hours between classes in the chapel gardens trying to regroup and strengthen my determination to continue pursuing my dreams.
Lest you think it was all doom and gloom, there were many high points and they came through the friendships I eventually developed one on one as well as in the groups that I joined, and the grades I got that were, more often than not, better than those students who had initially intimidated me with their “sophisticated” way of speaking. I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed those moments when I could show off my grades. I did not always get A’s but I proved to myself that I belonged at the university, that I had what it took to succeed.
So what is the point of all of this? I am not sure, but I am hoping that some of this will resonate you. I hope that my story shows that success does not come easy to most of us; that friendships are important; that believing in yourself and having someone else believing in you is valuable; that grit and resilience are actions not words; that everyone has social and cultural capital that they bring to college and one of the main tasks is determining how to use what you bring to help you succeed. Your being in a liberal arts school at this time, and in this country means that you have resources available to you that can get you on track in a shorter time than I did back then. The Diversity Center is one of these resources, and we look forward to partnering with you as you work toward your goals.