Jenna Starr ’15, Jasmine Masand ’15, and Camille Casareno ’15 delivered “Senior Voices” speeches on May 23 in Memorial Chapel. Below are the texts of their speeches.
I am grateful to Wesleyan. After a turbulent year at a different school, Wesleyan was the second chance I urgently needed.
When I first got here (literally the first day), I was scared. I was so scared that when my dad and aunt tried to leave, I secretly jumped in their car so they would take me home. When they caught me, I admitted that my greatest fear was that my negative experience at my previous school wasn’t because that university wasn’t right for me, but because I’m not fit for college. What if the same thing that happened freshman year, happened, again, at Wesleyan?
Three years later, and now I’m trying to figure out how to hide on campus so I don’t have to leave here (anyone know of any good spots?). In other words, the fear that I had was not realized. Now, I have a new fear, as I’m sure most seniors do: Life after college.
It’s with a very heavy heart and great reluctance that I say that “life after college” begins tomorrow around 2/3pm. Even though I have nothing planned, per say (don’t worry mom and dad, I promise I’ll figure it out), I have a set of skills that I am confident will help me come out on top in the real world.
These “set of skills” are ones that I share with my fellow Wesleyan students. They involve the ability to have an open mind, to challenge others (and oneself), to ask questions, to engage in dialogue, and to have confidence.
I definitely did not have these qualities before I came to Wesleyan. Besides just being completely ignorant about issues that didn’t pertain to me (I now know how to correctly use ze and hir pronouns because of Wesleyan), I lacked self-confidence in all senses of the word. Before I came here, I didn’t like any attention on me, which manifested in me not raising my hand in class, me not introducing myself to a lot of people and me not trying new things.
That lasted about a day at Wesleyan. Here I am, 1 of 3 people reading a speech at a pre-graduation ceremony. Here I am, President of the Senior Class, WesCeleb (a title that I wish I could put on my resume), and Community Advisor of the Year for Residential Life. Most importantly, here I am, surrounded by amazing friends, and smiling from ear to ear as I think about my time at Wesleyan.
So what was it about Wesleyan that made this possible? What is it about this school that creates an atmosphere where I felt safe enough to come outside of my comfort zone?
Part of it is because of the administration, which, although frustrating at times, does do its part in giving students freedom to protest issues that students are passionate about, and gives them the freedom to create student groups for any interests (shout out to the bee-keeping club and the people watching club).
Another part is the open curriculum, which encourages students to take classes all over the board. I am now someone that is “experienced” in West African Dance. I am now someone that has been to prison and taught inmates Shakespeare. How cool is that?
A larger part in the creation of this safe environment is the faculty and staff, who have been approachable, creative, and encouraging. My teachers have helped to create that safe environment in the classroom where I felt comfortable enough to raise my hand and participate. The staff at Usdan always makes sure to ask me how my horse is doing and loves when I show them pictures (this wouldn’t be a Jenna speech without mentioning my horse). The staff’s beautiful displays of affection might be in my top 10 things that I will miss the most. I honestly think it’s safe to say that I wouldn’t have learned as much as I did, both in the classroom and outside of the classroom, if it weren’t for the faculty and staff on campus. These individuals serve as role models for my peers and me. The intimate connection that I developed with my bosses at Residential life, my Dean, my advisors, and my professors, made this campus feel more like a home.
Of course, before anyone can shine and truly find themselves, they need to know that they have the support system to do so. My family has been great in supporting my decision to transfer to Wesleyan and for supporting my endeavors here. However, my Wesleyan peers have been imperative in helping me make my Wesleyan transformation.
Wesleyan students are passionate, and it is impossible to live on this campus without interacting in some sort of dialogue that pertains to these passions. When I started interacting with other Wesleyan students, their drive and determination to change the world and challenge themselves while doing it, was so infectious that I began to step outside of my comfort zone. You guys showed me that it is okay, even expected, to try new things and fail, but yet still have fun while doing it. You guys showed me that it’s okay to be weird (#keepwesweird). You guys showed me that it is a waste to not take advantage of everything offered here. That’s why, during my time here, I have tried so many things ranging from volunteer work to participating in theater performances.
As I began to meet more and more Wesleyan students, and realized how much I can learn from them, I was unstoppable. It was my mission to meet as many people as possible. I began to introduce myself to people that I frequently walked by (true story: that’s how I became friends with Robert Ramos), and smiled at those that I didn’t know. As I began to make friends, I began to fall in love with Wesleyan, and with myself. I loved being a person that was known on campus because of my outgoing personality and all of my contributions to this school. I was proud of my accomplishments and loved showing this school off to my family and friends. Wesleyan, I found myself because of you.
As my time here is winding down, I am on cloud nine. I just organized a very successful senior week, and I honestly want my time at Wesleyan to last forever. That’s silly though, because then everything that I learned from here would go to waste. I am going to use my newfound confidence out in the real world. And no matter what I do, I am comforted by the fact that the knowledge, skills, friends, and curiosity of inquiry that I’ve acquired from Wesleyan will be with me for the rest of my life.
Making friends is hard. Making real friends as a freshman in college, during all the excitement of orientation, felt nearly impossible. I clamored to hang out with my hall-mates, and to forge real, deep, meaningful connections – which, in my skewed understanding of new friendship, often meant drinking as much as I could. When I was intoxicated, I felt like someone entirely outside of myself — I felt funny, or mean, or friendly, or sometimes nothing at all. No matter what, the deep losses I felt acted as a solid, impenetrable barrier between myself and everyone around me. I lost my mom to cancer almost 7 years ago, as a freshman in high school. Just as this had sort of settled into my life, and who I was, I experienced another sudden loss, this time a friend.
Lauren was killed on July 4th, one month after high school graduation, by her high school boyfriend. It has taken the support of many amazing people in this community for me to be able to tell that story out loud. I remember choking on it freshman year, devising ways to explain what I was going through in toned-down, easier-to-digest phrases that weren’t so shocking or sensational. I worked hard to swallow the shock, trauma, and fear, going out every night of every weekend, staying out as late as I possibly could.
Here at school, it was the moment when we started to talk about our families, our hometowns, our parents, our summers, and our childhoods that I felt myself lie, or disconnect, or shy away from the truth. The first few months here were such a time of excitement and exploration. But from my 9 AM class in the Butts, to large groups of first years lunching in Usdan, to late nights playing in the Wesleyan Orchestra – my grief went with me wherever I went. Usually I ignored it, and occasionally it overwhelmed my own suppression and self-control. It felt so wrong, so taboo, to experience my grief and to bring it into my new, untouched college world. Every time I stayed out all night on Foss with my new friends, or drank way too much, it added to my own cycle of denial. When I wasn’t myself, I could avoid the shock and grief that sometimes terrified me or kept me up at night. As masterful as I was at keeping it at bay, grief would catch me off guard as I tried desperately to suppress it.
I remember the first time I even said the word “murder” out loud here. It was just a few days into orientation, and I was playing Frisbee with a group of my new Clark 3 friends on Andrus. My phone rang – it was a good friend from home, who was in orientation at Brown. As I picked up the phone, I felt the beautiful, happy world I had constructed in the past 48 hours dissolve. The perfectly manicured collegiate grounds, the warm late summer air, groups of happy, carefree freshman everywhere I turned, suddenly overwhelmed me. Even after I hung up the phone I sat down in the grass, sort of paralyzed on the spot by the collision of my grief and my new friends and this new place which was somehow supposed to become my comfortable new home. When my hall-mates asked me what was going on, I told them I was fine (no, really, I’m fine!) My friend was murdered, a few weeks ago, this summer. But I’m OK. Are we going to Usdan now?
Over our freshman winter I was hired at Espwesso, the student-run café that was then just getting its feet on the ground. I walked into the café by chance one night, and something kept me coming back. Looking back, I had found a space of my own, away from my usual crowd, where I could just be. Espwesso became not only my safe space, but my creative space, where I could express my vision for the open environment that had become so important to me. I always hope that facilitating this space, and helping the café grow from a tiny hole in the wall to a real part of our community, has helped other students find their path in some way.
It has taken me years to realize that grief isn’t some run-of-the-mill, textbook condition which manifests in tears and resolves itself over time. I once was so triggered by the on-stage violence at my friend’s Second Stage Shakespeare production that I had to leave the theater. I had to sit out of a weekend-long training for the Espwesso staff – which I had organized – because it was the weekend of my mom’s birthday. The way it comes out usually doesn’t make sense at all. It doesn’t define me, but it is part of who I am nonetheless.
So finally, as a sophomore and junior, I discovered that I was not alone at Wesleyan. I found and prioritized the friends who had always shown me that my experience was important and legitimate. I took a student forum which explored inter-partner violence, and became a part of the student-run grief support group on campus, which I co-facilitated this year. Bit by bit, Wesleyan helped me do the hard thing – to read about domestic violence, to understand how a murder trial worked, and mostly to forgive myself for the emotional ups and downs over which I had no control. This time, instead of gritting my teeth, I didn’t try to power through and forget about my very real emotions and memories. When talking about violence in class became too much for me, I said so and excused myself. On my friend Lauren’s birthday, when I was too sad to go out, I didn’t just drink the night away. Sometimes I needed to laugh with someone about a ridiculous memory without worrying about whether it was appropriate or comfortable. I found amazing friends who were willing to just lie on my bed and watch TLC wedding shows with me, get off campus, or just hang out.
The support, love, and friendships I found, and the way in which we all support one another at Wesleyan, continue to amaze me. Sometimes this has been through interactions with complete strangers, who held doors for me when I was on crutches and bought me food from Weshop when I forgot my ID. I have been inspired by my professors, in the classroom and the way they engage with us outside of it, and I can only hope that I have impacted Wesleyan in some small way after all it has given me.
Now, four years later, I wanted to tell you the story of how Wesleyan guided me through some of the most difficult moments in my life, and helped me find “me” again. As you go off and do amazing things, remember that you don’t have to remain silent just because you are afraid to say the wrong thing, whether it is about grief or anything at all. It is the combination of all these tiny moments that can make a world of difference.
“Welcome to Wesleyan University! My name is Camille and I am your tour guide for today. I am a senior Neuroscience and Behavior major. Outside of the classroom, I work a lot with reproductive health on campus: I am the coordinator of Wesleyan Clinic Escorts; I am a doula with the Wesleyan Doula Project; and I was an advocacy intern with NARAL Pro-Choice Connecticut this past fall. I am also part of the Filipino student association and I founded WesWIG, Wesleyan’s first female gamers club.”
That is my tour guide introduction. Before every tour, I rattle off my academic and extracurricular activities to convince prospective students that they too will sound this impressive if they come to our university. On my tours, kids ask how the big first-year dorms are and how the gender-neutral bathrooms work, as if these will be highlights of their college experience. Parents are especially interested in the return of interest on a liberal arts degree and the career prospects that Wesleyan opens, which was something I was very conscious about during my college application process.
What I don’t mention is that I am a first-generation, low-income student, and that it is these factors that have had the greatest influence on my time here. When I saw that red and black acceptance envelope sitting in the mail on March 14, 2011, it was probably the second greatest moment of my life. The greatest moment was reading the financial aid letter that came with it, and learning that I would be able to attend. I was set on leaving poor Springfield, Ohio to attend to the prestigious and elite Wesleyan University.
The transition to Wesleyan was not easy. I was 700 miles away from home, but there was an equally large distance between me and other students in terms of wealth and personal experiences. Most students are concerned with how the dining hall fare tastes. For me, it was having access to vegan food for this first time and having greater social consciousness about where my food was coming from. Advisors tell their students to choose their courses based on their interest. I was forced to choose my major based on what I thought it would be profitable. For me, college is about having a greater kinship with the cleaning staff who tidy up our classrooms and offices, than the professors who use them. This bridge becomes harder to cross when your work-study hours take priority over academic opportunities so you can pay for tuition.
During my first day of work at the Office of Admission, an associate dean told me — a little too frankly — that the high-school I went to isn’t really a feeder for universities like Wesleyan. And she was right. My teachers had never heard of Wesleyan before. Almost everyone I knew went to a community college or an in-state public university. Their college experience is so vastly different from mine. In a conversation about choosing courses with my best friend from home, she didn’t understand why I wanted to take Drawing II here; “It’s just not practical,” she said. I never ended up taking Drawing II.
The lessons and experiences I have had at Wesleyan will stay with me. Sure, I will be leaving with a neuroscience degree and have plenty to say about the brain. But I have also become comfortable talking to people in positions of power who may be gatekeepers of opportunity. I have learned how to speak intelligently and critically about the various systems we are a part of and the injustices they place upon us. I have juggled three jobs and a fulltime course load, while maintaining leadership positions in extra-curriculars. I am proud of my time-management skills and determination. I have persevered my way through an institution that was once so alienating, where no one expects someone of my background to even be here.
As a senior, I am excited to see Wesleyan’s activist spirit take up the cause of class. I have been hearing more and more underrepresented students sharing their experiences and calling for action. When I meet other first generation and low income students, there is a shared understanding of the burden we carry on this campus. I have been lucky to meet faculty members and administrators who are willing to hear my story. Yet I worry for students in a similar position who are struggling in silence and feel like they have to handle this journey all on their own.
The statistics were never in my favor, but I stand in front of my peers successful and proud of my accomplishments. I am privileged to study at one of the best schools in the nation, even if it meant working a little harder than everyone else. The topic of wealth and privilege is a provoking one on our campus. However, in order to progress, we must keep having conversations about class and provide a voice to students who feel like they must keep this part of themselves hidden away. It’s not just about not being able to take Drawing II. I don’t ask for your pity; I ask for your support and understanding. This is a part of my identity that has only made me stronger, and I know others who feel the same way.
I’ve worked hard to close that gap between me and my peers. I’d like to see Wesleyan make that same effort. Still, I believe Wesleyan has made us rich and that that wealth comes in many forms. Wesleyan has made me rich in friendships with incredibly bright and hard-working people, in the opportunity to learn both from my peers and my professors, and with an education I could not afford otherwise.