Valentine (Val) Banor ’17 and Destiny Mbachu ’17 provided the keynote addresses at Centre College’s annual honors convocation on May 2. Remarks from the speakers, who are selected by tallying votes from the senior class, are always a highlight of the annual celebration of student achievements.
Mbachu, a politics major from Louisville, Kentucky, is a member of Kappa Alpha Theta and the College’s Bonner Scholars Program. She is also a Centre Ambassador, a member of SPEAC, Sister 2 Sister, Student Advancement Board and the Diversity Student Union. Her post-Centre plans are pending, though she seeks a future in politics.
Would I choose Centre again?
This past year I was hosting a prospective student, and she asked me, “If you had to do it all over again, would you come back to Centre?”
Girl, why would you ask me that? Don’t you want to know where the Norton Center is or literally anything else? I pride myself on being a good and honest host, because I remember when I was visiting how my host’s advice shaped my view. So I thought to myself, “Would I really want to do all of this again?”
I came to Centre thinking of it as something I had already achieved rather than an experience to be had. What I mean by that is: while Centre’s title affords its students a certain privileged marker of achievement, Centre’s ultimate gift to me has been the ability to critically engage discourses that shape communities along social and cultural lines. An achievement implies something final and concrete, something that is to be had, not something that is to be done. While you can achieve many things in many places, you can’t have the Centre experience anywhere else.
It is important to note that the experience that we do gain from Centre does not fall in your lap. You are challenged, reshaped, knocked down and picked up. Sometimes challenges are difficult, sometimes your new shape is completely different, sometimes you’re knocked down harder than ever, and sometimes you’re down for a while before you can even think about getting back up. If you think of Centre as an achievement, you will never gain from the experience, because you only get out what you put in.
Attending Centre has been one of the hardest things I have had to do in my life. When you come to a school where every student was in the top of their class, you can no longer put in the minimal effort that you did before you got here. As a first-year, I started to doubt my intelligence. I was smart, wasn’t I? Why was I not making the grades I had before? Maybe I was never really smart.
I struggled with finances. Even though I struggled before, my family always made it out. So when I came to Centre, I was secure in my financial background. However this started to weigh on me once I noticed how little some of my friends knew about people with a lower socioeconomic status. I became embarrassed of what I had and was critical of myself. How was I going to be able to stay here when these people didn’t understand I can’t afford any of this stuff? How could I be friends with people who asked me if I want to study at Cheddars? Girl, I am not studying at Cheddar’s, because I will be studying in the many free facilities we have on campus.
I struggled with being a woman of color here, specifically a black woman. Where were the people that look like me? I didn’t see them in the administration, I thought I didn’t see them in the town, and I didn’t see them in my classroom teaching in front of me or sitting next to me. I only saw them serving our food. I started to realize I could count all the black women on campus on my two hands. How could I stay here?
I felt pressured to act, think, speak a certain way because I knew people saw me as a representative for others who looked like me. But all of my worries shaped my experience. I dedicated myself to changing my surroundings so that people like me didn’t have to share feelings of uncertainty, anxiety and otherness that I had. Once I immersed myself in my surrounding community, it began to pay me back. I stopped feeling scared to speak up in class, because I found friends who empowered me. I learned from my friends that I’m just as smart as the next person or I wouldn’t be here. I stopped feeling embarrassed of my financial background and realized that I shouldn’t be ashamed of ever having to experience financial struggles, because there’s nothing wrong with needing help. I got involved in the community and found the people who looked like me in Danville, and that pushed me to realize the importance of investing in the black community right here on campus. Once I put more in, I got more out.
The challenges that shaped my experiences weren’t limited to the United States. When I first arrived in Strasbourg, I had a rough time. I thought the women I lived with would whine too much. (Sorry you all, but arguing over if we can split the cost of soy sauce five ways, and who ate Brenna’s brussel sprouts was not ideal.) I thought that I would never be able to understand how to reserve my train tickets, because I was sure the guy at the train station was getting really irritated that I was cancelling and repurchasing my ticket every day for a week, because I wasn’t reading the destinations right. I actually thought I would never want to talk about the artist Jan Van Eyck with any art history professor ever again. A year and a half later? My Strasbourg friends and I are besties who do not speak about brussel sprouts, I was able to figure out my train tickets, enjoy riding the train by myself and I also talk about Jan Van Eyck—a lot. I actually picked up an art history minor and took a class where we visited one of his most famous pieces.
When I joined the Bonner program my experiences became even broader and pushed me to invest in the greater Danville community. I picked up working at the humane society as a service site. When I realized how much my little time spent dog walking and puppy washing was met with enormous thank-yous, I became attached to showing that I cared. I worked with members of the Danville community to uncover the history of the black business district. My relationship with them became so strong that they asked me to stay on a bit longer to help with an even bigger project. If not for the Bonner program, I would never have found the passion I have for nonprofit work. I surely wouldn’t have found it on my own, because if I’m going to be honest with you all, I would like to be rich one day, and nonprofit isn’t going to make me rich enough to put an elevator in my house or pay someone to hold my umbrella. Each of these experiences have given me something. It may be selfish, but it’s true. They have given me friends, lessons, thoughts, knowledge and love. Not only are they pillars in my Centre experience, but they have become pillars in who I am as a person.
I speak of my personal experience, because it is the only one that I know intimately. I want to be sure to note that these experiences are specific to my journey. I say this because I don’t expect every low income student of color to have the same exact experiences as myself, just like I don’t expect every student to have the same experiences in general. Don’t expect or ask all marginalized people to “just push through.” Do not expect or ask people facing hardship to “get over it.” I don’t want you to take that away from what I’m saying, because that can be silencing to people who are struggling. What I do want you to understand is that things at Centre are hard for many of us, but you’re not alone. We all watched on our first day as eager strangers carried 2 mini-fridges, a flat screen, a plastic tub full of ramen noodles and an illegal lava lamp to our first-year residence halls. We all shared the feeling of dread when you realize that we’re sophomores now and nobody is carrying any of that stuff to the first floor of Cooper. We all share that thought of trying to remember if Centre’s lawn care service has really been out here cutting the same plot of grass for a week and three days now. When I really started to plant my roots, I realized we all share at least one experience — the Centre experience.
I want to emphasize that there is no person who goes out of Centre the same. None of us are the same people that we were, whether you’re a student, staff or faculty. It is because we gain and learn so much from our experiences here. We learn about time management through scheduling classes and meetings. We learn about prioritization when we realize that there’s no way you can do homework for all those classes and be at all those meetings, so maybe you should give up something. We learn about accuracy, because our professors do not hesitate to stay petty when they hit you with a 9.5 out of 10, so you have to think about what could have given you the extra points. We learn about honesty when we finally realize that it’s okay to admit that we don’t know something. But most importantly, we learn about ourselves.
I think it would be wrong for me to get up here and not acknowledge that we are what makes Centre College what it is. It is nothing without the faculty and staff, but more importantly, it is nothing without the students. Every day that we are here, we shape how people experience Centre College. Not only do we, as students, gain from Centre College but it also gains from us. We are not only a part of the Centre experience, we are the Centre experience. Every day this place grows, and it couldn’t do it without us. In my four short years here, I’ve seen so much change, and I know it’s because of the students. We push our administration, faculty, staff and each other to better ourselves, and, at the end of the day, we are the people Centre has to answer to.
So to my prospective student: Would I do it again? No.
Nah, I’m just kidding. It’s taken me four years to realize this, but I totally would. I didn’t spend almost 10 minutes talking about it if I didn’t, right? I believe that by choosing to attend Centre College, you set out on a path that can grow you like no other. Not just academically, but personally, and you’re signing up for lifelong changes and a commitment to self betterment and personal excellence. I encourage you to be selfish when choosing, because you will get 10 times more than what you put in. So, I would 100-percent do it all again, and, for future reference, the Norton Center is down the street behind the dining hall.
by Destiny Mbachu ’17
May 3, 2017