Hannah Gibbs ’19 (London, Kentucky) and Mitchell Collins ‘19 (Richmond, Kentucky) provided the keynote addresses at Centre College’s annual honors convocation on May 7. 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.
I’m from Eastern Kentucky. When I wasn’t occupying space in a Centre-owned property here or abroad, I’ve spent my life along the Hal Rogers Parkway where I’ve got family spread like butter from London to the West Virginia line. Being from a place may seem a simple thing, but when that place is Appalachia with stereotypes and misconceptions almost as deeply rooted as my family, the idea of place gets a little more complicated. Understanding what it means to be Appalachian, to be part of the community of Eastern Kentucky, has not been a simple question.
Is it the two years that I worked with a team of faculty and students to research the cultural impact of the decline of the coal economy in Eastern Kentucky? Maybe it’s when I taught my friend from St. Louis the meaning of “God Lord Willin’ and the Creek Don’t Rise”? Or is it the time that, after hearing my accent for the first time, a professor I didn’t know asked me what it was like to be at a place like Centre? A place that must have been so different from “back home.” Or maybe it was this year’s Poverty and Homelessness Initiative where I got the chance to work with some incredible students, faculty and staff to engage more than 800 members of our campus with a deeper understanding of the place I call home.
In reality, it was these questions. It was also a hundred more questions and conversations and experiences beyond those. I came to realize that being from Eastern Kentucky is as much working actively to address the issues of longstanding poverty and environmental injustice as it is knowing that you don’t put sugar in good cornbread. To be Appalachian is to invest in Appalachia. Just as much as you let Appalachia invest in you.
This is what I hope to say in my talk tonight. That perhaps the single most significant thing you can do for your community, whatever those communities may look like, act like, sound or be shaped like, is to invest in them. And let them invest in you.
In my time here at Centre, I have had the opportunity to be a part of many communities: the Residence Life staff, STAND, Bonner. Environmental Studies, Poverty and Homelessness, the Class of 2019. I’ve lived in places ranging from London, England to Burlington, Vermont. I’ve been a part of volunteer groups and projects that have lasted single days, and worked with community partners for the better part of four years.
With each opportunity there has been a choice. A choice of how much to invest through time and energy into the communities that accompanied each.
People are not pie. You don’t have a set number of pieces to hand out to programs and sports teams and classes and clubs. It is possible to give 100 percent of yourself to more than one thing. For me to be an environmental studies major does not mean I am less of an Appalachian or less a member of the community of women I have around me. Being a member of the Centre College community does not make me less a citizen of the rest of this world. But to be a real part of any or all of those communities requires me to invest myself in them in the needs, in the voice, in the structure.
It may seem that you can be a member of a community without investing much at all. It is possible to stay on the fringe of a community and watch things happen—to see things that upset you and let them continue, because it doesn’t seem worth the time or effort to change them. We have all been a part of those groups, of those things that we can’t seem to invest ourselves in.
I would argue here that, in order to be fully invested in a community, that community must also have invested in you. It is possible to give 100 percent over and over and over, but it is not possible to do it in isolation. There has to be a recharge, a renewal, a reinvestment.
In whatever communities you may belong to, find the things that bring you joy. The people and the places and the stories that give you energy and help you find a family, by birth or by choice. To quote the great Matt Klooster, “You only get out what you put in,” something we live by in the Bonner Program still. But what that doesn’t say is that what you put in and what you get out may look very different.
What you put in may be blood and sweat and tears and fighting tooth and nail against every injustice you can think of. It may be reaching out to people whose communities are threatened by all forms of injustice that seem to be growing every day and doing what is needed to combat them. It may be standing at the front of a crowd leading a protest. It may be raising your hand in a classroom where other students feel unsafe or unheard. It may be staying silent and leaving space for the leaders of different communities to speak. It may look like voting. It may look like angry tweeting or posting flyers. It may look like going to graduate school, because you finally know where your strengths are and what you can do best to combat the problems of the world we’ve spent four years learning about. Investment isn’t always clean, and from what I’ve seen, it’s rarely pretty.
What you get out, however, is very different. When the communities you identify with reinvest in you, it is those shared identities that give you your own—your strength, your power, your joy. To borrow a quote from my mother, “My Eastern Kentucky upbringing is the reason for the woman you see before you today.” It is because I am from Appalachia, because of who my friends are, because of my time spent at Centre, that I am who I am right now. For all of us, it is those collection of experiences and identities, in a cycle of self-investment and personal growth, that make us who we are.
This is the message I wanted to leave, to an institution and a community that has invested so much in me the last four years. Centre should be a place where the communities that students come from and identify with are the core of our shared identity as members of this College. Where all students, faculty and staff members should have the opportunity to invest themselves in another 200 years of growth and the betterment of the College, and, in return, be fully invested in as members of the community. For four years, the emphasis has been that Centre is a place where important conversations happen. The conversations happening on campus now, on how this campus community will look in the next few years, from the changing of our curriculum to the recent restructuring of our Office of Diversity and Inclusion, are some of the most important that will happen for this community.
Invest yourself in these conversations. Invest yourself in the communities that bring you joy and grant you strength. And, perhaps most importantly, allow those communities to invest in you.
by Hannah Gibbs ’19
May 9, 2019