Mitchell Collins ‘19 (Richmond, Kentucky) and Hannah Gibbs ’19 (London, 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’d like to thank you all for the opportunity this evening to give you an address, it is truly an honor to be up on this stage. But to be honest, I don’t know what I’m doing up here, and this is considering that the faculty nominated me not once but TWICE to speak at Honors Convocation. Last year, I was surprised to find my name among the graduating seniors nominated to speak at this event. I knew for certain back then I didn’t belong up here. I’m not quite sure what about me screamed “senior” other than being tall or possibly my resting facial expression of unintentional indifference in class. I suppose that at some point, someone thought I had something to say or at the very least wanted to rush me out of here with the class of 2018. But regardless of the reason, thanks for the round two!
I remember coming to Honors Convocation my first year and listening to Dexter Horne and Sara Mordancy give their addresses. I was in awe at their depth of knowledge, insight, and reflection. They, along with subsequent speakers like Val, Destiny, Noah, and Amaryst, struck me then as an echelon of wisdom and maturity to which I should aspire.
However, being notified that I was selected to speak evoked a small sense of fear. “Me?!,” I thought. “Doesn’t everyone remember who’s spoken before me? How on Earth does anyone expect me to live up to those Centre celebrities? Don’t they know I don’t belong up here?”
Well, I still don’t know if I belong here. But, maybe belonging, and wondering about belonging, is a good place to start.
I want to tell you a story about a student who attends Centre College whom I know very well. This student comes from small-town USA, and was disappointed to be moving from small-town to smaller-town for their undergraduate career, but knew that the Centre’s study abroad programs and highly-praised academic programs would be their ticket out of, what they felt was, a loving, caring and yet limiting childhood community. A community that had cultivated a person who was both ready to see the world and, at the same time, confused by their place in it. The student struggled throughout high school with the question of “who am I?”—not because of the person they saw in the mirror but rather because of the environment and people existing in their reflection. This fragmented the student’s self-image and created a tension between who they knew they were and who everyone else wanted them to be. When you feel as though who you are doesn’t fit with, or isn’t accepted by, the community in which you find yourself, your sense of worth and belonging become upended. And when you finally make it to college, a true sense of belonging becomes a top priority on your list.
Personally, I was overjoyed to come to Centre. Applying to colleges my senior year, I distinctly remember my high school guidance counselor. Sitting in her office, I told her where I wanted to apply—almost all the schools were out of state and, more importantly, outside of Richmond, Kentucky. I’ll never forget her response when I was finished with my list. She asked me, “Don’t you think those schools are a little ambitious? Why don’t you just go to Eastern Kentucky University instead?” Now, regardless of how you feel about Centre as a student, I think I may speak for most of us when I say that the word just was not what I wanted to stand out in a sentence when I talked about my future college. I wanted somewhere that was going to challenge me as much as I felt I had challenged myself in high school—because if you went to public school, especially in Kentucky, you know that freshman through senior year often consisted of having to find your own motivation. I wanted to feel like I fit into a school where everyone cared as much as I did about what they were involved in, what they were learning and in what direction they wanted to take their future. Sorry, but just going to the safe choice school in my hometown didn’t exactly fit that bill for me. The moment I committed to Centre College, the school became the idealized version of a community that fit my vision of who I wanted to be.
Well, I may have patted myself on the back a little too soon when it came to reaching that shiny version of myself, as Dr. Fabritius’ Econ 110 class quickly showed me my first semester. I struggled more than I ever had, and, between countless consolation purchases of mozzarella sticks and french fries, I began to let that struggle plant and water a small seed of doubt in my mind, which grew the more I let it affect my sense of belonging at Centre. I began asking myself questions. Why did I struggle with certain material more than my peers? Why have I not achieved any personal bests in the swimming events that I know I was recruited for? I don’t have the financial means to do all of the things and go all of the places like older students whom I admire.
Do I even belong here?
That last question continued to be a difficult one to ask. Senior year has been a time where the question of belonging has also been at the forefront of my mind as I, along with many of you, spent the fall and most of the spring flinging countless applications out into a seemingly infinite void trying to figure out our futures. Because belonging is not just a place; it’s also worth. If one feels as though their worth is rooted in being successful, be it through achieving high grades or getting a competitive internship or getting into an impressive grad school or career, it’s sometimes difficult to feel valued at an institution that requires such a high caliber of work. In that uncertainty, the question of “Do I belong here?” has the danger of shifting into a declaration of “I don’t belong here.”
As a first-year student, I thought that “success” is what would keep that shift from happening. But upon reflection, I realized that it’s never been about how well I am making it but who I am making it with: my peers. Whenever I doubted my worth, place or ability, I always had someone to look me in the eye and say, “you are enough.” There is nothing more reassuring than knowing that someone believes in your potential. A friend that holds an unwavering, and maybe stubborn, belief in my potential is Leah Kelly ’19. She introduced me a couple years ago to the concept of “lifting as you climb.” This phrase was originally coined by Mary Church Terrell, an African American suffragist and civil rights activist who advocated fiercely for an end to racial discrimination in the United States. Her full quote says this:
“And so, lifting as we climb, onward and upward we go, struggling and striving, and hoping that the buds and blossoms of our desires will burst into glorious fruition ‘ere long.”
Mary Church Terrell knew that in order to accomplish something great, one can’t presume to simply climb to the top and accomplish all their goals. You’re going to falter, you’re going to have bad days, and you’re going to feel as though you don’t belong. I know that many students here at Centre are aware they exist within a community and yet have felt as though they have no place in it. This is why “lifting as we climb” should be the foundation for the relation that we have to one another at this school. If a sense of belonging is about place and value, we have place figured out—Centre is the perfect size and ideal structure for community. The value part is what is most central to being able to say, “I belong here.” The friendships I have made at Centre continually show me that the support and encouragement I receive is not conditional, and that extending the same support and encouragement to others, regardless of who they are, is what marries place and value. I didn’t realize how much impact that has until a wonderful classmate stopped me one day and surprised me by saying, “You’re a large part of the reason I’m still at this school.” That single sentence showed me the importance of intentionally investing in other’s place here. Although we all came to Centre to better ourselves, that betterment is lacking if it does not reach from one student to the next in a collective movement onward and upward, as opposed to feeling as though our success or belonging is only improved relative to the inverse for our peers.
So, do I belong here? Reflecting on that question has made me realize that in leaving Centre, regardless of my successes or failures in the future, I’ve had a place in a community where I was challenged, where I was strengthened and where I was ultimately empowered to say with confidence that, yes, I belonged. My hope for every student, with emphasis on every student, is that they graduate from Centre with the knowledge that they are enough, and that they can look in the mirror and picture a community of students who stood beside them, affirming them along the way that they also have a place here. And in that process, I think we discover that we can teach Centre a little bit about belonging, too. Thank you.
by Mitchell Collins ’19
May 8, 2019
*Centre Alumni mentioned in third paragraph: Dexter Horne ’16, Sara Mordancy ’16, Valentine Banor ’17, Destiny Mbachu ’17, Noah Martin ’18 and Amaryst Parks ’18.