Each year incoming students are given required summer reading, jump-starting their critical thinking skills on important topics. This year, in addition to the traditional meeting during Orientation with their advising groups to discuss the text, a New Student Book Panel was held for the entire Centre College community.
The event was organized by the First-year Book Committee and led by committee chair and Assistant Professor of History John Harney to discuss My Beloved World by Associate Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Her compelling journey to the Supreme Court has been hailed as the embodiment of the American Dream. Her story—a positive example of a person succeeding despite coming from a disadvantaged background—also gave students the opportunity to explore what the “American Dream” means, how achievable it is and its potential barriers.
Harney said that it is important for students to understand that “everyone has these experiences,” so he invited Centre College faculty and staff to share their stories about overcoming challenges at the panel.
“Life will not follow a smooth and predictable path after graduation,” Harney explained. “The ethnic, religious and economic diversity of the United States creates a panoply of differing experiences among Americans, and it’s important to be mindful of that, to think how it affects you and how you may in turn help shape those experiences for yourself and others.
“Sometimes you will need to break out on your own without a lot of the support structures that some students may take for granted,” he continued.
Faculty and staff participants included Admission Counselor Gregory Chery, Professor of Dramatic Arts Tony Haigh, Associate Director of Grace Doherty Library Carrie Frey, and Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science Christine Shannon.
Chery was born in Haiti and moved to Philadelphia at a young age, eventually graduating from Centre College via Boston. He said that as he gets older he realizes how important and amazing his story is, having overcome obstacles both financially and within his family.
“Having had a chance to recruit this incoming class, I hope to encourage them to share their story,” he said. “Diversity is important—we need to hear and understand other people’s stories so that we can appreciate who’s in our community and inspire others.”
Haigh grew up in working-class Manchester, England at a time when going to university, and working in the arts, was not something considered a typical enterprise for a member of his socio-economic group. In the years that followed, he found himself working at a prestigious liberal arts college in rural Kentucky.
“I wanted to share my story of a long and difficult journey through education,” Haigh said. “Access didn’t come easily. Many of our students come from backgrounds where education isn’t valued or isn’t understood.
“I am also a convert to the liberal arts approach, coming from a conservatory background and two large universities,” Haigh continued, “and I wanted to share that with first-year students who might be unsure what they have got themselves into.”
Shannon was a first-generation college student who grew up outside of Detroit. She attended Marygrove College, a small but selective women’s college where “no one batted an eye that I was interested in math, computing and physics,” she said.
She graduated first in her class and was urged by her American literature professor to pursue graduate school and become a college faculty member herself. Shannon was nominated for a Woodrow Wilson scholarship and went to the University of Michigan for an interview.
“I was quite intimated by the size of the university and by the fact that the panel of interviewers were all men,” she said. “Their first question was related to why they should support my graduate education since I would most likely marry and never really teach.”
It made Shannon realize that the affirming atmosphere of a women’s college for a young girl who was interested in math and science had been a huge blessing, and even though she didn’t receive the fellowship she went on to get her master’s and doctorate in mathematics from Purdue and then another master’s in computer science at the University of Kentucky.
Shannon said that things did not exactly work out as planned, but they turned out even better than she could have hoped.
“I have taught nearly all of my life at liberal arts colleges and have tried to offer to others the same opportunities that were offered to me by my teachers,” she explained. “One needs worthy goals and then the perseverance and single-mindedness to pursue them, but also the confidence that one can reach high and achieve much even in failures as long as you have done your best.
“I think that is the best piece of advice I can offer—it will be okay if you set worthy goals, work hard and do your best,” Shannon concluded.
Frey had dreams of becoming a physical therapist in order to help others. In her senior year of high school, however, she shadowed a physical therapist and saw a 4-year-old burn victim in extreme distress and decided it was not a path for which she was suited.
“I began college with no plan and the feeling that I had given up on my dream; I really felt lost for the first year or so,” she said.
She majored in secondary education with an emphasis in history and English literature and, after graduation, was an art therapist for a year before getting married and moving. After her children were old enough to attend elementary school, she began working at Centre in the library as the interlibrary loan coordinator. She decided to go back to school for her master’s degree in order to be qualified for the position of research and instruction librarian, and Frey is now the associate director of Grace Doherty Library.
“I really love my job, and if I could go back in time, I would tell my younger self to hang in there—everything is going to work out just fine,” Frey said.
“My main point is that sometimes the road to your dream is circuitous and full of stops and starts,” she concluded, “but the foundation that is established with a liberal arts education will allow you to navigate these twists and turns with aplomb.”
by Elise L. Murrell
Sept. 18, 2015