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.
Banor, an international studies major from Boston, Massachusetts, is a Posse Scholar, a Centre Ambassador for the College’s admissions office and a library manager. He is a former treasurer of Phi Kappa Tau and a former member of Centre’s dance club, Moments in Motion. Following graduation, he will attend Carnegie Mellon University in an MBA entertainment business program.
The reason why I called my parents is because, sadly, they are not here today. Yesterday was also my mom’s birthday. The last time they were on campus was four years ago to drop me off for orientation. So much time has passed, and a lot has changed. That’s what I’d like to talk to you all about today: change—how much we’ve change and how much campus has changed.
First, I want to begin my speech by, of course, thanking all of you. Thank you for giving me another paper to write. No, but really there is no reason for just me to be standing here when there are multiple seniors who have achieved greater success than my own. My time here at Centre has shown me that there are multiple avenues to reach whatever goal you have. I have met amazing people with diverse passions. By being around you all, you’ve taught me not only about myself but also about what amazing people are out there in the world. I mention this because I am not originally from Kentucky, yet alone the United States. Looking back, never would I have thought I’d be attending a small liberal arts college in Kentucky. And if you told me that I would be speaking in front of my peers, I would have called you crazy. For this speech, there are multiple ideas and topics I would like to touch upon, but first it would help if I would start from the beginning.
[Now this is a story all about how my life got flipped upside down and I’d like to take a minute, just sit real still, and I’ll tell you how I became a kid in a town called Danville.]
No, but really, I am here solely from luck. You see, I come from a family of Nigerian immigrants. When I was two, my dad won a visa lottery that allowed us to come to the U.S. Throughout my life, I never had a problem admitting I was an immigrant, and I still don’t. In fact, growing up it was celebrated. But due to today’s political climate, it has somehow become a heavily charged word. At an early age my parents instilled in me that education was the way to achieve whatever you wanted. When the time came for me to select where I was going to college, my older brother who was a Posse scholar at Hamilton College, said to me, “You look like a Centre kid.” Then, when I googled Centre College, I saw it was further south than I’d ever been before. I looked at him, and I was like, “Bruh…are you serious?” Months later I received a call from the Posse Foundation saying I’d be attending Centre College with nine other students who would be my Posse. Upon meeting these other students, I thought to myself, wow there’s no way I can relate to these people. Little did I know that they would become the closest thing I had to family on this campus. And with the love and help of our fearless leader Pam Baughman, we would be ready for whatever Centre threw at us.
Kentucky and Centre have shaped me into the person you see standing in front of you today. I’ve learned many lessons in the classroom, whether studying history with Stephen Dove, learning about music from Nathan Link or attempting to stay awake in Ravi’s econ class. I was able to expand my knowledge of the world further than I would anywhere else. But my greatest source of knowledge happened outside the classroom, from meeting people like you. But this journey was not always this easy. I remember my freshman year, I was at the checkout line at the local Wal-Mart, a week after move-in day. I was pumped and ready to hang up my posters in my room, and I was wearing my Centre College shirt. A lady in front of me turned around and seemed a bit startled, probably because a tall black man was standing behind her. The irony of this all was I was probably the nicest person she’d ever meet that day. Anyway, the cashier saw my Centre shirt and said, “ Don’t be scared, he’s educated.” I was like, “Whoa! What did this lady say?” At the time I was angry and hurt, and it made me feel like an outsider, sort of how the Fresh Prince felt when he went to Bel-Air. I tell you this story to let you know that as a person who had never traveled south of Massachusetts before, I encountered the thing I feared the most in moving to Kentucky — overt ignorance. In that moment, I wanted nothing to do with Centre or Kentucky. It took meeting people from Lexington, Louisville, Richmond, Murray, Paducah and, of course, Danville to help me change how I felt about Kentucky. But, I, myself, needed to change as well. I needed to enter each situation not assuming every person I met from Kentucky was like the lady I met at Wal-Mart. I honestly now call this place my second home, because a lot of my closest friends are from here. Even though I’m confident that I belong here, I know there are some people in this very room who are uncertain that they will have the same experience.
Everyone at Centre College has a story, some of which are harder to share than my own. I know people sitting in this room who worry not just about their place at Centre but in our country because they are Muslim, immigrants or because of their sexual orientation. I also know that there are compassionate people in this room across the political spectrum that worry about the well-being of their neighbors. It feels as though the world has changed a lot since November. But the one thing that never changes is the fact that the way you treat people will always have an impact. I believe that the past couple of months have shown me how important it is to listen to the “other side.” A quote I once heard from Trevor Noah said, “The antidote to ignorance is travel.” With Centre being high in the ranks of study abroad, we are no strangers to travel. But look around you…look at the people sitting in front of you and next to you. You don’t need to travel far to gain knowledge and a perspective from another person. That’s the beauty of college. Most issues are not black and white, and there is a spectrum of perspectives on all topics. We can no longer afford to isolate and polarize each other or be uninformed about what is going on in the world. Just because we don’t have the same view on a topic does not mean we cannot talk to one another. In fact, this gives us ever more reason to talk. But the one thing better than talking, is listening. I wouldn’t be who I am today if I did not actively attempt to develop my listening skills.
This place has given us wonderful opportunities to expand our knowledge, our passions and brighten our futures. Though we will be forever grateful for what we have learned here and the countless opportunities, we all know that the school is not perfect. Here’s the thing, we talk about Centre College as an entity, but we are Centre College. We make strides to hold ourselves accountable. We host common hour meetings with the Muslim Student Association to hear their views on what we can do to improve our experiences as a whole. Centre Republicans and Democrats meet to debate issues that affect all of us. Since I’ve been here, we held our first “Take Back the Night” event this year to address sexual assault on campus, an issue that affects all of us. We do research for Grace Café in order to address systemic poverty. We hosted a Sustained Dialog event to teach ourselves how to have difficult conversations. We had a community-wide basketball tournament in order to pop the Centre bubble and strengthen our relationships as a community. All these actions are not easy feats. We don’t do these things because we don’t like Centre. In fact, we do it because we care so much. We want to welcome and include international students, people of all races and sexual orientations, and all disabilities. That way we can continue expanding our knowledge of the world beyond reading from a textbook. So I challenge everyone here today, students and faculty, to pursue and aid in one of these categories. Get to know those around you, from classmates to Miss Sue, to Charlotte and Tony. And if you don’t know these names I just mentioned, did you really go to Centre? The only way we can truly give back to our community and each other is by listening to each other.
Which leads me to my last story that happened years before I came to Centre. When I was in fourth grade, a kid came up to my friends’ lunch table and asked if he could join us. Being myself, I said, “Sure, why not.” That kid later became my friend, and we graduated high school together. After graduation, he said to me, “Val, remember in fourth grade when I asked to sit at lunch with you?” and I said, “Yeah.” He told me that on that day he was planning to commit suicide. My first thought was wow, was eating lunch with me so bad? And he said, of course not—it was because, in that time, he was bullied a lot and felt as though nothing mattered anymore. To me, for someone that young to be thinking of taking his own life is a hard thought to wrap my head around. But, it was something personal he was going through that no one knew anything about. The fact is, everyone has a story they feel they cannot share. It could be a professor who is a single parent but still manages to teach 30 students everyday, or an outgoing person who, on the surface, may be fine, but deals with depression. We need to take the time to listen. Listening is being present for others. It is including, instead of excluding. So Centre College, as my time here comes to an end, I remind you as you achieve success: listen, be kind and be humble.
by Valentine Banor
May 3, 2017