One Last Thank You Letter

By Pooja Shah

Imagine this. A young lady: a high school graduate, who’s lived all her life in Minnesota and built a wide network of friends as she’s grown up. She’s born and raised “Minnesota Nice” and she’s excited to attend the University of Minnesota with her closest friends. She knows who she’ll be rooming with, and that some of her pals are across the superblock, so she probably won’t have to worry about eating lunches alone for her first few weeks. She’s excited to make new friends, start the next stage of growing up, and visit home over the weekends when she misses her parents and pets.

Now, imagine this. A young lady who was raised in an island town in East Africa. She attended the same school since the age of five—made of only 300 students—and became family with her graduating class of 15 students. She made the decision to be the only one from the graduating class to travel to the United States to pursue higher education, to leave her family and leave her home. She wanted to experience something bigger than her hometown, to meet new people, immerse herself in a new environment, and see what opportunities were awaiting her in the great Western World.

I’m sure many of you can relate to one of those scenarios. Some of us are Minnesotans forever and always, while some of us have adopted Gopher pride and spirit since being welcomed to the University of Minnesota. The latter scenario is mine. I am the young lady from Mombasa, Kenya. I come from savannah sunsets and silhouettes of majestic jungle beasts. I come from the foamy shores of the Indian Ocean and vibrant coral reefs. I come from red beads on Maasai, crowded streets of drenched melanin, and clay and stone buildings.

I was a girl who wanted the bigger, the brighter, and the so-called better. My mother is a University of Minnesota alum, and she told me that if I pursued the United States, I was going to be a golden gopher like her. In fact, the University of Minnesota was the only school I applied to. It was fate.

My freshman year was a whirlwind, like many of ours were. I experienced change—lots of it. I had to adapt to a new way of speaking English, to college curricula, to a whole new world of freedom and friendships. I was so busy navigating these things that I almost did not have time to attend to my homesickness. Amidst all of this business, there was one thing that I was certain of: with all this change and new search for belonging, finding my identity and finding people who could make my community, I knew I was an outsider. I was an outsider and I longed deeply to belong.

I write this letter today to share one message: throughout my years at the University of Minnesota, YOU helped me belong. You welcomed me. You helped me thrive and grow. Throughout my overwhelming experiences of change, I found people who were willing to sit by me, to ask me about my opinion, to just share a meal. You helped me battle homesickness and feel at home in Minneapolis. You helped me gain confidence in my voice. You told me that my differences made me who I am today, and you loved me for it. I found purpose forged in me even when I was an outsider.

Today, in this country, outsiders exist in vast numbers among us all. Whether you come from a different country, a different culture or simply identify with something that is outside the common societal norms or expectations, you may feel like an outsider. This past year we’ve seen some frightening acts of discrimination, racism, homophobia, lack of respect towards the LGBTQ community, islamophobia, anti-Semitic remarks, and all sorts of demeaning and degrading acts of dehumanization towards people who are “different” and to those that seem like outsiders. Some outsiders among us have not been given their chance to belong; they have not been welcomed or been given the opportunity to thrive. If we distinguish the outsiders among us, and continue to disadvantage them, then, as a nation, we are facing great pitfalls: a failing economy, disenfranchising families and communities, and lack of unity. Without those that bring differences and unique character, we become a robotic machine that follows the system’s enforced rules, and lose the minds that we call our own.

My experience in CLA has been one that has taught me to embrace my identity as an outsider. I see myself and all of you before me as adults who think critically, who ask important questions, who respect diversity and equity, and lead courageous conversations about our purpose in the world. Together, we opened our eyes, ears and minds to the virtues of tolerance, empathy, and respect for others. We have become  hard-working citizens of our communities. I’ve witnessed so many of my dear friends confront the controversies of our time–whether relating to the environment, cultural diversity, social justice, ethnic strife, gender relations, or foreign policy. I’ve witnessed the spirit of willing participation, unquestioning cooperation, warmth, openness, and the celebration of collective gifts for the community. I witnessed fellow student leaders build bridges, not walls. My experience with the CLA’s community is one of finding my belonging and finding my home. I’m inspired by all of you, and I thank you so dearly for these lessons.

I live through the philosophy of “Ubuntu”, a Nguni word that means “the quality of being human.” This African proverb reveals a worldview that we owe our selfhood to others, that we are first and foremost social beings and that no one is an island. A person is a person through other people. In its essence, CLA taught me Ubuntu. CLA and its values taught me that together, we are our strongest unit and we can overcome anything that comes our way. Together, we can righteously serve our current communities and keep serving our future communities as we step out into the next chapter.

I write this letter as a graduating senior, ready to embark for the “real world.” I leave one of my favorite poems by David Whyte, entitled “Everything is Waiting for You.”  

 

Your great mistake is to act the drama

as if you were alone. As if life

were a progressive and cunning crime

with no witness to the tiny hidden

transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny

the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,

even you, at times, have felt the grand array;

the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding

out your solo voice You must note

the way the soap dish enables you,

or the window latch grants you freedom.

Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.

The stairs are your mentor of things

to come, the doors have always been there

to frighten you and invite you,

and the tiny speaker in the phone

is your dream-ladder to divinity.

Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into

the conversation. The kettle is singing

even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots

have left their arrogant aloofness and

seen the good in you at last. All the birds

and creatures of the world are unutterably

themselves. Everything is waiting for you.

 

Pooja Shah