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Convocation Essays

Convocation and The College Reads! are important focal points for each year’s incoming class.

The College’s convocation welcomes new students to the liberal arts and sciences community and encourages them to consider their own intellectual journey. This occasion also serves to familiarize incoming students with the College’s academic traditions as well as the institution’s history, symbols and mottos.

Faculty Letter to #CofC2020

October 20, 2016

Dear Class of 2020:

Your first year at the College coincides with a presidential election that in tone and tenor is like none other in modern memory. For many of you, this will be your first opportunity to vote in a presidential election and shape the future of our nation. According to the Pew Research Center, the top six issues for voters in this election are the economy, terrorism, foreign policy, health care, gun policy, and immigration--the very same issues that appear throughout the 2016 College Reads! selection, The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas, by Anand Giridharadas.

A few days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, Mark Stroman walked into a Dallas minimart and shot Raisuddin Bhuiyan in the face with the intent to kill. In the context of Stroman’s deranged retaliation, Bhuiyan’s presumed ethnicity made him a ready target, as it had for the two people Stroman had already killed. Bhuiyan, a Bangladeshi immigrant, embodied the American Dream and looked toward a future bright with opportunities. Stroman, a Texan-turned-terrorist, lived in the shadows of that same dream, one that he felt was everywhere threatened and receding into the past. The True American tells the story of these two men whose lives collided in a senseless act of violence, and whose relationship unfolded in surprising ways as it traces a long arc of crisis, struggle, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

As a way to deepen your engagement with this book over the summer, we provided you with a Reading Guide along with three questions to use in preparing your convocation essay, the basis for your discussion with a faculty member and your new classmates. We collected over 1,700 essays at convocation, which shows that you took this first assignment as a student at the College of Charleston seriously even though you did not earn a grade for your effort and you submitted your work without knowing who might read it. We read your essays and write now to share with you some of the insights you collectively offered.

The questions that we asked invited you to reflect upon how Giridharadas’s book challenges us to think about what it means to be a “true” American, and what role new ideas, new identities, and new cultures play in continually re-making America. Some of you characterized America as a dynamic patchwork of different cultures and ideas, but one at risk of coming apart at the seams as a result of suspicion, misunderstanding, and mistrust. Some of you characterized America as a nation made up largely of immigrants, observing that despite this, there is a pervasive suspicion of “others.” As members of one of our most diverse incoming classes, several of you mentioned personal experiences similar to Rais’s in which looking different resulted in additional challenges. One student expressed optimism in the face of these challenges: “I think something that my generation has the power to change is intolerance of another person based on race, religion, sexuality, gender. I want my generation to put an end to hate and senseless violence.”

As you are aware, intolerance is not the only obstacle to success in America: poverty, lack of education, and the absence of a supportive environment and of positive role models can also limit opportunities. One of you wrote, that both Rais and Mark “fall into this delusion of what the American dream is, which is no dream at all.” Others wrote about their new awareness of the America of have-nots and spoke with sadness about the struggles many US-born citizens face in a globalized economy. Another student reflected that, “while Stroman does not represent all lower-class, white Americans, he does highlight a serious issue in America’s socio-economic structure. Sometimes the system fails hard-working Americans and they give up….  Although Rais has a more optimistic perception than Mark, he also recognizes… that American opportunity and capitalism come at a price.”

We also asked you a more personal question about your own identity formation—about how you came to be the person you are today, about how you might grow into the person you hope to become. Many of you are currently living through one of the most momentous and challenging transitions you will ever face, as you begin to chart out a life with new freedoms, new responsibilities, and a new sense of independence. It’s not surprising, then, that many of you were eager to reflect on the forces—both internal and external—that shaped who you are today. Some of you referenced your own faith journeys in recognizing the need to be “grounded” by family or by guiding principles. There are some aspects of your collective pasts—addiction and assault, divorce and depression—that, as one student put it, “I wish to discard from my identity, but cannot; they have simply made me who I am.” This note of acceptance signaled a powerful self-awareness and persistence in many of your essays. But how does one persist? This author continues: “Other things, though, like my independence and creativity, are aspects of myself that that I will definitely embrace and share with my friends. I think that each person should hold with them the pieces of themselves that make them their own person, and work to handle the parts that may not be so positive.” This work of holding close what you can control and managing what you cannot to the best of your ability is a challenge many of you indicated you are ready to take on.

Several of you noted that attending the College of Charleston would give you the opportunity to meet peers of more diverse backgrounds, but that to interact with them might require stepping outside your comfort zone. We encourage you to take advantage of the opportunities the College and the Charleston community offer to engage the issues the nation and the world face, listen closely, learn from others, keep an open mind and remain respectful—then get involved.

In fact, you have an opportunity this afternoon to participate in the student-led FYE Diversity Workshop (5:00-7:00 p.m. in 104 Berry Residence Hall). After that, there are countless student organizations on campus with whom you can explore diversity of religions, ideas, politics, and cultures. Get to know some of them, and choose one to join.

On Monday, October 24, we hope to see you at  “An Evening with Anand Giridharadas,” the free public lecture at 7:00 p.m. in the Sottile Theater. Raisuddin Bhuiyan will be participating in the Q/A with Mr. Giridharadas. Bring a friend so that you can continue the dialogue with someone close to you.

In conclusion, one of your classmates stated, “With the rest of my generation, I believe the best way to make positive change is by using our privilege of democracy. . . . Turning up to vote at all minor and major elections to make sure the country hears your voice is the only way to ensure that our voice is heard.” We strongly encourage you to vote on November 8th. 

Sincerely,

Your Faculty 

Convocation Essay Information

The Class of 2020 Convocation Essay Questions for the book, The True American

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