2018 Contest Winners

#UMassDBelieves | Class of 2021 Provost Essay Contest Winners

Saheedat Bello | 2018, THIS we BELIEVE 1ST PLACE ESSAY WINNER

Letter to My Dear Friend Fear

Dear Fear,

Why do you have to be like this? Why do you have to be so obstinate? Gripping me tightly like I’m the only one you could ever be with. You pose as a leech, sucking on every drop of confidence I have. Fear, you are ill-luck. You chaperoned me to Courage’s house, as if you wanted me to be better, as if you wanted the best for me. But you took me by the ear and dragged me out of his house, saying he looked at me somehow.

Remember in eighth grade when I was the new kid from Nigeria? You know, the kid with the funny accent. The kid you had permeated so much that she was afraid to speak–afraid to socialize. The kid who at the early age of twelve suffered from anxiety and severe culture shock. Each time I mustered up enough strength to speak, you choked me, reminding me that I did not speak like my peers did, and for this I would be jeered at. All because of you, Fear!

You left me with two options: that I either succumb to your will and remain paralyzed by you or, be like my warrior ancestors and conquer you. Fear, I wanted you to be temporary.

Right now, I am in search of Joy. I want Joy in my life, forever. With your gigantic stature and voice as deep as the ocean depths, you made Joy petrified and forced her to leave. Fear, you stood in my way like a concrete block, refusing to budge. Oh, how the thought of you makes me nauseous!

I no longer want to be a slave on your plantation. I no longer want you to come to my rescue whenever I try to drown. If I need to be rescued, Fear, I forbid it to be by you.

I made a promise to myself not to let my faith wander away. But you proved to be strong-headed, again, when you abducted Faith and dragged her up the hill of doubt before throwing her off the cliff, without mercy.

Fear, at this point, you made me realize that there needs to be a way out. So, I found several way out.

They go by the names Ambition, Peace, and Confidence. These are my partners in success. Who introduced me to them? Happiness did. Ambition said that if I agreed to be friends with Confidence, she would take me anywhere I wanted to go. Peace said she has to be my friend because without her, my relationship with Ambition and Confidence will be meaningless. Friendship with these three set me free from your grasp. Their grip on me is stronger than yours, Fear. With them by my side, I will conquer you. I still have you to thank because I wouldn’t have found them if you hadn’t pushed me to the wall.

Go your own way, Fear. Don’t bother writing me. Friendship has promised to help me locate Joy. I have plans with Ambition, Peace, and Confidence. The catapults of weakness you fired my way no longer hurt me. They will fade like our relationship. I shall heal, you will see.

Lydia R. Touchette | 2018, THIS We BELIEVE 2nd PLACE ESSAY WINNER

Restorative Stillness

I believe that there is something inexplicably enchanting about an early morning by a lake. I can’t say for sure that it is the fog drifting slowly over calm water, or the melodies of lonely birds drifting through the air, or even the stillness as the world waits to exhale. But I do know that if you look hard enough, you are able to find a woodsy kingdom so far separated from the obligations of the modern world that it is as if you enter into a new realm.

Whether it be for a day or a week, it is so important to disconnect and find yourself. When I step out onto the porch of that lodge every morning, I can inhale and taste the majesty of the stillness. It reminds me that there are more important things than the hyper-connectedness of today. Who truly cares where I am and what I am doing at every moment of the day?

Every year, I spend a week or two away from the pressure to remain glued to my phone. As impossible as it seems, I feel renewed afterward. For just as the rain falling now will wash away the grime of past few days, I experience a type of baptism through the stillness there. I feel my soul renewing itself as the old passes away; the worries of the daily rat race do not seem to matter as much.

I truly believe that stillness and reflection are blatantly disregarded in our world today. We are able to learn so much about ourselves through time spent alone, but instead we pass on the peace in order to forcefully fill our minds with fluff. I am a proponent of reflection in order to better understand who we are as individuals. For me, I believe deep soul-searching and powerful prayer is best achieved through time in nature.  It may be that my faith in God shapes how important nature is to me. I believe that He created it all for us to enjoy and, while modern technology has supplemented our lives in so many ways, it has also taken away our ability to breathe freely. We need to go back to where we are from in order to experience this type of renewal. It is not going to come through a cleanse, or a multitude of perfect Instagram photos. It is not going to come through mindless hours in front of a tv, or through a fad we follow. But rather, it will come through the time we take to disconnect and find out who we really are.

I believe that we have lost so much through over reliance on technology. Why don’t you take a moment to actually experience life? I believe that the stillness of nature can be mirrored in the time we take to understand who we truly are. I believe that we can truly learn so much about ourselves when we take the time to think for ourselves.

Ny’Asia President | 2018, THIS We BELIEVE 3rd PLACE ESSAY WINNER

I Believe in Self-Confidence

I remember every day felt never-ending. I woke up daily at five o’clock in the morning, which, as a five-year-old, took a while to adjust to. At the end of the day, I would get home around four-thirty in the afternoon. When I started to swim competitively in high school, I would arrive home at around nine o’clock at night at the earliest and eleven o’clock at the latest. By the time I arrived home, most people would be getting ready to go to sleep, but I, on the other hand, was just beginning to start my homework.

METCO is a program intended to expand educational opportunities and increase diversity, allowing students in certain cities to attend public schools in other communities. However, being a METCO student, attending a predominantly white institution twenty-five miles away from home, has challenged me and the different elements of my life as a black woman.  

I found myself being the only black student in my classes and the only black girl in my group of friends. I began to compare myself with others, which lead to me being self-conscious about my body, looks, and hair. I’d always watch my friends shop in Hollister, and I broke my combs trying to put my hair into a ponytail. I attempted to change my looks to fit the ideal beauty standard, but no matter what, I still was unhappy.

I came back to school one day after the weekend. The halls were crowded, and the chaos was normal. I could feel a few heads turn their attention away from their conversations. I just smiled back and kept walking. My hair had broken the tie and clouded loose behind me. That morning I spent no time worrying about what products to put on my face. The purple, cropped tee and frayed skinny jeans I wore complimented every inch of my curves. Everything, from the way I held myself to the poised smile, said “I can do anything.”

Days prior, I had spoken to one of my biggest role models. “I don’t think I’m pretty,” I told my mother. “I don’t have hazel eyes or long straight hair.” She always listened to my words. “No,” she responded. “You don’t. You have eyes like the night, deep and mysterious, and hair like the wind, wild and free. You do not look like everyone’s definition of pretty. You look like my definition of beautiful.”

I believe that loving yourself isn’t conceit, its love. Love means acceptance, kindness, encouragement, and care. With love, doubt disappears, fears fade, and there’s even comfort that develops in being alone. I believe you’ll help to heal and inspire others just by being yourself. You’ll help someone to discover that it’s possible for them to do, too.

#UMassDBelievesClass of 2022 Provost Contest Honorable Mentions
Lily Cayce | 2018, THIS We BELIEVE Finalist

Perseverance

I believe in perseverance in the face of adversity.

The moment I walked through the door, a feeling of great grief overcame me. I painfully looked into my mother’s expressionless, glazed eyes, and I knew this was going to be the last time I would see her. I sat there for two hours saying my goodbyes, but even if I sat there for an eternity it still would not be enough time. When I think of the night my mother passed away, an immediate feeling of anguish takes over, but thankfully is quickly replaced with appreciation for all she did. My mother was able to help me become an independent, self-sufficient lady.

My mother had severe depression and bipolar disorder, and was diagnosed with melanoma cancer. She had many oppressive conditions that caused my quality of life to suffer as well. I was thrown into these chaotic situations without a choice. In which I created an illusion where I was a part of the cause and her passing was the effect. For the longest time, I felt guilty for her death, and that I could have done something to keep her alive. I was unnecessarily accusing myself because I was in a vulnerable position. I refused to accept that I was vulnerable, because I was strong for my mom for so long that the feeling of being powerless felt foreign. Through her uncontrollable diagnosis I learned that it was alright to be vulnerable because most things will not come easy to me. Sometimes we do not have a choice and we have to find a way to be happy with the cards we are dealt.

She was diagnosed with melanoma cancer when I was only 12 years old. I not only became the caretaker to my mother; I also had to step up and take care of my disabled brother. Three short years after she passed away, June 27th, 2015. I had just ended my freshman year and was being sat down in front of a counselor to decide where I was going to live. Either stay in Colorado and live with my brother, or move to Rhode Island to live with my sister. With no time to cope, I packed my bags and flew out to start my sophomore year in the unknown. The first week of school was the hardest week I had ever gone through in my life. I was the new kid, and nobody really seemed like they wanted to take me under their wing. Not only was I still trying to find a way to cope with my mother’s death, but I had to go to school everyday and act like everything was okay just to get through the day. Everything had happened so fast; within months I was motherless, friendless, and alienated amongst my own peers.

Through the disadvantageous life I shared with my mother and brother, I learned how to lead my life in a more successful direction. In high school I have had to learn how to manage my own schedule, budget, and priorities in order to successfully get through my day-to-day life. I have become the strong and independent woman my mother would have wanted to see grow up. I currently have a full time, and a part time job to pay for my car, books, and supplies for the upcoming academic year. My life and who I am would have been different if she did not pass, but since I have moved to Rhode Island, I have developed and been further molded into a woman with the help of my sister. The base that my mother left was the foundation for my sister’s further instruction. Perseverance is surviving the tragedy, the grief, the struggle, and somehow finding a way to be happy again.

Marcel Vieira | 2018, THIS We BELIEVE Finalist

Keeping Things in Perspective

One day, I realized the importance of being able to have a conversation. I was sitting in my physics class having a discussion with two of my friends when they both erupted into an intense debate. Both were shouting, trying to speak over the other to change the opinion of their opposition at all cost. In this chaos it hit me: they weren’t communicating. They were both speaking but neither listened to what the other was saying. At this point, I reflected on a Ted talk I had watched a few months prior, and I finally understood why the speaker had emphasized listening so much during the presentation. Here in front of me were two people engaged in a so-called conversation, each completely oblivious to what the other was saying. Had they sat and listened as I had been doing, they would have noticed that valid points were made on both sides and that the topic of discussion was not as black and white as they assumed. After a good half an hour of bickering, my friends got absolutely nowhere, with the only change being that both sides were now angry that they failed to change the other’s mind.

Later that day, I went home I sat alone with my thoughts. Why was it that they felt that they had an obligation to change one another’s minds? What my friends were doing was by no mean a conversation; a conversation is supposed to be an exchange of information. They both only listened long enough to come to the conclusion that their beliefs were under attack, instantly putting them in defensive positions where, rather than digesting the thoughts given to them by the other person, they denounced that person immediately in order to protect their own beliefs. Why was it that they had such different opinions on a similar subject in the first place? There was only one thing I could think of: perspective. They were both looking at the issue from different angles. For example, what is the first thing that comes to mind as a use for a knife? A soldier may see it as a weapon, while a chef may see it as a tool for preparing food. Neither person is wrong; they just look at the world differently. That is what was happening all over the globe and right in front of my eyes, with my two friends fighting over their political opinions. This thought process led me to the conclusion that the point of a conversation is not to change someone’s mind, but to provide them with a new perspective to allow them to further understand the subject.

Now understanding the importance of perspective, I felt refreshed like a changed man. I stopped bickering with people I disagreed with and instead listened. I tried to understand why they felt the way they felt, and only when I felt I understood their perspective did I proceed to share mine. Once I began doing this, what once would have been senseless arguing over politics turned into amazing conversations where I walked away feeling more informed and less critical of the other person even if I still did not agree. It is for this reason that I feel that having a conversation and trying to gain perspective is so important.

Ayman Abdelkhareem | 2018, THIS We BELIEVE Finalist

Being African American

When you think of African-American, you usually think of someone being black. Well, I’m African-American, but I’m also literally African: my family is Sudanese. Having to appease both cultures while remaining true to myself used to feel like a chore. Do I not have the lingo and swagger my culture possesses? What can I do to avoid being judged before I can even open my mouth and share my thoughts? I was lost in this murky sea of confusion and I didn’t know what to believe. But I hadn’t noticed this burden initially. Not until I was forced out of my home at age eight. Not until the night my house burned down, displacing my family and me completely. From hotel to hotel, and eventually from family member to family member, we were forced to become freeloaders. And although my family didn’t seem to mind, I minded. And my experiences staying with different family members exposed me to the truths about the two cultures I share.

Staying with my mom’s parents, I saw how much “real” Africans love worship. I remember being in the mosque and not knowing a word spoken. A mix of the Arabic and Swahili language took up the atmosphere, and I felt out-of-place and overwhelmed. We prayed five times a day and before and after everything: after every meal, every time we slept and every time we woke up. God forbid I missed a prayer; all the repentance in the world wouldn’t be enough to make up for it. Religion and etiquette were everything you needed to become a proper African. They would always remind me: “Mungu kimsahau umejisahau,” meaning he who has forgotten God, has forgotten himself.

The period that I had to stay with my father’s side of the family was a big transition. My father’s side of the family were the kind of Sudanese people who had integrated into African-American society and had forgotten their African roots. They were loud and proud, and I knew to be on my toes when in a room with them. My quietness was a weakness which they thought needed to be remedied. Being the son of my Dad who was “notorious” for being the blunt one in the family, I had especially big shoes I had to fill. And I wasn’t doing a good job at it. But I eventually learned to get out of my comfort zone, and along the way I gained more confidence as I stayed with them. Having cousins around my age was perfect practice, and I was able to gain the wit I have today. I was able to learn the art of finesse.

Reflecting on my situations, I had learned to perfect “code-switching.” The transition between both sides was a little more smooth, and I realized that I fit in both groups. Trying to fit into only one group wouldn’t be who I am. I gradually learned to embrace both. I love African fried dough called mandazi as much as I love the deep-fried, unhealthy but amazing food my dad’s side of the family in Detroit would make. I learned to appreciate both my names: Ayman– which was assigned to me at birth and Rubia, my Sudanese tribal name, passed down to me from my grandfather, and passed on from those who came before him.

I have learned that both of these cultures make me, me. Whether it’s the goofy personality I’ve obtained from my Dad’s side, or the ethics and religion from my mom’s side, I know today what it means to be both African and American.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.