Congratulations to Oberlin's Class of 2015. Some of you guys became family over the past two years and your presence on Oberlin's campus will be missed by so many. I am so thankful for your encouragement in my times of need and all the knowledge you have given me. I know that transitioning into a new phrase of life is scary but I have faith in each and every one of you.
In my senior year of high school, I was blessed with the POSSE scholarship. POSSE means that I was granted full tuition, matched to Oberlin by Oberlin administrators who found me likeable, and I had 9 other students plus a mentor to walk with me on my journey through college. As a requirement of this scholarship, I had to endure 8 months of pre-collegiate training - which was a lot of community-building exercises with my group of Obies; multiple retreats - one with my posse before college and 3-4 with the entire Oberlin Posse community and our friends; plus 2 years of 2-hour meetings. Which is/was a lot for me to handle - but hey, I needed the scholarship.
POSSE - or maybe it was my mentors - somehow make scholars share our most intimate thoughts, cry, have a talent show, and eat food - it sounds depressing but it can be cleansing and fun. During the retreat before entering Oberlin, we were asked to sit down and write a letter to ourselves. We were to write about our lives then, our worries for the future, our hopes during Oberlin and after, who we wanted to be and who or what we were leaving behind.
I'll be honest with you - I hated these workshops. I do not like being emotional in front of people because during my entire life I've been taught that crying was a sign of weakness. To avoid being vulnerable, I have multiple defense mechanisms that are easily accessible to me that include: anger, self-isolation, or I make jokes about the situation. This letter required me to share my innermost feelings about leaving home and going to Oberlin, which made me very anxious. I didn't want to admit to myself that I was afraid, that I was not confident in my final decision to embark on this journey, I was ashamed of leaving my family to pursue my dreams - what even were my dreams? Could I - a girl from the Englewood area of Chicago - achieve my dreams? I knew at that time that I loved psychology and I wanted to be able to help children - but I really didn't have a plan to achieve that. With all these thoughts, I goofed off the letter, thinking "Hey, I'm not going to read this anytime. I doubt if I ever see it again."
I was absolutely wrong.
At the end of my last POSSE meeting ever, I received my letter. Here is what it said:
College will be hard - there is no way around it. You have chosen this path to gain more knowledge and become something great one day. You are a talented girl with a lot of experience that gives you a unique insight of the world around you. You just don't know things; you use your knowledge as a tool to help guide you through life.
Let me make things even clearer for you - you don't have any other choice but to succeed. Just like high school - you came, you saw, and you conquered. You cannot give up, but I know you wouldn't let yourself do that; nevertheless, I want you to remember that. You are a fighter - physically as well as intellectually...Be creative...
P.S HAVE A LITTLE FUN AND SMILE - Your last name is Smylie.
You see, I was pretty honest with myself. I knew that college was hard - I just didn't know how hard. However, I knew that I was going to get through it. To congratulate myself on becoming a junior in college, I want to write another letter to myself.
You made it to your third year at Oberlin! Congrats on making it halfway through college! Two years ago you were a scared girl from the south side of Chicago embarking on a new journey. You knew that it was going to be hard because you understood that you were not properly prepared to attend a private, predominately white, elite school like Oberlin. However, despite all the odds, you are making it through. You have grown academically and as an individual. You sure aren't that quiet, laid-back girl from high school. You are more confident than ever, even though you have your self-doubt days (don't we all?). You have become outspoken and unapologetic - that makes a true leader.
Do you remember that first week of classes when you had a mini panic attack? You said to yourself, "I'm not smart like these other kids! They know more than me, they have a bigger vocabulary than I do. What am I even doing here?" Do you also remember that time when you talked to your sociology professor about your insecurities? She said to you, "To be honest with you, they are not able to use those 'big words' either. They are only using them to impress me and/or other professors. Just do your best" (this isn't a direct quote, but they said something to this effect). From that day on, you allowed yourself to learn. You said to yourself, "Honey, if you knew everything, you would already have your Ph.D." You remember the first time you failed an exam? Yeah, it completely knocked you off guard. I know it hurt your self-esteem. You were depressed for the entire second half of your first year. But it made you focus on working harder (which became a little obsessive). Now when you have an assignment, you are completely dedicated to the task. This is like super cliché, but you had to fail early in your college career in order to grow. You always say that you aren't equal to your white peers, but did you know that just by being in classes and speaking about your experiences as a Black, low-income, 1st generation woman, you are equal. You have taught people around you so much and by telling your story other marginalized students have someone that they can relate to. You have experiences that people only read about in books. Your presence in a classroom is needed. Your experiences need to be heard more. You are equal. You are good enough. I am so proud of you for switching your major (yeah I switched from Psychology to History) to something that stimulates you academically and connects to you on a personal level - this shows your personal growth. YOU GO GIRL.
In high school, you were that girl who walked your own path. You had plenty of chances to be like everyone else, but you decided that going to college was your biggest priority. This alienated you from your peers. People in high school only saw you as "the smart girl," the "good girl," "little Ms. Perfect." The only things that mattered to them was your academic accomplishments. They excluded you and ridiculed you - but not in college. Nevertheless, you found some awesome friends. They are your study buddies, your academic advisors, your therapists, and much more. Your friends are your family. Your family don't just see you as your academic accomplishments but as Sammie - the shady, crazy, fun, insightful, perfectly imperfect person that you are. Your friends are your support system - you don't ever have to feel alone anymore.
After switching to History and picking a career choice that fits you (which is radio journalism, so you can tell stories of Women of Color and their struggles), I've seen you come alive. You've been doing everything to make other people happy or to just pass. You always wanted a challenge and college has been the biggest challenge you have faced so far. You are succeeding, honey. I know it is hard. I remember those long phone calls with mom - where you would cry for hours. I've seen the tears on your pillow after you silently cried yourself to sleep many nights. Keep fighting, Sammie, and promise me something. Promise me that you won't minimize your accomplishments for anyone. Let your light shine and those who love you will embrace it.
P.S Don't forget to smile, laugh, have fun, and get out of the library every once in a while! Academics will burn you out if you don't recharge with a little fun.
I know the summer before college can be a lot to handle. If there are questions that you have, please let me know. Even though I am a junior, I remember, vividly, my summer before college. Have a great day.