History Means Something

In celebration of the 323rd Birthday of the College, Humans of William & Mary presents to you a series of reflections on the Charter. Here we discussed the following quotes from the Charter:

“…that the youth may be piously educated in good letters and manners, and that the Christian faith may be propagated amongst the Western Indians, to the glory of Almighty God; to make, found and establish a certain place of universal study, or perpetual College of Divinity, Philosophy, Languages, and other good Arts and Sciences, consisting of one President, six Masters or Professors, and an hundred scholars more or less, according to the ability of the said college, and the statutes of the same.”

What do you think of these quotes? We can start from the first one.

The first one is interesting, because it talks about the Christian faith and propagating that among Western Indians, etc. At this point, we are a public university, and so those things are not a part of campus at all any more. There is no religious affiliation. You know, the cross was taken down from Wren a few years back and there was a whole scandal about that. It’s very striking to read that that’s in the Charter, yet the daily reality of a student at William & Mary does not embody “the glory of Almighty God.” We do have a lot of active religious organizations on campus, but there is certainly an acceptance of any ideology on campus, so I think it’s not a bad thing that William & Mary today does not reflect the same idea of propagating religion, because I think it makes it a more inclusive environment. This Charter was made in 1693, and clearly that was a different time when religious connotations had a greater weight in society, so we should that evolution in a good way.

Does the Charter empower religious groups today?

The fact that the Charter speaks to religion does bear weight, in the sense that religious organizations on campus, regardless of what they may be, have the right to exist and to practice their faiths, rather than saying this is a public university and religion cannot be a part of student life in a public way. In that sense it is empowering. But there are a lot of people on campus who don’t adhere to a particular faith; they may be spiritual without prescribing to an organized religion, and I think that is now also a common thing that is completely well adopted by people of our generation. So there are both sides to the story. The Charter permits religious belief if you are interested in that, but at the same time, there is room to not be religious.

If that is not the core of the College any more, what do you think is the thing that we still inherit from the Charter?

The Charter talks about the existence of “professors and scholars, one hundred more or less.” Obviously, the College has grown considerably since that time. But I think something that William & Mary still holds very much at the core of its being is that commitment to undergraduate education, which the College definitely promotes. That has been carried forward from the Charter.

Being part of this campus community, we see history all around us. How has the history of the College shaped your experience?

The fact that the College is so old and has so much history bears a lot of significance. I remember very specifically my freshman year when we were taking the oath in the Great Hall of Wren. My OA was telling me how the marble steps to the Great Hall are actually slanted because many thousands of people have walked up the steps in taking the oath or entering that room for whatever reason. You become part of that greater historical context; you engage in the history by being in their same room and walking their same steps. It’s made me feel part of a larger community because there is so much history here. History also makes you aware of the systems of power and privilege. The College has a lot of facets to its history – involvement in the Civil War, talk of the Native Americans in the Charter itself – so I think it makes you aware that we are privileged to have a college education, and that systems of power have not always allowed people of all religions and races to have access to that. Our College has come from a different place and has moved to where we are today, becoming a much more universally accessible place now – that has shaped my experience in recognizing the diversity of opinions, beliefs and socioeconomic statuses.

You brought up the oath. Could you talk about how that sense of morality that the College tries to imbue in every student affects your academic career here?

I think that we take the oath not to lie, cheat or steal very seriously at the College. That’s played a part in academic honesty. Not that any students come here with the expectation of cheating their way through college or plagiarizing, but it holds you to an even higher standard. It is so much an honor system. You raise your hand and, with those words having come out of your mouth voluntarily, it weighs heavily upon you. It makes you aware that it is easy to share information in the wrong ways or to give people an unfair advantage. In my own personal academic experience, it gives me a greater sense of fairness – everyone being assessed equally. In high school, there wasn’t anything like that. It emphasizes the idea of making sure everyone here is on a level playing field.

Why do you think we are celebrating Charter Day?

I think it’s very special that our College still celebrates this Charter. Some people might say this document is over three hundred years old and it has no relevance to who we are today. They say it doesn’t reflect our values any more. But I think in celebrating the creation of this Charter, it helps us chart our history and track where we’ve come from, and appreciate where we are today, rather than taking that for granted. We recognize that there were people 323 years ago who made a commitment to an educational institution overseas – considering William & Mary and the new world – that’s really special. We are one of the oldest colleges in the country. That is not something that should be overlooked. There’s something to be proud of in being part of that history, and it would be a disservice to the community here to let that go, or not to keep that at the forefront of who we are.

In general, why do you think humans are so obsessed with history?

There are a lot of clichés about history like, “You have to know where you’ve come from to know where you are going.” There’s truth in these sayings. I think we are so interested in history as a culture, as a society, because it is the decisions we make that create our history. Looking back is a way to understand who we were and how it has brought to where we are today. Without understanding history, all you have is the present, which is a very decontextualized way to exist. History is foundational to any culture, because if you don’t have a history, how do you understand the values of your society, or whatever religious practices that exist, or your commitment to education and arts? Those things create culture.

What comes to you personally when people say the word “history”?

If you are not a student majoring in history or one of the humanities, at the College when you hear history, the first thing you think of is AP History, textbooks, something that might be a dry, boring conversation. But I think history, in reality, is a lively topic that has a lot of dynamic characters and a lot of interesting avenues to explore. When I think of history, I think of people more than dates or events. Even talking to my great-grandparents before they passed away, there is so much history that people have to share with you. Personal histories connect to history at large. For me, it is easier to understand history through the perspective of people than that of books or places.

You mentioned your great-grandparents. Have they told you any interesting stories?

My great-grandparents on both sides lived in Cuba. My dad was actually born in Cuba. They fled the country and came to the States when Castro rose to power. There was history – power dynamics and political ideology – behind that. We read about those in textbooks, but it’s all very real in my family. Especially nowadays, Cuba is kind of a hot topic with the lifting of the embargo. I am from Florida, and there is a large Cuban population, which is a modern-day artifact of what’s happened in Cuba. It is cool to live amidst that culture.

Back to our discussion about the College. We see in the Charter how founders of our College want some things to keep unchanged while others to morph over time. Sitting at this point in time of history, what do you think is to keep for the College and what is to change?

That’s a huge question, because you are altering over three hundred years of history. I think that we are seeing changes in current times. For example, we just had the flexible housing approved, and the all-gender bathrooms are established around campus. Positive changes have been made and are left to be made in the idea of inclusivity and acknowledging diversity. Those are changes that will be made as our generation gets more accustomed to those ideas and starts to accept them as part of daily life. Apart from that – there are so many facets of campus life – there’s been a push in recent years with mental health and suicide prevention. The College still has a long way to go in those aspects, in addition to sexual assault. There have been a lot of conversations and special teams put together. We get emails about that regularly from President Reveley. Not that those problems are unique to our campus, but I think there is always progress to be made in insuring that any academic environment is wholesome, safe and inclusive for anybody who wants to come here. Those are changes that will also be seen in future generations of students.

As for things to keep, there’s something special about the size of our campus, about the architecture and the beauty. I would hate to see the Sunken Gardens go. We’ll come back in fifty years and some iconic things will still be the same. I don’t think what gives the College its character should ever change. Also as we’ve talked about before, that commitment to undergraduates, how easy it is to get into a lab and do research with professors, to meet with them during office hours – that collaborative academic environment we have here is unique. It is not something to be meddled with in a lot of ways. The Admissions Office of William & Mary has a knack for finding very unique characters. I don’t think I’ve ever met two people on campus that are overly similar. It’s hard to say “you remind me of so and so who also goes here.” Everyone here is different in their own way. That is also something that will continue to exist.

People here are very welcoming. The Tribe is a welcoming place to be. I have a particular story that accentuates that fact. When I was a senior in high school and I had gotten my acceptance letter for William & Mary. Over spring break that year I decided to come tour the campus, because Florida is a long way from Virginia so I didn’t want to come tour until I knew I got in. I visited, and at the end of the tour, my tour guide asked if any people were already accepted to the College. I was the only one who raised my hand, so I got a lot of stares for that. But then after the tour ended, she took me aside and gave me a little extra walk around the campus. She talked with me for maybe an extra thirty minutes, gave me her email and phone number, and we kept in touch throughout the summer. I committed to William & Mary, came here, and we were friends all through my undergraduate career. I was the first person to go on her tour that actually came here, so she referred to me as her tour baby. That really stood out to me because I toured a lot of places and never had that kind of welcoming experience. So that’s definitely something I would like to see in future generations of students, that excitement about where you are, being proud of where you come from and wanting to share that with other people, to invite other people into your community.


Birthday Girl

IMG_3501What did you do this snowy weekend?
It was actually my birthday weekend, which was fun. I turned 21. I have a ton of family members reaching out to me and asking me what I did for my 21st birthday, and I told them that I essentially sat in my friend’s room and ate ice cream with them but I don’t regret any of it. It was a fun time. I tend to have the most fun when I’m with people I care about, so it was a really good birthday.

The Sledder

How was your snow day?

I’m a big believer in the senior – or now grad student – bucket list. I love snow and sledding and had never been out to sled in the CW golf course. When the snow came down, I knew I would be able to cross it off my list. I’m also a big believer in impromptu fun and living in the moment, so naturally I didn’t warn anyone Allison 01b- The Sledderabout my plans. Ultimately, four friends joined me to sled and it was an incredible time. Armed with a sign we found and a piece of siding from Ace, we went all over the course, spending nearly three hours taking on the hills. I love this school, and I’m so thankful that it’s full of people who will live every moment with me.

What is your favorite snow-related childhood memory?

There’s a big gully in the woods behind the house where I grew up. The gully was amazing for sledding. Every time the snow came down, friends from the surrounding neighborhoods came to my house to sled. It was just a given: snow day means Heather’s house. You start at the top of a hill, go around a corner, weave through some trees, and then end in a creek at the bottom. We would form trains or sled standing up or with people lying on top of one another. That’s why I still love snow days and sledding so much now. It means I get to gather my friends and just forget everything but living in the moment.

What do you love about W&M’s campus during winter?

I love how this campus never sleeps, not even when it’s freezing and the snow has turned to hail to sleet to frigid rain. When the snow rolls in, you really get to see the creativity and spirit at this school. People sled in trash bags, on pans, on their stomach. The Sunken Gardens become an art gallery for snow sculptures. I love how this campus just forgets everything and lives for fun when the snow comes down.

The Happy Song

The Happy Song“Our first Homebrew, for the finale we let anybody who had an instrument or wanted to just dance or sing or jam come up onstage. We played ‘The Happy Song’ and everybody just brought so much energy and made it so much fun. It was an improvisational song, just three chords, screaming at the top of our lungs.”

“Jamming is the moral foundation of our life.”

“It’s a conversation, people can jump in whenever they want, people can leave whenever they want. As long as you’re talking about something, and not hurting anybody with your message.”

“Rock on William and Mary.”

Guardian of the Bay

guantanimo bay dude

“I worked at Guantanamo Bay for 13 months. Was it right? Was it wrong? I don’t know. That’s political. It was a thing I had to do. I worked in the mental health ward. I can’t tell you specifics – they gave us a security briefing on that. There were some good times, and there were some bad times. It was just a job. It was where I was. I could have just as easily been in Hawaii.

I worked with people as close as I am to you. They had no problem with telling you that they wanted to kill you. You remember the Stanford Prison experiment? I was living it. It was all about having power over people. Some people had it, and others didn’t.

The biggest take away I had was being patient with people. If you treated them nicely, they had no reason to be angry with you. So that’s what I did. The cell mates didn’t just sit there: they laughed, they learned English from us. You know how religion is 50, 60, 70 percent of our lives? Everything they did was based on their religion.

I think it was hardest on my wife. I was busy. She was worried about my safety, but I couldn’t tell her things. I’ve never considered the possibility of going back there again.”

The people who are with me

12307959_860849810680564_6941939432342511555_o“My Dad always says, ‘The people you start out with are not the people you end up with.’ You come to college and you want to be friends with everyone and do everything because it’s new and it’s shiny and it’s anything. At the end of the day, you’re going to meet a ton of people. They’re going to show themselves, and they’re going to prove themselves. They’re going to be with you, and those are the people you’re gonna contact with down the road. You might not talk to them for a decade, but when you see them you’re still going to be good friends and talk for a day. I try really hard to maintain my friendships, but if people change, people change, and that’s okay. I just keep in mind that there are people who are going to stay with me, but it’s not always the people you were best friends with freshmen year. “

“My mom talks a lot about seasons and cycles. Things change so quickly here. One semester will look dramatically different from the next one. People come and go studying abroad. There really is not routine here, even if people have a class schedule and regular meeting times. Each day varies so much from the one that came before it. I am not able to thrive if I’m holding everything like this. I just need to be open to get thrown around a little bit by the things that happen here. I know that there’s social padding around me that can sustain that. I can get knocked into you, and I’ll be fine.
I think more so than any other time in my life, I’ve realized the people who are with me. Coming to college, I wasn’t concerned about making friends because I’ve never had that issue before, but I was concerned about having a lot of people who didn’t value, didn’t put the same value in friendships or define friendships the way I do, which is a very high bar. If I call you a friend, for me, it’s like if I had my 15 minute phone call and you were the person I would call and I knew you were going to pick up I’m not saying I’ve been in jail, but I’ve had some moments in college where something was going on, maybe I wasn’t in the position to call anyone, but my friends came through for me. They showed up. Usually it was even before I began to think of them in that way. Without forcing a test on them, they just showed up.”

Speak (write) out

What are you doing here out by the lake?

“I am actually writing for W&M Speaks. It’s officially up and running, and we’re excited to see people start sharing their stories. It’s weird to have to now turn and share mine, and sort of put myself out there as well.

“I joined the Mental Health Branch [of HOPE] both for the desire to answer a lot of needs I saw firstly on campus but also needs I saw in myself. I don’t know, I think shattering the misconception that those of us who are part of these organizations or who speak out, we do so from a place of experience. We do so because we are not perfect either. I don’t know is that makes sense.

“I think we [in the Mental Health Branch of HOPE] all come from a place of wanting to create change and wanting to empower other people to create change in their own lives. It has been really interesting seeing the way in which we all sort of bring different things to the table, but having that same base core desire enables us to use our different skills and talents in a much larger way than we would be able to individually. So, that’s been amazing to see come to fruition. ”

Can I ask why you came down here to Lake Matoaka to work?

“I am a writer, and I have always loved water. It’s a huge thing for me. It’s actually sort of weird that you would ask that, though. I actually came down here for a very specific reason in that my favorite band broke up five days ago – Dry the River, there obscure. It’s awful, but all the same they had this really tangible effect on me. They had a habit of releasing albums when I felt like I needed something new in my life. So they broke up. One of their songs is called ‘Vessel,’ and I ended up getting it tattooed almost a year ago today. It felt right to come down here. You know – vessel, water, boats and everything – to just sort of see that and work through those feelings. Think about time passing, a lot of pretentious writer stuff.”

Your morning Jo

“It’s really nice first thing in the morning because we’re the first people students see since they want their cup of coffee to get going. It’s nice that we start off their daily routine. Throughout the day you see the students get more tired, or the ones who are just waking up at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, who are about to go to their first class. It’s nice seeing the students when they’re not stressed, but you can definitely tell when they’re in line and they’re stressed; they have bags under their eyes, and just want that cup of coffee. But it’s especially nice towards the end of the night because people get really friendly, like, they understand that it’s been a long day. So, it’s nice seeing the transition to the late students.

“I know sometimes we’re super tired when we first open, so we’re not super outgoing. It’s definitely hard to have a really perky mood at 8 o’clock in the morning when students come through. They just want a cup of coffee, and ‘have a nice morning.’ They don’t want to deal with anybody who’s rude like you can find at other places, like what happens at Starbucks.”

A Place for Us

“I knew coming into college that I wanted to find a group for black students or minority students. Now I’m now in a group where everyone is really welcoming; it’s a very inclusive group of young women. It just reaffirms my belief that even though we are the minority at this school, there is still a place for us and there will always be a place for us.

“Recently, we talked about Raven-Symone’s comments on not hiring people with ‘black-sounding’ names and what that meant for each of us, and how we can combat that and make sure other people don’t feel the same way. We do stuff on campus – we were in the homecoming parade and we are putting together a discussion on black aesthetics. It’s basically a safe space for all of us and it’s all for women of color, no matter how you identify, just to talk.

“There are historically black sororities and fraternities on campus but they aren’t given the publicity that all of the other predominantly white sororities are. So I know in that regard, there’s a pretty large disparity. The spaces that black people have created on campus…I don’t know if it’s maybe less funding or just not being given the notice on campus that other organizations have. I know that’s pretty touchy though. But as far as interpersonal relationships, I think everyone is respectful. And if there are ignorant people on campus, they aren’t the majority. In terms of the student body and how we deal with diversity, I think we’re really good.”

The Little Things

“It was the morning of Hurricane Joaquin and I decided to take a walk through CW to cheer myself up, and to escape from my house. I stopped at Aromas to have coffee, and this lovely old man that was sitting near me turned to me and says, ‘How can you be so happy with everything that goes on in a college student’s life?’ At first, I didn’t know what he was saying because I wasn’t very happy at the moment, I wasn’t radiating happiness, I was probably radiating stress because it was in the middle of midterms. I thought, okay, I have to answer his question, he seems like a very nice, friendly person. So I thought about it for a bit and then said, ‘I think you have to find some little thing in your day that brings joy to you. Because there is always something every day to be grateful for whether it’s seeing your best friend on campus and running up and giving them a hug, or a phone call from your mom saying I’m making your favorite dinner tonight and saying, I wish you were here. I don’t know, there are just so many little things that if you choose to see as happy, can change everything.’”

“Third Culture Kid”

What was it like living abroad for most of your life?

“For me it was normal. It’s because that’s where my frame of reference is. Moving back to the United States for high school was very different. I had culture shock which is funny because I look American and I sound American. But culturally I didn’t fit in.

“I am what you call a “third culture kid,” which means my cultural identity is a mixture of my home culture which is the US, my passport country, and my host country which was China. So in that sense I can fit into both but I don’t belong in either. So I never quite fit in here in the US. And I clearly don’t fit in there.

“All my moves have been growing experiences. I have lived in China for fourteen non-consecutive years. The community I lived in was very transient. You know someone would stay for about two years, but you afterwards you can’t guarantee it. So it changes the way you look at life because you don’t take timing for granted. Here at college is the first time I know I am one place for four years. And for me that was a very, very odd idea. To be able control my life like that. It almost doesn’t feel real.

“Being a third culture kid impacts the way I view things, in terms of relationships, friendships, or whatever. I’m thinking “Oh man we only have so many years together, I am like ‘we need to be best friends now.” But for people who didn’t necessarily grow up in that context, they don’t always feel that same sense of urgency. Sometimes I’ll meet another third culture kid and I will hit it off and by day two we will be talking about our deepest fears. But for someone else we might not get to deepest fears until like year two of the friendship.  It’s just a very different way of approaching things.

Looking Back

11850624_828771703888375_9207795482926306057_o.jpgJordan, Class of 2008.

“I came here as a transfer student in 2005. I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I ended up as a chemistry major.”

“The biggest thing that shaped where I am now is the fact that I never knew that I really wanted to teach. It wasn’t until I graduated with my PhD that I had a chance to stay around in Ann Arbor and teach organic chemistry this January. I got into the classroom and I loved it. It was incredible. It was the first time in my life – I was almost thirty years old, but it dawned on me. I think I finally figured it out. Through a number of events I found myself right back here at William & Mary teaching. This is literally a decade later that I took CHEM 103 with Bob Pike in the same lecture hall. I’m now teaching CHEM 103, the same class that started me down the path of being a chemistry major here. How many people get to go back to their alma mater, change places in the classroom and now be the teacher? It’s incredible. And I’ve had a blast thus far.”

“It doesn’t stop in the classroom. My current colleagues, they were Professor Harbron, Professor Rice, and Professor Abelt. Now they are Elizabeth, Gary, and Chris. It takes a little bit of getting used to. These were the people who shaped my experiences here at William & Mary. And now I’m back here, in the position where I can do the same thing. It’s bizarre but it’s also really fun.”

Chinese Identity

11952736_824793884286157_4439205637261671805_o“When we as international students come to the United States we always experience this very profound cultural shock, a shock of cultural disjunction. That experience can very much be applied to minority groups in America as well. A lot of people would think that America has this constitution and American history is a constant rewriting of that constitution, ‘re-constitution.’ Minority groups can draw their inspiration from this ideal of Constitution, to expand their rights, to realize their own identity. It’s almost like hip-hop, sampling upon the original music and you can create something transformative and new. But I think the problem with this ideal of Constitution is, what if it is not something transcendental, objective, neutral, bias-free. What if the Constitution is a historically contingent product, written by certain group of historical actors at a certain period of time? What if that group of historical actors are composed largely of white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants? What if the Constitution is fundamentally infused with and penetrated by Protestant ethics and Enlightenment mentality? Then the minority identity, the international identity, the cosmopolitan individual that arises from it is deeply problematic, because we have to fashion our own identity within this framework.

“I’m not advocating for a very conservative approach, where you want to revive something simply because it is no longer flourishing or not in the same condition as before, where you simply want to combat the dominant discourse. What I’m trying to suggest is you have to engage in a creative transformation of the past. You have to critically reflect upon it and appropriate from it. The problem with the modern Chinese right now, not only with the students but also intellectuals and everybody, is after experiencing the May Fourth Movement and socialist experiments like the Cultural Revolution, those iconoclastic movements, we now suffer from a historical amnesia, a very profound cultural, spiritual emptiness. Without that sympathetic understanding of our own tradition…tradition lives through us as a very thin cultural fabric. It’s almost like a cultural residue from the past. I think it is very necessary to cultivate an understanding of one’s tradition. Otherwise we just live under its shadow. To me, the Chinese identity simply flows through my consciousness whether I acknowledge it or not. It’s omnipresent. It’s forever there. No matter I want to deny or uphold my Chinese-ness, it’s always there. It’s what shaped my past, constitutes my present, and projects into the future.”

Tea Across Pacific

“I have worked as a flight attendant for 30 years now. You never take anything for granted when you are doing this job, because if I didn’t have this job, it would cost me thousands of dollars to travel this far. Of course when you get older, you get to pick better schedules. I now choose to fly Shanghai three times a month because I like the city. Every trip we get to stay in Shanghai for 24 hours. During winter I like to come out of my hotel, hop on a bus, and go into old Shanghai. Every time I would see this old lady baking nuts on the roadside and I would always get a big bag full of them. Over time she becomes someone that I know of and she once offered me tea.

BEN_5049“I do pay attention to people on the plane. For example, this time of the year you see a lot of young Chinese kids, aged ten to thirteen, going back and forward between China and the U.S., sometimes stopping in San Francisco or the Mid-West, eventually reaching New York City. But in January many students’ grandparents would come and visit their grandchildren. Because it is such a long trip they would usually stay for a month or so. For the kids they are preoccupied with their electronic devices. They speak English and have come back and forth several times. But for the grandparents, it might be their first time travelling this far in their lives. You can always spot them. They don’t speak English and they sometimes have these huge sheets with phrases like ‘May I have some water?’ written out by their family to help them through the trip. When they come on board the airplane and I have to check their documents, I can see the apprehension in their eyes. But then I would always brew some tea back here and give it to them once they settle down for the long flight. Tea is the best ice-breaker in the world. They don’t expect me to make tea for them, but when I hand it to them I can just see all the tension on their face dropping. Although not being able to speak English is a big barrier, communication is still possible through kind acts like that.

“The reason why I do this is that seeing them reminds me of myself when I was little. I didn’t grow up in the United States. I grew up in the Virgin Islands and came to the U.S. at a very young age, just like these Chinese kids. When their grandparents come they are just like my own family. I want them to feel that everything is good, there’s nothing to worry about, and they can fully enjoy their time with their family.”