La’Shaye Ervin ‘12
Scholarship Appreciation Luncheon
May 10, 2012
Hello everyone. This speech is dedicated to my mother, grandmother and to my Barrys — President Barry Mills and Professor of Biology Barry Logan.
When I was first asked to write a speech for today, I felt honored. However, the feeling of honor lasted about 10 minutes and almost immediately turned into fear. Not only was I afraid to stand in front of a group of people to speak to them about things I hoped they thought were interesting, I was also afraid to share aspects of my life that may not fit into people’s perceived notions of what a Bowdoin student should be. While the trajectory of my life may fit an archetypal outline: smart girl from a poor neighborhood is given the opportunity to attend an elite liberal arts college, does well for herself and then goes off into the world with promise, my story does not fit neatly. In fact, I know that my nuances are the core of my person. Those nuances add texture to the archetype and may in some ways break the idea of it completely. Undoubtedly, Bowdoin has changed my life in many ways that I will express soon. However, my Bowdoin experience has been shaped entirely by my life at home.
“Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi.” This Ghanaian proverb translates to “it is not bad to go back for that which you have forgotten.” I say this quotation because it comes from a concept that was embedded in my understanding of the world from a very early age. While my mother did not say these words to me directly, she did teach me the concept of Sankofa from which this quotation stems. Sankofa is a symbol of a bird with its head turned backwards taking an egg off its back. My mother taught me that it meant that a person should always remember where they come from and that they can’t move forward without understanding their history. Particularly, that I could not go off into the world without first understanding that I was a black girl with dreadlocks and that people may not accept my beauty and brains because of America’s history of anti-black racism. Her message did not always make sense to me as a child, I must admit, after all everyone looked like me growing up. I had no concept of the other, although the other seemed to have a concept of me. In fact, it was not until college, until I left my community that I began to understand the concept of Sankofa. I began to feel what Sankofa meant. However, Sankofa has taken on a different meaning to me, a meaning that I will share with you all.
When I first came to Bowdoin in the fall of 2008, I felt that I was only here for an education. I was here to prove to the college, people at home and anyone else who cared for that matter that I deserved to be here. I did not believe that I was an affirmative action baby and I wanted to establish myself by achieving academic success. Thus, I intended only to go to classes and my on campus job in order to stay focused. This mentality lasted for about two weeks. I was doing homework on the quad during that first month of school when a couple of girls asked me to throw a disk with them. I had no concept of Frisbee at the time, but I decided to join them anyway. The girls’ names were Da’Sheiza and Dolce. I didn’t know about Frisbee names either and thought that Bowdoin attracted people with really weird names. I wound up joining the Frisbee team that afternoon and played for two years. My Frisbee name is Wilson, for reasons that I cannot share.
I point to this memory because it was the first time that I began to feel Sankofa. Believe it or not, people do not play ultimate Frisbee in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY. Moreover, students of color did not play Frisbee at Bowdoin. For my first year, I was the only black girl on the Frisbee team. There were moments when I was with the team that I began to feel the burden of Sankofa. Why was it that I was somehow attracted to something that was seemingly not like me? There was nothing in my past that would point me to such a white sport. Everything about Frisbee was different from me. The girls partied in a different way from my friends at home and they had extremely different backgrounds from my friends and me. I remember traveling to a team member’s house for one of our away games. Her parents were able to fit 15 girls into their home comfortably and they fed us free of charge for the entire three-day weekend. I had never come into contact with this type of wealth, and was taken aback. The other girls on the team didn’t bat an eye at the large and beautifully decorated home, in some ways they seemed to expect it. It was then that I began to learn that I was in a place not like my own. During that time, my family was struggling. My mother and three siblings were living in a home that did not have heat and hot water for six months prior to me coming to college and was not the most stable environment. My mother was looking for a place to move but I wasn’t certain of when that would be.
This was not the only time that I have felt a difference between where I am from and where I am. I most feel the conflict between home and Bowdoin when I am in the outdoors. I have been fortunate to be a member and leader of the Bowdoin Outing Club for the last three years. In fact, I met Debbie Barker through the outing club when I lead the Bowdoin female trustees up Kathadin. We summited and it was awesome! Needless to say, the outing club has become a large part of my Bowdoin experience. Being on trips helped to confirm my passion for Biology and ultimately my major. I have learned to canoe, outdoor climb, telemark ski, swim and backpack. I have been known to blame Mike Woodruff for getting me addicted to things that I can’t afford. But, embedded in that remark is the notion of Sankofa. Enjoying the outdoors has in some ways made me feel as though I am moving away from my family. Ski culture is so inherently different from the culture of people at home. People in my community do not have the time or the resources to ski. Moreover, they understand it to be worlds away from their reality. My knowledge of the difference between these cultures, my cultures, causes me to feel that I have to choose between the two. Moreover, that the culture that I am drifting towards is not like my past. While I am off climbing mountains, my 19-year-old sister is raising her 9-month-year-old son, Nigel, and my 18-year-old brother is serving a seven-year prison sentence under maximum security for attempted murder. I remember being in Acadia national park this summer climbing Otter Cliffs, when I got the phone call that Daphne had had the baby. I could not have felt more distant from my sister in that moment.
I think it goes without saying that the education that I have received at Bowdoin has also helped to plant a bit of a wedge between my family and me. The way I speak and the knowledge that I have gained here is very apparent and makes me stand out when I home. My tone of voice, sentence structure and the way that I carry myself, highlights that I am college student and thus a bit different from many of my Brooklyn peers. However, I am not ashamed of my Bowdoin swagg. I am so grateful to my professors and lab instructors for taking the time out of their busy schedules to work with me to improve the way that I think, write, and speak. If home has given me a sense of self, then it is Bowdoin that has given me the confidence to be the person that was always inside.
Essentially, Sankofa served as a double-edged sword when I first came to Bowdoin. In some ways it made me feel as though change would take me away from my family and my community. At the same time, Sankofa grounded me and helped me to understand and respect my heritage. With that said, I have come to learn that change has added to my person and that it has not disconnected me from my loved ones. Moreover, that it is okay to embrace new things and that it is these new experiences that have also led me to become the woman that stands before you. I have learned to accept my present and my past as equally important and necessary parts of me. I have been able to share my newfound pleasures with members of my family. I have also shared experiences about my home with my Bowdoin peers. I hope to continue balancing change and my past by being open minded and loving collard greens just as much as sweet potato gnocchi.
After Bowdoin, I will be working as a lab technician in Salt Lake City, Utah (talk about accepting change!). Afterwards, I plan to apply to graduate school to become a biology professor. This dream comes from a value in my culture to teach and uplift others and the confidence that I have gained over the last four years from my Bowdoin Professors. It is truly the faculty and staff here that have helped me to find the way that I am going to help the world. I did not know that I had a passion for the sciences before I came here or that my passion would be related to principles of giving back that I grew up with. Thank you Bowdoin and thank you Brooklyn for helping me be who I am and thank you all for listening.