Reflections from Sophomore Exchange, by Domniki Athanasiadou

I feel a little illegal. Here, sitting in a huge table, in a huge room of the college of William and Mary when I should have been sitting on the last session of the conference. I might be a little bit illegal. Or, maybe, unconventional, or rebellious. But, what is really wrong with that? A year ago I would never dare to do something like that, miss out a session from a conference; maybe a few days ago I wouldn’t have done that; maybe even some hours ago. Some minutes ago however, sitting in my last and most inspiring session of the conference, I thought about me, my life goals and my contribution in society. I walk around saying to people that my passion is to learn. I chose to go to the specific sessions that I went today because I thought I was going to learn more. And I did. But then, those few minutes ago I thought that if I did not sit down quietly to digest the things that I heard today, I was not going to keep any of those in my system. And I was lucky; I found this inspirational table, in this inspirational room with this inspirational window looking at the puffy white snow outside. So, now, what did I learn?

My day started listening to the talk of Clint Smith, an inspiration high school teacher, who happens to have a degree from Harvard University. Clint, if I may call him by his first name (I recently started calling speakers with their first name. I think it’s a power move. It might be wrong but it is still a power move.), showed me that I can be artistic and legitimate at the same time. I will remember his speech because in his speech he put a little bit of theatre, in the form of poem recital. In his poems, he did not talk about love, couples, and imaginative stories. He talked about people, human souls, the real struggle of his students. What stayed with me was his metaphor of students as people who were walking in the desert. Sometimes we do not consider the food deserts where the people who we serve live in. We don’t think that if they are hungry the only thing their body will be thinking about will be food. So, what stayed with me was that I need to try to understand the position of this person in order to serve better. But then, Dr. Adkins in my second breakout session showed me that you will never possible be in the same exact point as another person. He used this philosophical idea to show us that you will never be able to feel exactly what it is to be like the people you serve, but it is a good step to start with. The second step, according to Dr. Chris Adkins, is that you need to ask yourself how? How does this person feel? You need to take the focus out of yourself (how do I feel?) and put it on the person across from you. Figuring out how leads you to ask why? Why does this person feel this way? In this way, without even knowing it you increase your empathy and build yourself stronger to respond to your everyday life and community involvement.

In my first session, some VCU students talked to us about gentrification and privilege. We heard the story of this 20-year-old gentleman in San Francisco, who tried to go back to his neighborhood, but could barely find some of its remnants left. Before I move on, how did you picture this guy that I just called gentlemen? Yeah, well, no he wasn’t the one you probably thought about. He was a young Latino guy whose neighborhood was completely changed, his culture was gone and all these for economic development and “image.” Now, I need to ask? How does he feel? And why does he really feel this way? We forget to think about that people feel, we tend to isolate and make judgments. If we sit back for a second then we realize that these people feel as well, and they act because of what they feel.

When you lose your culture, your people, your places of reference it is hard to relocate yourself as a citizen of the world. You lose your base and like a dog you chase your tail hoping one day you will find your base again. Volunteering, is calling this dog’s name. Saying, “Hey, buddy!” and distracting the dog from this self-damaging activity. Then the dog might look at you and bite you, or come closer and let you pet it. You might want to start training this dog, change the type of food he eats, give him vitamin supplements and proper vet treatment. Before you do that though, before you get into that process, look deep into this dog’s eyes and ask. Maybe this dog just needs a walk outside, or someone to just wake him up from his vicious cycle. That’s a funny example, but I know a lot of you talk to dogs, even though it might sound crazy and you will never admit it. It can’t be harder to ask a person, can it?