Becoming a Bowdoin Person
Laura Hernandez ’17
President Rose, members of the College, and guests,
A special alumnus of the College recently said to me, “Bowdoin is great at many things, but something it excels at, is finding Bowdoin people. Admissions just knows how to find that special sauce in all of us. That’s what makes this place so special.” If you can’t tell from his cooking analogy, he loves Bowdoin dining.
Hearing those words instantly brought me back to the first time I visited Bowdoin as a high school senior. I wanted to argue that on that day, as I walked on the quad before everyone woke up to teach me about pepper flips, I felt the farthest thing from being a Bowdoin person. Instead, looking at all the old red buildings I sensed the enormous weight of history and the presence of all the people that had once stood there. Deep-rooted traditions circled in the air making me believe that I would never be a Bowdoin person.
I want to share with all of you why I had this throat-clenching feeling of inadequacy on that morning. I could not understand how my life had led me to standing on the quad that day. The circumstances of living in the United States, traveling to Maine, and attending Bowdoin were part of the narrative of someone else’s life, not my own
Moving to the United States from Cuba became a possibility for my parents when I was 10 years old. There was no hesitation in my grandfather’s voice when he told my parents that they needed to leave the country because I deserved the opportunity to have a better life and the freedom they did not have. My mother and I were held back by the government, so my father made the journey alone. That was the first time my family was separated.
That year I also experienced an act of alienation that changed the way I saw myself in the world. In the eyes of many people, having my father in this country was the equivalent of being a traitor. I will never forget the day that my middle school teacher stood me up in front of my friends and classmates and called me a terrorist, a word that I internalized to mean that I was a monster. My world changed because for the first time in my life, I saw the politics around me and I questioned my ability to belong in the world. Years later, I came to realize that my teacher’s cruelty had also taught me a valuable lesson: our words and actions can have a profound impact on the lives of others. Since then, I’ve learned to take the thoughts, needs, and the wellbeing of others into consideration before making any decision in life. Although I didn’t have the words then, my experience in Cuba had taught me to live by following the common good.
A year passed and my mother and I were finally allowed to join my father in the US. I remember the night-lights flying over Miami and being happily surprised that it was past 6:00 pm and everyone had electricity! Being an immigrant breaks pre-established family dynamics because survival depends on everyone’s input and hard work. Learning English and becoming my parents’ voice became my number one priority. My father worked day and night so that my mother could attend school and be able to get recertified as a dental assistant, her decade long career in Cuba. That was his sacrifice, and to this day my father cannot speak English. Our experiences taught us that the hardest part of being immigrants is that you are constantly in two places at once. Everything that we accomplished was both ours and of the family we had left behind. I valued everything I owned because each thing had the name of someone that needed it more. Because we had come with government permission, we were able to go back after a few years, but even during those reunions my mind only saw the thousands of Cuban families that had been separated for decades.
I wrongfully believed that because of my background, I would never belong at Bowdoin. I thought that I had to love snow to live here. It only took a few weeks living in Maine Hall as a first year student for me to realize that many of my peers were also struggling to find themselves in this place. Back then, we lacked the knowledge that it was now our task to bring life to Bowdoin, and the confidence to act on it.
Time taught us to dismiss wrong perceptions, to let the uncomfortable become familiar, and to foster appreciation for everything we learned. Slowly, we were becoming Bowdoin people.
A lot of us did this by joining clubs and teams. We pursued our passions and filled our days with meaning. Others worked on individual projects and allowed their arts to become integral parts of their experiences. Magic radiated from our hands, feet, and voices, so that everything we touched came alive. We practiced learning both inside and outside the classroom by listening to the stories of the people around us, for they were the best historians, politicians, linguists, and scientists. We cherished the friendships, the late nights conversations, the unending hugs, and all the moments that electrified our souls. Nothing looked and felt like the last time until we realized that in growing together, the days had passed. As a class we had found that special sauce; an incredible chemistry that would become another thing to miss once we left.
My path to becoming a Bowdoin person began when I was assigned to work at the Department of Special Collections and Archives, the place that maintains and safe keeps the lives and works of all the Bowdoin people before us. As a first year student, I got to transcribe the diary of Sarah Bowdoin, the wife of James Bowdoin III, to read and view documents about student life during the war, and to select items in the Archives to share with the public. My work brought me closer to the people that had made this place. It was through reading their stories that I learned what it meant to be a Bowdoin person.
For centuries, The College has been the home to curious minds and kindhearted people. The values of respect, intellectual integrity, and dedication to the common good are the ingredients in that special sauce that makes-up a Bowdoin person. Reading the stories of other Bowdoin people led me to realize that my past is an expression of my commitment to the common good; to the family I left behind, and to the people around me. These values connect us in time with all the students that came before us and to those that will experience Bowdoin in the future. As we have come to know, it’s the people that make the place.
Now that it’s our turn to graduate, I want to take this opportunity to ask two things. First, I ask that we share this accomplishment. Graduation is a collection of our hard work and dedication to our studies, but it is also the accomplishment of everyone that along the way made it possible for us to be here today: the dinning staff, our parents, teachers, mentors, and friends. This moment is as much theirs as it is ours. Second, I want us to trust in that special sauce that makes us Bowdoin people. Trust in the values: the respect, the kindness, and in the relentless dedication that we have nurtured here for they will help us navigate change and to make the world a more beautiful place. I only hope that when the day comes that another student stands on the quad unable to see themselves as a Bowdoin person, that they will be reassured by our footsteps walking alongside them and by the feeling in the air of that special sauce that’s in them, that’s in all of us.