Diversity and the complex viewpoints of American citizens were on display in an essay contest held by Georgia Gwinnett College (GGC) this semester. The college boasts a multicultural and diverse student body that reflects a cross-section of the United States not seen in many schools. This distinction came shining through when students were asked to reflect on what it means to them to be an American.
The campus common reading program, an initiative of the Senior Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs and Provost, re-branded GGC Reads in 2019, selects a book each year to provide the campus an opportunity to come together around a common topic. Book discussions with students, faculty, and staff meeting together as well as programming and integration into the curriculum are examples of how the campus can participate in this common experience.
This year’s book is “American Like Me: Reflections on Life Between Cultures,” a collection of essays edited by actress America Ferrera. The book, which is offered free of charge to GGC students as well as faculty and staff who are interested in integrating it into courses or programming, presents narratives about living between and across cultures that are striving to be recognized as American. Written by a diverse group of authors (athletes, comedians, writers, actors, politicians, etc.) who are immigrants, children or grandchildren of immigrants, each essay documents their struggles to establish a sense of self, find belonging, and feel seen.
To build on GGC’s ongoing campus conversations about diversity, equity and inclusivity, the GGC Reads Committee, chaired by Dean of Library Services Barbara Mann, launched an essay contest for both traditional written essays and multimedia essays for students who read Ferrera’s book. Participants were invited to submit essays about what they think it means to be an American. The top three essays were chosen by the GGC Reads committee, who served as submission judges and used a rubric to ensure consistency in the rankings.
Third place went to Nathaly Ruiz Mandujano, a senior studying exercise science with a concentration in wellness promotion. Her essay, titled “I Am an Immigrant, but I Am an American, too” expressed the pride and frustrations she’s felt being a minority. Mandujano’s parents and grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico in the 1990’s, making her a first-generation Mexican-American.
“I’m very proud of that,” she said. “Many people are quick to judge and say that ‘you don’t belong here’ if your skin, language, or culture is different. However, that should not be the case. I wanted to bring awareness and a different point of view to encourage the belief that America is built on the melting pot of different cultures, and immigrants also help run America.”
One passage from her essay eloquently projects the pride she feels in her heritage:
I am American because I am different. I have a different culture, language, morals, ideas, beliefs, and physical appearance, but it is not only me. I stand next to all the immigrants who make America run with their salivating homemade foods, sweet tongues, silky tunics, sun glazed skin, and most importantly, a mind and heart like no other.
The second-place essay, titled “I am America: The Mantra of the Beautifully Broken,” was submitted by Samantha Hauff, a rising senior at Apalachee High School who is enrolled in the GGC’s Dual Enrollment program. Hauff is a second-generation Ukrainian-American whose family fled the Ukranian Soviet Union to Germany before winning a visa lottery to immigrate to America, where she was born in 2003.
“I wanted to enter the essay contest because I am really passionate about creative writing and the impact it has on social issues,” said Hauff.
Hauff said her essay is meant to embody not only her experience as an American, but the experience of all Americans who have been done wrong by the systems at work in our society.
“The voices of the last, the lost and the least must be lifted and through my essay, I want to be a part of that conversation,” she said.
Hauff’s essay deftly takes the reader through the lives of a diverse selection of Americans: An immigrant child in a border detention center, an elderly COVID-19 patient, a survivor of sexual assault, a war veteran, a single mom, and a black man that’s been shot by a police officer. She concludes her piece with an affirmation:
America breaks us. Just as America shapes us. We are all America. We are so broken, so beaten. In the most beautifully tragic kind of way. We are the kaleidoscope of broken dreams and beautiful things. We are all broken pieces of glass; weathered and worn by the greatest storm we call the Labyrinth of America. The most beautiful tragedy we have ever known.
First place went to sophomore information technology student Abibat Oketade. Her essay, “Who are the Americans?” draws on her experience as a first-generation Nigerian-American. She says she entered the contest mostly to touch-up on her writing.
“I simply wanted to share a piece of my writing with a new audience, so coming in first place has been a humbling experience,” she said.
Her poetic essay speaks openly about her struggle to answer when people ask her where she’s from, and her difficulty in defining exactly what an “American” is:
I struggle when people ask me what I am and where I am from. I’ve struggled since the starting days of preschool when my teacher pulled out the world map, with most kids pointing to states from the barren regions of northwest Nevada, to the heavy foliage-filled state of Vermont with trees growing alongside hillside roads, and the beaches of the deep south and mountains of the west. I looked everywhere on the map but found myself stuck between the continents of North America and Africa.
I looked up to my teacher and said, “I don’t know where I’m from.”
The essay goes on to describe her struggle to see herself as an American, not because she comes from a family of immigrants, but because she doesn’t feel like she’s earned the title:
Many people are aware of the famous phrase of America being the,“Land of the brave, home of the free.” But I’ve done nothing to show my courage to reside on this land. That phrase belongs to my parents, and the other immigrants who took a chance on hope, A dream. Those people, The immigrants, Are what I believe to be true Americans.
According to Dean Mann, “GGC Reads provides for students, faculty and staff to come together around a central topic, opening up opportunities for interactions and dialog on many levels. This book will be continued into fall 2021 and spring 2022, with book discussions, programming, and other events being planned for the campus.”
All three winners of the contest expressed gratitude for the diversity of GGC’s student body and staff, and for its dedication to inclusion and equity.
“Living in the Southeastern United States, many colleges that you come across lack diversity and inclusion for all kinds of people. At GGC though, this is not the case. So many cultures, nationalities and creeds are represented here,” said Hauff.
Oketade echoed her sentiment. “I absolutely believe that the GGC community is a great representation of America. The student body and staff are racially and ethnically diverse just like America. GGC also does a fantastic job of being inclusive to all cultures, which I think America could learn from!”
The winning essays have been added to General Space, GGC’s institutional repository, where they will be available for future generations of GGC students.