A 31-year-old man is getting his college degree after 13 years of difficult stops and starts.
An 18-year-old African-American woman has a self-realization that her dark skin does not make her any less valuable than the light-skin of the people she’s spent her whole life around.
A 22-year-old raised by her doting, vibrant grandmother watches her beloved role model slide slowly into dementia.
These were some of the 210 stories documented in photographs by Dear World on Feb. 6 and 7, a project brought to the University of New Orleans as part of the its First-Year Experience programming.
Over the course of two days, students, faculty and staff shared personal stories with one another and then asked each other to write words on their bodies that were emblematic of those stories. Dear World took photographs of the participants and five were asked to share, in spoken word, why they wrote what they wrote. They did so during a culminating event at the Sen. Ted Hickey Ballroom at the University Center on Feb. 7.
“The first thing I thought when I wrote this on my chest was, ‘Who is going to see this?’” said Ashley Dow, 28, a student advisor at UNO, who was the first person to rise and share her story publicly.
Over her left shoulder, a projector screen showed an image of her with the words “I love this woman,” written across her collar bone in all-caps. After falling in love with a woman, she’d been struggling to find acceptance within parts of her family, she explained to those gathered.
“Don’t apologize for being you,” Dow said. “Don’t apologize for who you love.”
Matt Bravender, 31, exhorted those in the audience not to give up on their dreams. A first-generation college student, Bravender said there were times when his hope of achieving a college degree seemed unrealistic, unachievable.
After 13 years of ups and downs, of bad decisions and then of trying to make up for those bad decisions, Bravender said he is headed toward graduation this semester with a degree in history. So, when the camera pointed at him, he held up his arms: “ACHIEVED DEGREE. 13 YEARS!!!”
Jonah Evans, executive producer at Dear World, encouraged those in the UNO community to find ways to learn the stories of those around them.
“Every single one of us has something to share,” he said. “It’s a pretty amazing community you’re a part of.”
Dear World was founded in 2009 as “Dear New Orleans,” an effort to ask people to write “love notes” to the city in response to rebuilding effort following Hurricane Katrina. It soon expanded to a worldwide project that seeks to help people form powerful connections based on their personal experiences and, more recently, has visited college campuses around the world as part of its Dear World College Tour.
The organization states that it has taken over 50,000 portraits from around the world, calling the portraits “the first line in a story that brings us closer together.”
Mike Hoffshire, assistant director of First-Year Student Success at UNO, coordinated the program in conjunction with University Success 1001 classes. He said he was inspired by the honesty and bravery exhibited by all the participants and loved the buzz at the UC over the two days.
“We found this event to be powerful, moving and emotional,” Hoffshire said. “It surely highlighted the diversity on our campus as well as provided a forum for students to express themselves.”