UNO Community Declares "This I Believe"
Souls were on display last month at the University of New Orleans as first-year students, faculty, staff and prospective students participating in the University's flagship Common Read program read aloud from personal essays at a well-attended gathering on campus. The writing project and common read program are tied to an international organization, nationally bestselling book and National Public Radio project entitled This I Believe.
"The purpose of the Common Read program," said UNO student Ja' Leah Shavers, "is to encourage first year students, staff and faculty to engage in a shared experience."
This semester, UNO faculty, students and staff have led campus discussions centered around themes and issues raised in This I Believe, a compilation of essays describing the core values that guide authors' daily lives. More than 100,000 people from all walks of life and all over the world have participated in the international project, based on a popular 1950s radio series hosted by renowned journalist and publisher Edward R. Murrow.
The book, which hit the New York Times Bestseller List in 2006, includes essays by average Joes as well as celebrated figures. Leaders, luminaries and literati who have contributed range from Bill Gates and General Colin Powell to Isabel Allende and Gloria Steinem. So popular was the original book, publishers launched a This I Believe series.
All new first-year students at UNO received a free copy of This I Believe before arriving on campus. The book has been a focal point in their English classes, as well as UNIV, a one-credit course designed to introduce first year students to college life, skills for success and University resources.
Many first-year UNO students have written their own "This I Believe" essays. They shared them in November at the public gathering at the Sandbar at The Cove, which was organized by the English Department and First Year Experience. Approximately 150 members of the UNO community turned out to listen.
Robin Baudier, a New Orleans native seeking a Master of Fine Arts degree with a concentration in creative writing, read aloud from an essay she wrote in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Baudier is associate editor of the Creative Writing Workshop's Bayou Magazine, a nationally distributed literary magazine published by the UNO Press, and audio content editor on the magazine's website.
"The Strange Blessing that Brought me Home," first aired on NPR on Sept. 2, 2007 and was subsequently published in This I Believe II: More Personal Philosophies from Remarkable Men and Women, published in 2008.
Kenneth Sewell, the University's new vice president for research and economic development, read aloud from his essay, "This I Believe: Morality, Heaven and Hell, and Reincarnation," which made Dallas news in 2006.
"First, I believe in morality. Of course, the meaning of this hinges on the question of how I choose to define morality," the vice president intoned. "But in defining morality, I am aware of others nearby who have chosen differently. And I lack the luxury of demonizing them as heathens from another land. They are friends next door, family members, professional mentors, and cultural heroes. Acknowledging this choice influences the kind of moral definition I can afford to own."
Sewell is both a psychologist and poet.
"They say that hell-dwellers never leave...but if heaven is an experience, I have been there and can describe the terrain in detail. I intend to get back there every now and then-when the kids are asleep, or in the arms of my wife, or at the feet of some teachers. Such experiences are eternal: they have nothing whatsoever to do with time. They are not everlasting, but certainly eternal," he read.
"If hell is an experience - a cage, a war, estrangement - I am not sure I have ever been there; but I know many people who have. Friends have wept on my chest in the pain of bereavement; clients have wept on my couch in the pain of a fist, a bomb, a knowledge of their own actions. Hell is surely eternal. Even in heaven."
One undergraduate student detailed the painful moment her stepfather was deported – and its painful aftermath - described the escape that a new sport -- soccer – provided. Cleats, kicks and camaraderie aside, her passion helped her to get through a difficult time and aim for "big goals in life."
A student who grew up home schooled and strictly policed in a religious family traced his own journey from a young man's dreams of liberty and his own apartment to harsh adult realities living on his own.
"My mother's favorite rapper is Biggie Smalls," read another student from the Dominican Republic, after stating that she crafted her essay to show "where I am from, what I've been through and where I am going."
Four freshmen from Archbishop Chapelle High School of New Orleans also gave readings, providing compelling insights and showing wisdom beyond their years.
In all, more than 30 people read from their work, including UNO students Edie Talley, Traban Cockerham; Pawan Aryal; Carola Birk; Kayla Lambert; Khoury Lopez; Daniel Berger; Terry Shield; Terry Leblanc; Lauren Aillet; Anna Young; Marlon Sansotta; Christina Early and Chance Aucoin, as well as UNO math instructor Cory Dumesnil.
"When you tap into the essential, into that heart structure, you can reach higher," said UNO writing instructor Ali Arnold.