“Senior Voices” Address by Rebecca Lee ’10, delivered at Memorial Chapel during the 178th Wesleyan University Commencement:
I would like to talk today about communities.
The village I grew up in, on the outskirts of Cambridge, England, was an international community composed of families affiliated with the university. The children of these expatriate families, including myself, led a blissful childhood, playing street hockey and holding water fights in our neighborhood. At the end of each day the families gathered for a potluck dinner of cuisines from all over the world. With most of our relatives oceans away, many literally on the other side of the planet, family friends became aunts and uncles and a foreign country became home.
I was fourteen when my family moved to Concord, Massachusetts. The structure of this new town was entirely alien to me, made up of people whose families had lived there for generations and streets that were meant for traffic, not children. For the first time I was conscious of being half Chinese in an all-white high school, and of being a foreigner unfamiliar with the culture of American suburbia. I eventually assimilated into this new place, but after high school I was excited for something different.
I came to Wesleyan after spending my freshman year at New York University, with the hope of becoming integrated into a single, tight-knit community. Coming to Wesleyan was like returning to a community more similar to my childhood home in England, where I found myself part of a group of people from all over the country and all over the world, linked because of their future aspirations, not their histories. Here, I learned how to create my own family of friends, one of the most important things I have gained out of college.
At Wesleyan I have encountered and become a part of many communities, from musical ensembles and two biochemistry research labs to the larger Middletown community and the Wesleyan Friends of Africa, a student group that has connected me to another continent altogether. These groups have largely shaped the past few years of my life, and have affected my perspective as a twenty-two year old soon-to-be college graduate. I’d like to share some of my experiences that expanded from small moments of sheer joy to personal epiphanies and social change. Each of these experiences grew out of my many communities here at Wesleyan.
Over the past year and a half, I have volunteered at a hospice down the road at Middlesex Hospital. Several weeks ago I was there – it was 8am on a Saturday, and a new patient had just arrived at the unit. The patient – let’s call him George – was in his seventies, dying from colon cancer and sick with pneumonia.
His chart had not yet been filled out, and not realizing that he was on a restricted diet, I asked him if he wanted some ice cream. Though he was too ill to say more than a few words, George’s face lit up, his eyes wrinkling at the corners, and so I snuck a cup of ice cream from the kitchen into his room when the nurses were elsewhere.
Twenty minutes passed, and after assisting another patient, I returned to George. A nurse was in his room, scolding him: “How did you get this ice cream? You’re not supposed to be eating!” she said. He shrugged and smiled brightly upon seeing me, and I swiftly apologized.
The next day I went into the hospice again. Immediately the nurse brought me to George’s room. “He’s close to the end,” she told me, and asked me to sit with him until the family came. I walked into the room, where sunlight was pouring through the long windows and illuminated his translucent skin. George opened his eyes as I sat down, and beckoned me to come closer. Struggling to speak, he finally got two words out in his raspy voice – “ice cream,” he said, his chuckling turning into coughing. Closing his eyes, he drifted in and out of consciousness; his breathing stopped periodically, sometimes for ten, twenty seconds – and then would start up again in uneven, jagged breaths.
Half an hour after sitting with him, his breathing stopped for longer, and I held my own breath, wondering if this was it. The hand I held was cold, and his body was still.
But then, he opened his eyes, squinting, and raised his arm up slowly, reaching for some part of me to touch. Shaking, his hand faltered, not cooperating with the signals of his brain, but he managed to graze the long strand of hair that had fallen out of my pony tail, brush it behind my ear, and the same crinkly grin spread across his gaunt face. He chuckled once again, clearly exhausted by the effort of movement. His eyes continued to smile at me for a while, eventually closing until his family arrived.
Working at the hospice has not only allowed me to contribute to the Middletown community, but has also allowed me to spend time with people who are experiencing their day-to-day lives from a very different vantage point than me, and they do so with a remarkable amount of dignity, humor, and grace. I have found that there is a great deal to learn from people who are in a state of self-reflection, and they have made me more self-aware and reflective of my own experiences.
The Wesleyan Friends of Africa, a student group initiated by my friend Kennedy that we have developed over the past few years, has also expanded my personal horizons. I met Kennedy during his first month at Wesleyan. He grew up in Kibera in the largest slum in Kenya, living in poverty and surrounded by disease. His father was an alcoholic and his family struggled to survive in the slum. His sister was driven in desperation, like so many other Kiberan women, to prostitution.
Kennedy had already begun a grassroots, community-driven organization to discuss and address many of the health- and education-related issues facing those in the slums by the time he got to Wesleyan. He had also begun to dream of building a free school for girls that would protect them from the fate of his sister. Kennedy’s stories inspired me, especially because of my own passion in public health issues, and a small group of us began to meet on Friday nights to discuss many of the systemic problems that arise within outcast communities such as Kibera.
We began to use Wesleyan as a base to raise awareness about the conditions of the slums. We also hosted fundraisers for women’s’ groups in Kibera. At the end of the first year, Kennedy and another Wesleyan student, Jessica Posner, had been granted a One Hundred Projects for Peace grant. That summer they built the first free school for girls in the slum.
That was one year ago; since then, the umbrella organization that was founded by Kennedy and Jess, called “Shining Hope for Communities,” has grown exponentially. There is a board of directors and a core administration composed of Wesleyan students that I have been involved in. The group, which is now a registered non-profit organization, has recently been awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants and donations for the construction of a health clinic in memory of Johanna Justin-Jinich, to be built this summer.
Being part of this incredible movement has taught me that change on a large scale is possible – and it has to start at the community level, from the ground up. In a year I will be entering medical school, and as a doctor I hope to continue to tackle many of the same issues that this project has confronted in Kenya.
I have realized that it is the overlapping of diverse communities that has made my time at Wesleyan so special – that, and the fact that Wesleyan students are truly amazing. I have witnessed this first hand at three in the morning in the CFA painting studios the night before a big critique, seen the hours and hours of labor put into isolating a set of proteins in a research lab, observed the compassion of my fellow Wesleyan hospice volunteers at training sessions, listened to the raw talent of musicians performing classical and contemporary chamber music in Russell House, and felt the absolute determination of students building the school in the Kenyan slum.
But the community that has supported me and challenged me the most has been my group of friends, specifically, four wonderful young women. We have spent sleepless nights working on assignments together, looked after one another in times of illness, celebrated birthdays and holidays, sat on the kitchen floor and cried in grief over the deaths of family members and friends, and have spent hours sitting in bed, laughing until tears streamed down our faces and our stomachs ached.
So to my Wesleyan community and in particular to Lindsay, Mari, Rithi and Ann-Marie, my family at Wesleyan, I want to thank you for making the past three years the most exciting and life-defining years that I have lived so far.