"I'm just so happy because this is the best graduation gift, the best possible way to end my Penn career - to have a year with my sister here."
"You're really happy that I'm here for your last year but I'm really glad I have you for my first."
“If you could give students advice, what would it be?”
“Don’t stress yourselves out. College isn’t all about the party.”
“So what do you think it’s about?
“It’s about learning to better yourself, to prepare yourself for the adult world.”
“And what’s the adult world like – scary?”
“Well I’m 21. This is the prep for when you go out into the new world. I’m a mother. I’m in school too.”
“What keeps you going?”
“Being in school, the environment, the things I was introduced to in school. And the smile on my kids' faces. It lets me know that what I’m doing out here is for a purpose, not just for myself. That’s what keeps me going. I want my kids to have a better life. I want them to exceed me.”
“How did you guys meet?”
“He facebook stalked me.”
“He was kind of the matriarch of the queer community at penn.”
“The reason I was creepily stalking underclassman was that I took it on myself to find everyone I could that was either out or closeted and show them the community. I think that one of the most important lessons I learned at Penn was that the most intimate sign of affection you can show to someone is giving them your undivided attention. I think that’s incredibly rare.”
"When my mom passed away, I had to adapt to a new normal. It was almost two years ago. Even now, there’s a before that happened and an after that happened. It’s not uncomfortable for me to talk about it. It’s scary because it makes me vulnerable, but that’s ok. It makes me stronger. It’s part of who I am. I share my story because it has shaped who I am now. I think it makes other people uncomfortable- they aren’t sure how to react. I know they might feel bad.
The hardest question to answer is, how are you doing? People implicitly expect you to say you’re ok. It made me realize a lot of people might be dealing with struggles that you don’t really know from the surface. I’d want them to know they are not alone. It’s easy to feel very isolated because no one wants to talk about it. But there are a lot of people that feel the same way. And if you bring those people together there’s a sense of belonging.
The other day, a girl that came to our Students of AMF Support Network at UPenn picked up the DP and saw my column - it also was the 3 month anniversary of her mom’s passing on that day. It helped her get through the day. That made it worth it.
You don’t know how many times that could happen.
Sometimes I remember a scene from the Lion King, when Rafiki tells Simba to look in the water and he sees his own reflection and tells him, “he lives in you”. My mom lives on through the number of lives she has touched, the number of people who may have changed because they came into contact with her. It’s just knowing that you did the best you could do, today."
"I was a gang member. Mother raised six of us. Mother was on welfare. Every three blocks there was a different gang. I had to fight inside school, during school, after school, every day. Just because you wasn’t from here. You were a stranger."
"How did you get out of that?"
"In 1974, it got real bad. A lot of people was killed in gang wars. Me, myself and some other guys got together and said enough is enough. We called a peace treaty. We sent memos around, we said we're going to stop gang war. We had a slogan "No More Gang War in '74.” All the gangs were invited, to City hall. We made a peace treaty. We shook hands. We walked away. By '75 it was over. Right now, people we used to fight, we’re best friends.”
“When you look back on that time, what do you think?”
“Thank god I survived.”
“What’s it like now?”
“Now, it’s worse. But what I do is mentor and after school programming. My two worst kids end up being honor roll kids, going to college. They call me every now and then when they come in town, doing speaker engagements. We teach life skills. Conflict resolution. I’m so glad I talked to you. We need some people like y'all to help us.”
“What’s the most satisfying part of being a bookstore owner?”
“Books can make you a better person. I’ve had people come in here, buy books and come back to tell me ‘hey, I bought a book here and it changed my life' or 'I bought a book here and used it to start a business and it ended up becoming successful.’ Especially, when I have regular customers who are children - 6 or 7 years old - and I watch them become teenagers. They start off with picture books, then young adult books, then novels you read in high school and then they’re off to college.”
“What’s something important you would like to communicate to students?”
“Get a job in a car wash. That’s a joke. Read a lot. Find something you’re interested in and read both sides of the story. Use your brain to decide who is lying more.”
"My experience abroad was really quiet. A lot of alone time and silence. Made me come back and value the noise. The sounds I could hear. The people I could talk to. I had been talking to my friends on Facebook, through email for a long time but I hadn’t heard their voices. There is something about someone’s tone – you can tell how much they love you. How much they miss you. Or how much they don’t. So I think coming back and being able to experience someone’s presence - the full force of it - was really tremendous for me.
But I think while I was there, I became really aware of my own voice and my own presence. Which was something I had never solidified before. You need silence. Even if it’s not silence you want."
"I’ve been working at Bon Appetit for 14 years - started off washing dishes. The best part of my job is the students, interacting with them, knowing them on a one on one basis. For example, I didn’t know anything about Jewish culture before I started working here - so I can take what I learn from students here and share it with my kids and grandkids.
And preparing food! My favorite dish is fish and grits. I love to cook for people. I love seeing the expression on their face after I prepare a meal.
I don’t let life beat me down too much, I take it one day at a time. Even when I’m sad, I’m still happy."
For more stories, check out https://www.facebook.com/VoicesOfPenn
Note: special thanks to my project partner, Maryam Mir, for approaching, interviewing and befriending strangers with me. You've inspired me so much along the way.