The sound of bagpipes called to attention the large crowd assembled for First Thursday convocation on the morning of September 7. Everyone, from students and faculty seated in folding chairs to latecomers sitting in the bleachers, rose to greet the procession of students holding flags entering the room.
They had assembled for the annual ceremony to mark the beginning of the new school year, and to honor the accomplishments of Gloria Perez ’88 – president and CEO of the Jeremiah Program, an organization that employs a two-generation method of lifting families out of poverty.
Convocation speakers expressed a sense of desperation and dissatisfaction with the political system, particularly in light of President Donald Trump’s announcement of his intention to rescind protections for immigrants under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) had two days prior to the event.
Chaplain Kelly Stone’s invocation called for Macalester to respond to the needs of those in its community.
“We are surrounded here by a room full of people who care deeply, very deeply, about the human family,” Stone said.“This semester, you will call. This semester, you will be called. And God willing, you will all respond. I trust that each and every one of us will find the sacred within that call and response.”
Macalester College Student Government (MCSG) President Suveer Daswani ’18 shared his ambitions and goals for the school year. Like Stone, Daswani addressed the need for action in times of mounting social injustice.
“I’m confident that MCSG will do what it takes within its boundaries to ensure that no voice is left unheard,” Daswani said. “And, when voices are being suppressed doing to the growing insensitivity, hatred and extremism in our societies today, it’s my hope that MCSG can be seen as a support system, a resource and an advocate for years to come.”
Daswani also announced MCSG’s intention to create a strategic plan to encourage continuity of its ideas from year to year. He also called for creating easier access to medical services for students.
President Brian Rosenberg then took the stage to share his feelings of desperation and, ultimately, hope in the face of growing xenophobia and hatred.
“Let me tell you a little secret. I’m the president, and I’m supposed to respond to all these things with equanimity and poise and calmness and confidence,” Rosenberg said. “But you know what? There are times when I just want to scream. There are times when I just want to cry.”
“And there are times when I want to give up – just get in my car and drive somewhere else, and let someone else worry about all of you and worry about these problems.”
“But then I think about how this place came to be, and the things people did in the past to give Macalester meaning,” he continued. He cited Catharine Lealtad, the first African American woman to attend Macalester in 1915, and Esther Suzuki, who came to Macalester directly from a Japanese internment camp at the height of popular anti-Japanese sentiment in 1942.
“I just tell myself, ‘Get over it,’” Rosenberg said. “Yeah, it’s hard – but the mission of this college is so important. Even when we fail fully to live up to its ideals, it’s so important that we strive to live up to them. That is my work, and that is our work.”
Following his speech, Rosenberg welcomed Perez to the podium by presenting her with an honorary doctorate for her work with the Jeremiah Program. Perez recounted the lessons she learned on her journey from growing up in San Antonio to running a nonprofit.
“I can vividly remember staring into the distance and literally wondering what life would be like when I grew up,” Perez said. “Back then, I did not envision going to college or living anyplace other than San Antonio. My dreams were mostly centered around my family and my home life.”
All of that changed, Perez said, when her father died unexpectedly.
“Before his death, my father told me not to worry about the future so much,” Perez said. “He said that was God’s department. My job was to be of service when I could and that the future would be here before I knew it.”
After a year at a community college in San Antonio, Perez transferred to Macalester to escape the “cycle of dysfunction and low expectations that seems to surround our community.”
Perez said she struggled to adapt to a culture different from her own.
“My first year in Minnesota was painful,” she said. “The real cause of my pain that first year was the lack of friends and a community that I could call my own.” That experience led to her first piece of advice to students: “Proactively seek out others and create a community of friends.”
Perez stuck with Macalester, and eventually found community and comfort working at the Uptowner Café – an opportunity that proved foundational for the rest of her life. At this job she met some of her closest friends to this day as well as her husband.
“Don’t ever turn down an opportunity on its face value. You might turn that opportunity into something far greater than you can ever imagine,” Perez said.
Finally, Perez urged students to remain curious – a trait she said has been central to her work in helping to lift families out of poverty.
“There are so many things I love about being at Macalester: my unique life experiences that brought me here were validated and respected,” Perez continued. “When I was given the space to share my point of view, regardless of whether others agreed with me or not, I grew in self-confidence and I grew in my curiosity about others. My curiosity and my fundamental respect for other people have been blessings to me in my work.”
Following her speech, students spilled out onto Shaw field to enjoy bagged lunches on the warm and sunny afternoon.