An unusual First Thursday encourages students to seek out help and community

An unusual First Thursday encourages students to seek out help and community

Hannah Goldfarb, Associate News Editor

Instead of gathering for First Thursday in the Leonard Center, the Macalester community listened to this year’s opening convocation over Zoom.

Though unusual in delivery, this year’s First Thursday featured the typical speakers — including Vice President of Student Affairs Donna Lee, Chaplain Rev. Kelly Stone, Provost and Dean of the Faculty Karine Moe, President Suzanne Rivera and Macalester College Student Government (MCSG) President Fatiya Kedir — as well as keynote speaker Anthony Jack, a sociologist and professor of education at Harvard University. 

The speakers delivered messages of resilience and hope in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and widespread social unrest across the country.

Lee opened First Thursday with a reminder that the Macalester community can still gather together in spirit, though not in person.

“Today’s First Thursday gathering has special meaning,” Lee said. “We are not starting this year in the way we had imagined. We are gathered in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, and although this pandemic causes us to be physically distant, we will not allow it to keep us from feeling connected to each other.”

After Lee spoke, Moe took a moment to encourage new members of the community — staff, faculty and students — to introduce themselves in the chat feature on Zoom, a First Thursday first. Moe then introduced Kedir, who outlined Macalester College Student Government’s priorities for the 2020-21 academic year. 

“I’ll be the first to state that I’m not certain of many things in this upcoming year,” Kadir said. “This defintely isn’t how I imagined my senior year to look, but I’m hopeful in reflecting my and MCSG’s goals.”

MCSG’s goals all center around maximizing the Macalester experience as best as possible during these unprecedented times. The body hopes to increase accessibility to essential resources, from mental and emotional healthcare to Open Pantry. 

After a pre-recorded performance by the African Music Ensemble, President Rivera addressed the campus community. She began her message by defining the Spanish word, “ganas.”

“The literal translation is just “wanting” as in ‘wanting to do or accomplish something,’” Rivera said. “But it means much more than that. It means desire, it means resolve. It means perseverance in the face of adversity. It means fire in the belly, initiative and self-belief.”

Rivera also shared her personal journey to Macalester, first as a low-income Latinx student on a free and reduced lunch program, then to a first-generation student at a prestigious college and eventually to Macalester’s president. 

“There were many obstacles along the way, many challenges,” Rivera said. “But in addition to lots of help and support I received from key people who offered me encouragement along the way, I also had the will and the desire and the resolve to preserve.”

“You are here, now, ready to face the challenges ahead, and you are meeting this moment, no matter how different it looks from what you expected or hoped for, with a desire to learn, and stretch, and grow, and thrive. That’s ganas,” she continued.

Rivera’s story echoed that of Jack, once a low-income and first-generation student himself. Jack encouraged students to ask for help in college, especially considering the additional burdens students bare this semester.

“Help-seeking is a mark of strength,” Jack said. “It is a sign that you are wise enough to know that you are approaching the edge of your own understanding about a subject, or something that you need to embark upon a path that is better traveled collectively, with others, than done alone.”

“Seeking out support is how… you stay safe. In the current climate, we are witnessing the callous disregard of human life. We may… need support dealing with the emotions that COVID-19 and the most recent onslaught of police killings spawn,” he continued. 

Jack reflected on some of the themes of his newest book, “Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students,” which explores the myths surrounding poverty and higher education.

“Many of us, especially those of us who are the first ones to go to college and those of us who are from lower income backgrounds, are often taught that when we enter school, we should not bother those people,” Jack said. “‘Keep your head down’ and ‘Do good work’ are the words that we hear from dedicated family members who want the best for us.”

“In college, the rules are different. Making oneself and one’s needs known is part of the hidden curriculum, that system of unwritten rules and unsaid expectations, is how you get what you need,” Jack continued. 

First Thursday concluded with a reading of the Macalester peace prayer by Sivali Bhandary ’23 in Nepali, Vanisa Nita Senesathith ’21 in Laos and Swopnil Shrestha ’21 in English. The typical lunch on Shaw Field did not follow, and the 2020-21 academic year began with each attendee alone, watching from their respective homes and dorms.