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It goes without saying that “Black Lives Matter” has become a household term. The founders of the movement, however — Patrisse Cullors among them — are much less widely known. When I received a promotional email from the Middlebury College Activities Board (MCAB) that Cullors would be giving a talk on April 15, it felt like a huge deal to me. However, I quickly realized that this wasn’t necessarily a shared sentiment: when I asked around, people either didn’t know the event was happening or didn’t know who Cullors was. I was still surprised, however, when I walked into a mostly empty Wilson Hall last Friday night.
Hey, Midd! As a quick introduction, my name is Daleelah. I’m a junior Posse Scholar from New York. I exist at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities: I’m Muslim, Arab-American, from a low-income background, neurodivergent and a woman of color. These various facets of my identity have not only shaped who I am, but shape the way I exist within the spaces and communities I inhabit at Midd.
On Jan. 19, Middlebury announced its new partnership with QuestBridge, a nonprofit which offers full scholarships to low-income students who are matched with and admitted to selective universities. Middlebury’s first QuestBridge Scholars will matriculate in fall 2023.
I have anxiety and depression. My favorite color is purple (or blue, depending on the day). I’m happiest in libraries, at concerts, on the beach or watching sunsets. I’m passionate about multimedia storytelling and creating positive representation for marginalized communities. Fall is my favorite season (partially because my birthday is in October and partially because of how beautiful the leaves look). I’m a New Yorker and thought I would never survive outside a city, but am learning to love the access to nature that living in a rural setting affords me. I understand rationally that these are all facets of my being, that without any one of them, I would not be the person I am. But I’m still wary about attaching the label of “mentally ill” to myself.
I’ve been grappling with my mental health for most of my life. After my parents divorced, my mom decided it would be healthiest for me and my brother to learn how to process our feelings in therapy. As first and third graders, respectively, we weren’t thrilled by this prospect — especially since we had some therapists we didn’t get along with. In retrospect, I give her major kudos for this: recent studies have found that only about 10% of children see a therapist before they turn 18.
I was in sixth grade when we found someone we really liked and I have been meeting with her ever since. I’ve also been a proponent of mental health initiatives and in high school I advocated for more accessible mental health resources on a local and state level through the New York Civil Liberties Union. As a student at Midd, I’ve had multiple conversations with peers about mental health, some of them even among the Editorial Board of the Campus.
On a wider level, mental health isn’t the taboo it once was. Whether diagnosed officially or not, many of my friends are open about the ways in which they’ve struggled with their mental health, both on and offline. Over the years, social media accounts dedicated to raising awareness around mental health and promoting resources have become more commonplace. There are varying stats on Gen-Z mental health, but studies agree that more than 2/3 of Gen-Zers are mentally ill in some capacity — a proportion much higher than for previous generations.
Despite this generally more mental-health savvy culture and all of my own resources — having access to a therapist, having a mom who “got it,” having a Posse mentor and a greater support network on campus, I still fell through the cracks.
I spent my first semester in college on a schedule fit more for a vampire than an 18-year-old. I’d wake up at 7:30 a.m., spend my morning trying not to fall asleep in classes, get lunch, then go back to my room and pass out until 7, 8, or sometimes 9 p.m.. I would proceed to stay up until anywhere from 2 to 5 a.m., struggling to focus and get my homework done. Rinse and repeat.
On paper, I had a great first semester. Sure, I was constantly on the verge of a breakdown, but at least my transcript and résumé were strong.
In retrospect, this feels like an almost superhuman feat. I can’t imagine pulling off the grades and extracurriculars I did, while running on the consistent lack of sleep I had. Maybe it’s because Covid-19 drained me of the capacity to run on nothing but sheer willpower, caffeine and adrenaline. Or maybe it’s because I’ve learned not to push myself past my limits anymore — or at the very least, how to stop prioritizing everyone and everything above myself.
I don’t think I turned a single assignment in on time that semester. While I had been repeatedly assured that everyone struggled with adjusting to their college course load, this felt outside of the realm of typical transition-period difficulties. People in my hall and in my classes were still somehow able to be up at the same time the sun was, and maintain some sort of a social life.
While I recognized that functioning in a constant state of burnout wasn’t healthy, it was second-nature to me — I didn’t have a blueprint for operating any other way. I graduated from high school with an IB diploma at the cost of my sleep and my sanity. I was privileged to learn how to write strong analytical papers, how to conduct research, how to engage with my course material and the world around me in meaningful and critical ways. But I also adopted a really toxic mindset of prioritizing assignments and grades over my mental and physical health. This mindset transferred over to my time at Middlebury. It’s one that seems to thrive in high-pressure academic environments known for their rigor.
After multiple FaceTimes with my mom that ended in tears, I was forced to admit to myself that something was wrong, that I was drowning, that I needed help. But asking for help was easier said than done. I worried that admitting I was struggling would be conceding that I didn’t belong at Midd, that I wasn’t capable of handling the workload, that I didn’t deserve to be here. These fears were rooted in imposter syndrome — which is especially common for women of color at predominantly white institutions.
I eventually reached out to all the resources at my disposal. Soon, my mentors knew I was struggling, my professors knew I was struggling, my dean knew I was struggling, my academic advisor knew I was struggling. They were sympathetic, outlining various avenues of support I could access — but not one of them suggested that I try to get accommodations. Instead, they advised me to go to the Center for Teaching, Learning and Research and work on creating schedules for myself — a method I had already been taught in high school. I was made to feel like it was my fault, like if I just managed my time better and worked more effectively I could stay afloat.
[pullquote speaker="" photo="" align="center" background="off" background_color="#ffffff" border="none" border_color="#FFFFFF" border_size="5px" shadow="off"]I was made to feel like it was my fault, like if I just managed my time better and worked more effectively I could stay afloat. [/pullquote]
While schedules and time-blocking can be helpful, no amount of time-blocking could cure my brain fog. I'd sit and stare at my computer for hours, willing words to appear on the screen, but I couldn't do it. I spiraled into a vicious cycle where I would get so anxious about something having to be not only good, but perfect, that I would avoid doing it. Then, when the deadline had passed and I was still faced with my blank screen, I felt guilty, which made me more anxious. With fight or flight out of the picture, that left me with a third option: feeling frozen. These are classic symptoms of mental illness, symptoms that, in retrospect, so clearly point to a need for help.
It’s not that I’m unfamiliar with accommodations, it’s that I never thought they applied to me. Being high-functioning means that the struggles I go through because of my mental illnesses exist below the surface. One of my family members has ADHD and he’s had an Individualized Education Program, the pre-collegiate version of accommodations, for many years now. Professors are required to include information about the Disability Resource Center on their syllabi and they often encourage students to reach out for accommodations. I always skipped over this part. My perception of accommodations was that they were for people with learning disorders or physical disabilities, not those struggling with anxiety and depression. You can’t advocate for yourself if you don’t think you deserve help.
[pullquote speaker="" photo="" align="center" background="off" background_color="#ffffff" border="none" border_color="#FFFFFF" border_size="5px" shadow="off"]You can’t advocate for yourself if you don’t think you deserve help.[/pullquote]
Halfway through my sophomore fall, I discovered that one of my friends was given accommodations because she had panic attacks — something that I also dealt with. This surprised me, not because I didn’t think she deserved them, but because so much of the language surrounding accommodations highlights “disability.” I was forced to redefine disability — not only on a larger scale, but in my own relationship to it. My mental illnesses were so ingrained into my daily life that I overlooked the fact that they were just that: illnesses. More importantly, I overlooked the fact that being neurodivergent meant I had to work harder than my neurotypical peers to complete the same assignments — not because I was any less capable, but because I had to overcome the barriers that come with anxiety and depression in the process. Somewhere along the way, I forgot to be proud of myself for what I've been able to accomplish despite having to overcome so much. Instead, I fell into cycles of beating myself up for not meeting my fullest potential.
The next week, I applied for accommodations. Despite this being a multi-step process, as outlined on the Disability Resource Center website, it was less of an ordeal than I had braced myself for. I had expected to undergo an interrogation of sorts, to prove that I genuinely needed help and wasn’t trying to cheat or find an “easy way out.” I reached out to my therapist beforehand to ensure that she could produce documentation to back up my claims. While this streamlined the process, I later found out that it wasn’t even necessary (despite what the language on the site about documentation suggested), and that students could get assessed through the school. In comparison to these daunting preconceptions, the actual process seemed almost overwhelmingly simple.
I emailed the Disability Resource Center, set up an appointment with them, and over the course of an hour, explained the ways in which I was struggling and was presented with different solutions in the form of accommodations. Almost immediately after, I received a provisional Letter of Accommodation and got a permanent one after filling out some paperwork and sending documentation from my therapist.
While I was grateful for how straightforward the process was, and for the lack of red tape around it that I had previously envisioned, I felt bitter (and still do) that it took so long to get there, that I had been so wary about reaching out for help before. There’s an astounding amount of irony in the fact that the site for the office dedicated to accessibility uses official language that is inaccessible to students and doesn’t have clearer guidelines on what qualifies as a “disability” for the sake of acquiring accommodations.
[pullquote speaker="" photo="" align="center" background="off" background_color="#ffffff" border="none" border_color="#FFFFFF" border_size="5px" shadow="off"]There’s an astounding amount of irony in the fact that the site for the office dedicated to accessibility uses official language that is inaccessible to students and doesn’t have clearer guidelines on what qualifies as a “disability” for the sake of acquiring accommodations. [/pullquote]
While I wasn’t told to seek out accommodations my first semester, I was advised to drop a class. This happened again last semester, when I was falling behind on readings and assignments. Both times, I refused. I told myself I could stick it out, despite the sleep and peace of mind I knew it would cost me.
Even though I was granted the institutional support I so desperately craved two years ago, there’s a sense of shame that continues to hang over me, that exists in tandem with a self-imposed expectation to prove myself: at first, just as a woman of color at Middlebury, but then, as a woman of color who qualified as having a disability. At the beginning of this semester, I was hesitant to send a professor I admired my letter of accommodation, worried it would make him think less of me, that I’d have to work harder to prove I was a “good student.”
I think this is representative of a wider stigma associated with mental illness, that it is something that is a burden, something to be worked around, something to be “dealt with.” On the flip side of this stigma, I’ve seen discourses that reframe mental illnesses in an overly positive light, even going so far as to call them “superpowers.”
Neither of these feel right to me.
My anxiety and depression mean spirals and panic attacks — where it feels like the walls are closing in on me and I can’t catch my breath no matter how hard I try. On good days, though, I can acknowledge that they’re the parts of me that make it easier to empathize with others, to provide a good listening ear and advice if needed.
The fact that I have mental illnesses is not good or bad, it just is. They’re a part of me just as much as my favorite colors, settings and seasons. But even as I type that sentence, I know that it is something that I’m still coming to terms with.
[pullquote speaker="" photo="" align="center" background="off" background_color="#ffffff" border="none" border_color="#FFFFFF" border_size="5px" shadow="off"]The fact that I have mental illnesses is not good or bad, it just is. They’re a part of me just as much as my favorite colors, settings and seasons. But even as I type that sentence, I know that it is something that I’m still coming to terms with. [/pullquote]
My ability to acquire accommodations was entirely circumstantial, a combination of privilege and luck. If I had never met my friend who had accommodations because of her panic attacks, I’m not sure that it would’ve ever crossed my mind to pursue accommodations for myself. If my mom hadn’t put me in therapy, it might have taken me a lot longer to name the issues I was facing and learn how to cope with them. The list goes on.
I want to envision a world (or at least a better version of Middlebury) where if you’re struggling, you get the help you need. Not just through individualized support like accommodations, but more structural solutions that allow grace and create room for students to get extensions and similar “aid”— not because a Dean said they should, but because they know themselves best, and they know they need it.
But that can’t happen until we’re able to have open, honest, vulnerable conversations about the ways in which we are struggling. This, in turn, requires overcoming the shame and guilt associated with not meeting expectations — whether those be your own or those imposed upon you. I hope that this article is a start.
My mom FaceTimed me last Saturday, joking that I should call up my dad and brother and remind them that I’m the only reason either of them are alive right now. We laughed about it, but it felt heavy.
I know — more than most — what it would have been like to lose someone on 9/11. At the time of the attacks, my dad was working in an office on the 70th floor of the World Trade Center. The story goes that he and my mom had stayed up the night before attending a birthing class. Because of this, my dad slept through his alarm and left twenty minutes late for work. Sometimes, running late is lucky. Sometimes, it saves your life.
He took his normal subway route, but when he got out at his stop, all hell had broken loose. Both buildings had collapsed. Some of his colleagues were able to make it out, and he walked across the Brooklyn Bridge with them. Others didn’t escape in time. Smoke and dust filled the air, and made its way over to 5th Avenue, where my mom was working. She heard about the attacks through a combination of radio and television. Her friends did their best to keep her calm. Cell service had been lost and she had no way of contacting my dad. So she, like so many others across the city and around the world, was left bracing herself for the worst.
My parents eventually made their way home and dealt with the aftermath of the attack together: as New Yorkers whose city was in turmoil, as friends of victims or their loved ones, as Muslim-Americans whose moral compass were being called into question solely on the basis of their religious identity and as expectant parents who would have to learn how to raise their child in the midst of all of this.
Two years later, my mom gave birth to my brother. And neither of us had to grow up with a shadow of loss hanging over us in place of my father. So, last Saturday, I woke up feeling lucky. A difference of twenty minutes changed the entire trajectory of my life. Sometimes that feels too big to really comprehend.
But it didn’t take long for the dread to settle in, as it usually does. 9/11 shaped my life, and continues to do so, in ways that are often much more intangible than the loss of my father would’ve been.
I’m not always able to recognize how drastically security tightened in reaction to 9/11 because that’s all I’ve ever known. When traveling together, my mom tells us what airports used to be like “in the before time,” and my brother and I react with the same disbelief that we usually reserved for fairytales as kids. Walking your loved one right up to the gate without having to go through security or take your shoes off, crying while you watch their plane depart — it’s the stuff of movies now, but it was her reality. My reality consists of sitting on cold airport floors, waiting for hours while my mom (or dad, depending on who I’m traveling with) gets questioned by the TSA for being too brown or having a name that sounds too Arab. Freedom of movement is a foreign concept to me, a privilege that I have never been afforded.
There was a presumed sense of safety that dissipated for everyone in the aftermath of 9/11, but especially for Muslims. The Patriot Act isn’t some vague piece of legislation, but something that has had very real consequences for my community. I live near a section of Astoria, NY called Little Egypt (on Steinway Street), which is home to a large population of Arab and Muslim immigrants. Steinway was one of the areas that came under police scrutiny. When reading through reporting on their tactics, I saw so many familiar places — our local halal meat store, one of our mosques, some of my favorite restaurants. While much of the surveillance is covert, its presence is still felt. It creates a sense of unease. It’s the same unease that follows me around when I am walking to the mosque, in airports and on planes, and in predominantly white spaces. The sense that I am a suspect. Guilty until proven innocent. Terrorist until proven otherwise.
I spent a good portion of my childhood in the library, searching for books where I saw myself reflected as anything else. Through newspapers and TV shows, I learned to see myself through the eyes of people who feared me and what they thought I represented.
Islamophobia is often discussed in the context of “post-9/11,” as if hatred against Muslims sprung into existence the moment the towers collapsed. But my mom dealt with it when she was growing up in Philly — just a different brand of it, rooted in Orientalism, as opposed to the War on Terror. Regardless, the rhetoric against Muslims has always been predominantly negative, especially on and around 9/11.
I feel frustrated when I open social media and am bombarded by posts that are, at worst, borderline white supremacist and, at best, solely ignorant. They’re usually America-centric, often failing to account for the violence enacted in response to 9/11, both at home and abroad. Violence enacted in the name of vengeance, disguised as protection from a war that America created.
This discourse has started to shift, especially with the recent withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. But even when we do acknowledge the massive loss of human life that occurred in response to 9/11, it’s still reductionist. It’s a number instead of people with faces, with names, favorite colors, food preferences and a baby on the way. It’s a perpetuation of “other”ing, even if the intention is to foster empathy. Just as I would have wanted my father to be honored in the fullness of his humanity, I want that for every other victim.
I’m turning 20 next month, just weeks after the 20th anniversary of 9/11. And if I’ve learned anything in the past 20 years, it’s how to make space for nuance. How to balance dominant oppressive narratives with my own lived experiences. How to navigate my so-called dual identity — my Muslimness and my Americanness, which have always co-existed for me, but seem oxymoronic to others. How to both mourn the lives lost on 9/11, and all the lives lost in its wake. How to honor other people’s grief, while making space for my own.
For the past few days, Snapchat has been highlighting moments from this time last year, and while memories are usually bittersweet, these are tinged with a special brand of nostalgia. I feel like an audience member that knows something the main character doesn’t, leaving me no choice but to sit and watch as a series of unfortunate events unfold. Every photo and video feels like a memorium: This is your last WOMP show, too many bodies in a too-small space, everyone swaying in sync. This is your last time lingering in the Proc booths, socializing with your computer out just for the pretense. This is your last time sitting in a packed theater, awestruck whispers exchanged with friends sitting centimeters away. This is your last late-night Grille run, mozzarella sticks consumed under fluorescent lights — they taste best at 2 a.m. This is your last academic conference where the only technical issue is that there aren’t enough mics. This is your last time sipping a Starbucks-adjacent latte while poring over your textbook at Wilson Café. This is your last blissfully unaware morning before the world fell apart.
Spoiler alert: the world didn’t end. One year later and everything has turned upside down, but it’s been that way for so long I don’t notice it much anymore. In fact, it feels almost bizarre to see pre-Covid photos or people on television not wearing masks. That’s the new “abnormal,” or it would be, except that “normal” ceased to hold any real meaning the day we learned we were being sent home indefinitely.
March 10, 2020 demarcates a very clear “before” and “after” in my life, and everything in the “after” has been a case study in extremes. Following my departure from campus, I spent six months at home in Astoria, New York with my mom and brother. It felt like a regression. Just as I was starting to thrive at Midd — I had favorite spaces to hang out in, classes and extracurriculars I loved, multiple friend groups — I found myself back in my childhood bedroom, everything the same except for me. Polaroids from high school lined my walls, my graduation cap hung above my desk. I had to readjust all over again, but I took comfort in knowing that everyone else did too. As death tolls rose and states were put under lockdown, we were all in mourning — not just for lives lost but for life as we knew it.
Eventually the curve flattened and restrictions lifted, but because my mom and brother are immunocompromised, we engaged in very few activities. I haven’t ridden the subway since last February, and I can count on one hand the number of times I saw friends while in New York. My high school self would be shocked to discover that she had more freedom of movement — and a much more robust social life — than I did both times I was home. That’s not how it’s supposed to work, she would protest. I had envisioned carefree nights in the city, exploring museums and picnicking in Central Park — getting lost but not caring because that’s what adolescence is for. Instead, I lived different variations of the same day for six months, then again for another three, like a bad “Groundhog Day” remake.
If I wasn’t already bitter enough about this loss, the hours I spent scrolling through Instagram served as a reminder that even as my life was on pause, it had resumed for many others. Over the summer, interspersed with anti-racism infographics were lighthouses and lake houses, foreign locations serving as selfie backdrops. With “white privilege” on the tip of everyone’s tongues, it was hard not to notice the irony. My friends and I were stuck in small apartments, and access to the outdoors, which was already rooted in affluence, was further restricted for us. Meanwhile, people who have always gotten to enjoy the wilderness continued to do so.
My saving grace was that I had a backyard and was able to go on walks around my neighborhood. But even that respite disappeared when I returned home for winter and temperatures dropped. I went days without leaving my house or seeing the sun. Throughout J-Term, I sat on Zoom for hours, lamenting the loss of “J-Term, play term.” Meanwhile, the phrase took on a whole new meaning for other Midd kids; I watched as they skied, hiked and lived in houses together. It’s not that I didn’t want other people to have those experiences, but they brought already-existing socioeconomic divisions into sharp relief. They reminded me that the consequences of this pandemic bear themselves very differently across class lines, significantly altering the losses faced and sacrifices made.
Despite this bitterness, I’ve felt immensely aware of my own privilege in this unprecedented — as everyone likes to remind us — time. I reflect on it daily, listing at least three things I’m grateful for. I’m grateful that both of my parents can work safely from home and that no one I love has lost their life to Covid. I’m grateful that I have access to food, water, electricity, Wi-Fi and somewhere warm to sleep. I’m grateful for my health and safety. These are things that I can no longer take for granted.
When we returned to school in the fall, I avoided catching up with people. I dreaded being asked how my quarantine/summer was because I had nothing to say, few fun experiences to speak of. It was one of the hardest time periods of my life. I was, and still am, reeling from the trauma and didn’t have the emotional energy to pretend otherwise. Once the semester started, however, socializing was easier. I had talking points to cling to — the difficulty of the transition, how many in-person classes I was taking, how different campus felt with all the Covid restrictions — ways to talk to someone without actually talking to them.
And like clockwork, I’ve found myself in the same position as we transition from J-Term into spring semester. For the first few days, I worried that I had developed social anxiety. I feared running into people and having to make small talk. I felt like I had to remember how to be a person again, how to communicate outside the confines of a Zoom box. This was especially difficult given that I had avoided catching up with anyone over break — texting people that I missed them and wanted to FaceTime soon but never actually following through. It wasn’t for a lack of loneliness. FaceTiming people was gratifying, but also draining: while it was nice to interact with friends for a bit, seeing them on a screen served as a reminder of their physical absence, the actual distance between us. I felt guilty for not reaching out more, but checking in is a two-way street, and the mere thought of being asked “how are you” was enough to fill me with anxiety. So I went three months without talking to most of my friends, and now that I’m back, catching up feels even more daunting. However, like last semester, as classes started and dining halls reopened, I scheduled meals and study times with friends, making myself socialize until it felt comfortable again.
But just as I fell into a rhythm, Snapchat memories started to appear, reminding me of how drastically different my life was a year ago. I find myself slipping back into the five stages of grief. But then I refocus on gratitude. I’m grateful that I’m back on campus and that all my classes are in person, since so many of my friends have no choice but to do remote semesters. I’m grateful for the time I spent with my family; our nightly routine of bonding over Netflix shows, and that I was home for Ramadan and my brother’s college acceptance — celebrations I would’ve otherwise missed. [pullquote speaker="" photo="" align="center" background="on" border="all" shadow="on"]I’m grateful that this year has forced us to take a step back and reconsider our priorities, extending compassion and empathy when we might not have before. I’m grateful for growth and healing. I’m grateful that I’m alive. I’m grateful that I’m alive. I’m grateful that I’m alive. [/pullquote]
Editor’s Note: Daleelah Saleh ’23 is an Opinion Editor for The Campus.
As with pretty much every other aspect of life, Ramadan celebrations in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic have changed significantly. In many cultures, Ramadan has typically been characterized by the unity of the “ummah” (community), as everyone bonds over shared experiences. In this holy month, people usually flock to the mosque to breakfast, pray together, and pay visits to various friends’ and family’s houses for “iftar” (the post-sunset meal). Many of my favorite Ramadan memories are of me joining a large table of strangers in various community spaces and leaving as friends by the end of the iftar. I have reminisced about this with my mom and brother multiple times in the last few weeks, as lively conversations and laughter with friends and family over shared meals have been replaced by FaceTimes and Zoom calls.
Going into 2020, I had already braced myself for Ramadan to look different, because I thought I would be spending it at Middlebury. I knew that Middlebury had a Muslim Students Association (MSA), but I wasn’t really aware of any Ramadan events or celebrations that would be occurring on campus. I worried that fasting in a predominantly white institution in middle-of-nowhere Vermont would feel isolating. Discovering that Middlebury had scheduled the Class of 2020’s commencement for the same day as Eid confirmed my suspicions that as Muslims, our religious ceremonies and beliefs are systemically overlooked. So when we got the email that we would have to leave campus, I couldn’t help but feel grateful that at least I would be able to celebrate Ramadan in New York with my family. But after having conversations with a few upperclassmen about what Ramadan was like at Middlebury last year, I’ve begun to feel nostalgic for the experience that could have been.
Over a Zoom call, Saifa Hussain, the Muslim Chaplain at Midd, answered all my questions about what celebrating Ramadan would have been like at Middlebury. Both this year and last year, the Scott Center has worked with Dining Services to ensure that the MSA fridge is stocked with food and drinks so that students could eat “suhoor,” the pre-sunrise meal, and iftar outside of the restrictions of dining hall hours. In addition to that, the MSA hosted community iftar events, some of them with catered foods, others serving as a community potluck of sorts, with people getting together to cook different cultural dishes. These iftars were not just for Middlebury students, Saifa said. Rather, various faculty members and professors also joined a few of them. Jennifer Ortegren, an assistant professor of religion, even helped to co-organize an event with Youssef el-Berrichi, the Arabic TA, centered around the relationship between food and community.
This relationship, Saifa noted, is one of the key aspects of Ramadan. “For many of us, Ramadan is about cultural food and reconnecting with our culture. For children of immigrant parents, it’s about the cultural experience of coming together for festivities after a long day of fasting to enjoy their parents’ cooking,” she said. “And if you’re an international student and you’re in a place that’s not predominantly your culture, Ramadan is a way to maintain those ties with the culture of your homeland. For that to be limited in any way is hard.”
Because of this, Saifa takes trips to Burlington to stock up on cultural “comfort” foods for Muslim students at Middlebury, some of which include certain spices such as maggi and shito; fish such as tilapia, kenkey, and sardines; and vegetables like yam and plantains. Furthermore, she’s worked with Dining Services to ensure that halal meats are provided for students who wish to cook meals from home, especially given that most of the students on campus are from African backgrounds and a lot of the dining hall foods which are Arab and South Asian inspired do not resonate with their own cultural experiences. This year, the MSA is working to provide programs and services for students off-campus as well: each Saturday night they host a “halaqa” (class) over Zoom to discuss spiritual reminders and topics relevant to current events.
When asked about Ramadan and being Muslim in the context of the greater community at Middlebury, however, Saifa said that there’s still a lot of work to be done, but she’s hopeful. Throughout this year, the MSA worked with Hillel to organize a few interfaith events. Saifa had been in the process of working with Youssef and Rabbi Danielle to plan an event called Mimouna, which is a custom in Morocco in which Muslims make a meal for Jewish neighbors at the end of Passover to help them break the fast. While that event can no longer take place due to Covid-19, it is representative of communities at Middlebury coming together to celebrate and indicative of future events that could take place. “I believe that after difficulty comes ease,” Saifa said. “There will be a lot of beauty and growth that comes as a result of these difficult times, and I am hopeful that people will come back with renewed energy for community and coming together.”
I am also hopeful. To borrow Laurie Patton’s phrasing, I feel “cautiously optimistic” about celebrating Ramadan at Middlebury next year and bringing some of my family’s traditions to campus while also creating my own. I envision myself breaking fast on the always-long Ross line, sharing dates and “khoshaf” with non-Muslim friends, staying up studying in Wilson before eating suhoor in the MSA room, and praying and finding comfort in new spaces.
Daleelah Saleh is a member of the class of 2023.
#NoFailMidd started as a conversation within the Middlebury community about how the current opt-in Pass/D/Fail grading policy disproportionately affects the students who are struggling the most during this unprecedented pandemic. A group of us set out to find a new model that would account for students’ needs and prevent them from being penalized for circumstances out of their control. Advocating for a universal pass/fail model provided a concrete starting point for our conversation. After engaging with over 1,100 students and faculty, both through our online petition and in conversations, we transitioned into #FairGradesMidd, which aims to replace the current opt-in Pass/D/Fail model while providing students with information on the two most equitable models available: “universal pass/fail” and “Dual A.”
The current optional model unfairly impacts students for whom Middlebury can usually provide key resources on campus: students without internet access, stable housing, or food security, as well as students who depend on accommodations and additional academic support. We believe that these students are more likely to opt into Pass/D/Fail because of these circumstances. While some of their peers may set out to chase A’s from more comfortable environments, others may feel pressured to pursue letter grades at the expense of their own physical and emotional wellbeing.
A model that incentivizes division among our community and encourages students to put the prospect of a letter grade over their wellbeing is neither fair nor sustainable. Illnesses, limitations to broadband access and external stressors will make completing the semester difficult for all of us — and even more so for students in our community who are most in need of support. We fear that employers and graduate programs would interpret opting for Pass/D/Fail as a cop-out and indicative as a lack of academic drive, that our peers would make similar inferences, and that we would feel failed for not performing as we normally would. We are also concerned that our academic and professional futures may be negatively impacted by not having letter grades in our transcripts.
For us, the most important outcome from our movement is changing our current grading model into one that comprehensively supports students who are struggling — whatever model that might be. Our cause has always been about equity, and not exclusively about the merits and details of each grading model. It is in this spirit that we have reframed our movement as #FairGradesMidd, joining efforts with other students to also present a Dual A policy as an alternative to the current system. In our Dual A model, each student is awarded either an A or an A- for each class.
We are inspired by how students have come together to discuss their ideas and demonstrate engagement for a better Middlebury. Even from a distance, we have created something much more meaningful out of these conversations: community.
We are deeply appreciative of students who are not adversely affected by this situation and we hear your concerns about GPAs and employment — it would be naïve not to recognize that this is how the world works. Still, we urge you to consider how our current model is negatively impacting our peers right now. If you do not agree with a universal pass/fail model, we urge you to look at our Dual A proposal and explore how it maintains letter grading while ensuring no students are penalized for situations out of their control.
We cannot choose the circumstances we live in, but we still have a choice about the kind community we want to create. The fight for a more equitable grading model starts with us standing together and making our voices heard. We urge you to email the SGA President and your senators to voice why this change matters to you. We urge you to contact faculty and staff and ask them to advocate for you to the administration.
We urge you to take a stand for equity and solidarity. #FairGradesMidd is an essential step in that direction.
Arthur Martins ’22.5, Daleelah Saleh ’23, and Jackson Tham ’22 are three of the student organizers of #FairGradesMidd. Other organizers include Luka Bowen ’22, Hira Zeeshan ’22, Tre Stephens ’21, Chloe Fleischer ’21.5 and Paul Flores-Clavel ’22.
At the time of publication, the petition has amassed 1103 signatories, 20 of whom are faculty members. To view the petition, please visit go.middlebury.edu/FairGradesMidd/.
As a Muslim-American woman growing up in the shadow of post-9/11 Islamophobia and the War on Terror, I am no stranger to the stereotypes perpetuated in Western media against Muslims, especially Muslim women. Renowned playwright and actress Rohina Malik’s one-woman play “Unveiled” breaks down these stereotypes and the harmful impact they have on the Muslim community, and works to produce a much needed counter-narrative.
Malik performed “Unveiled” on March 7 at the Wright Memorial Theatre. The play was co-sponsored by the Charles P. Scott Center for Spiritual and Religious Life, the Middle East Studies Department and the Center for Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity, and was one of the last installments in Middlebury’s 21st Century Theatre Festival. Associate Professor of Theatre Claudio Medeiros and Assistant Professor of Theatre Michole Biancosino were motivated to organize the festival by a desire to bring diverse theater voices from New York and Chicago to Middlebury. They specifically chose to feature “Unveiled” in order to give audiences an opportunity to “see themselves onstage and give other students insight on experiences [of people in the Muslim community] without putting the onus on Muslim students on this campus,” Biancosino said.
Indeed, for many students, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, Malik’s performance was one of their first times seeing a veiled Muslim woman acting on stage. Furthermore, for many Muslim-Americans, watching Rohina’s play is one of the only times they have seen themselves represented positively and accurately within the media, a problem which Biancosino acknowledged, calling it a “hole in the theatrical canon.”
Audiences of “Unveiled” were invited to drink a cup of tea before the show started. In this way, the audience was able to immerse themselves fully into the content of the play, in which Malik told the stories of five different Muslim women — all veiled, but from very different ethnic and familial backgrounds — through monologues over cups of tea. Each cup of tea held cultural significance for the characters in the play and thus acted as a common thread tying the stories of all the main characters together. The drastically different ethnic backgrounds of the characters in the play showcased the breadth of the Muslim diaspora in the United States and served to offset the misconception that the Muslim-American experience is monolithic.
“Unveiled” was first produced and performed at the 16th Street Theater in New York in 2009. Since then, Malik has travelled across the country and around the world, performing “Unveiled” in a variety of different venues, from theatres to universities to mosques, churches and more. Malik herself emphasizes while this play is centered around Muslim experiences, it is relevant for people of all backgrounds. She explains that ultimately, her mission is to educate people and combat ignorance. Thus, she finds it necessary to perform her play in as many different places as possible, and that getting to witness moments of enlightenment felt by her audience members makes the hassle of traveling while Muslim “worth it.” Indeed, for Malik, one of the most powerful aspects of theater is the connection created between the actor and the audience as they experience the play together. “Theatre is sacred because it’s live,” she said.
Over the course of the one-hour long play, Malik packs in a lot of social commentary. She dives headfirst into topics such as sexual assault, hate crimes, bigotry, feminism, racism, colonization and so much more. “[Unveiled] is a great play for having a conversation about the state of politics in America,” Biancosino said. The stories featured in the play, Rohina explained, are inspired by true events, both experiences of her own and experiences of her friends and the greater Muslim community. Rohina wrote the play out of a desire to share these experiences with others.
Saturday night’s showing of “Unveiled” was not the first time Middlebury students were exposed to the play. There were some students in the audience that had previously read “Unveiled” as part of their class “Contemporary Women Playwrights.” Wengel Kifle ’20 was among these students. According to Kifle, her class had mixed responses to the play, some saying that its structure differed too much from their expectations of theater, given its monologue format and minimal narrative. However, for Kiffle, both reading and watching the play was a powerful experience. “[I] was already aware of a lot of the hate delivered upon the Muslim community in the United States and in general after 9/11,” she said. “[I] hadn’t had a lot of exposure to the personal pain that the Muslim community was going through and the emotions behind all of that.”
Within the context of this play, the concept of the veil refers to the ignorance many people have towards the Muslim community, and the blind hatred that stems from it. In the last scene of the play, Malik’s character begs a character that committed a hate crime against her to “remove the veil from [his] heart”, and ultimately, that is what she allows the audience to do as well.
“Learning with love is transformative,” professed Arthur Martins ’22.5, one of six students who participated in the 2020 Spencer Prize Grand Championship in Oratory. The contest took place on Tuesday, Feb. 18 in the Mahaney Center for the Arts in front of an audience of over 200 students, faculty and community members who gathered to hear students deliver six-minute speeches on myriad topics such as xenophobia, imposter syndrome and ableism. One first-year from each commons competed, including Aubrianna Wilson ’23, Constance Gooding ’23, who is this year’s Grand Champion, Devon Hunt ’23, Rain Ji ’23, Citlali Aguilera-Rico ’23, as well as Arthur Martins as a “wild card” competitor.
With the Spencer Prize competition, all the stories trace back to a single prompt: “Connect something you learned in a Middlebury class to something you care about.” This prompt, which bridges academic study and personal narrative, is at the core of the Spencer Prize experience. Not only does it highlight what students learned in their classes during the first semester, it also allows community members to get a glimpse into experiences and stories they might not otherwise hear about in day-to-day conversations.
“Making personal connections to what you’re studying is just as important as receiving good grades,” said finalist Citlali Aguilera-Rico. “Looking at your Middlebury experience solely through the lens of academia will blind you to the personal and emotional development you can experience through learning.”
An aspect that differentiates the Spencer Prize Grand Championship from other events centered around public speaking is that it is only open to first-years and first-year Febs — and there is a nomination process. Professors nominate students in the fall.
[pullquote speaker="Citlali Aguilera-Rico '23" photo="" align="center" background="on" border="all" shadow="on"]Making personal connections to what you’re studying is just as important as receiving good grades.[/pullquote]
“A lot of people who might not compete [do] so because someone on the faculty suggests them, which is a sign of recognition and honor,” said Dana Yeaton, the director of Oratory Now. After being nominated, they are officially invited to participate in the competition. If they agree to do so, they go through a qualifying round hosted in their Commons during J-Term.
There are five qualifying rounds, and this year there were 48 total participants. At the end of each Commons Championship, one champion emerges victorious in addition to two runner-ups, all of whom are voted on by a panel of volunteer faculty judges. Each Commons Championship also results in a speaker crowned the “people’s choice” winner, voted on by the audience members.
“There’s something almost magical about everyone coming together in a Commons lounge on a cold winter night to listen to their peers talk about something they care about (and to enjoy the hot chocolate bar),” said Yeaton. Over the course of the night, students are able to build connections with each other as they find common ground in the messages and stories told through the speeches.
Oratory Now, a student-driven, faculty-directed organization founded in 2014, focuses on training and research in oral expression. It began producing the Spencer Prize both “for Midd Kids to feel like they’re a part of a speaking culture” as well as to help students speak more eloquently in class, according to Yeaton. The Spencer Prize was named as a tribute to the late Professor Emeritus of History and former college trustee John Spencer. Over the course of his thirty-five years at the college, Spencer was known for his emphasis on oratory expression in the classroom and his J-Term workshops that focused on helping students become better speakers.
The Spencer Prize Grand Championship has become so successful in its three year existence that the College has given it formal recognition. Specifically, Old Chapel recently fully endowed the competition in perpetuity, which means that even if Oratory Now stopped existing as an organization, the competition would still have funding, and would likely be picked up by the SGA or another group on campus in order to ensure that it stayed running.
The expansion of Spencer’s operational team has contributed to its success. Compared to last year, there were a number of small improvements that enhanced the overall experience. For example, the Middlebury Mamajamas, a gender-inclusive a Capella group, opened and closed the Championship this year, singing four songs in total. At first, the connection between a Capella and personal speeches might not be all that clear, but Yeaton explained that in many ways, singing is just another form of story-telling.
Roni Lezama ’22, the 2019 Grand Champion, co-emceed the event alongside GiGi Hogan ’22. Both are Head Coaches with Oratory Now. The Spencer Prize’s lasting impact is its ability to continually involve its participants in mentoring future generations of public speakers. Oratory Now is training 55 coaches this Spring; nearly all the new coaches are first-years that were engaged in Spencer over J-term. In addition, many of the people on the production team for Spencer this year participated in the competition the year before or saw the show.
My biggest takeaway from the Spencer Prize Competition? Your story matters and your voice is powerful. Be brave enough to speak your truth; you never know who it could resonate with and impact.
Editor’s Note: Rain Ji ’23 is an Arts & Academics editor at The Middlebury Campus. She was not involved in the editting of this article.