Story posted May 28, 2011
"'The Bowdoin Hello': To Know and Be Known"
by Joelinda Coichy '11
Class of 1868 Prize Winner
May 28, 2011
President Mills, Members of the College, and Guests,
It is an honor to be able to share a few thoughts with you on this glorious occasion. Before I begin my remarks, I would like to take a moment to recognize those without whom I, and the Class of 2011, would not be sitting here today. Thank you to our parents and family members for their love and support. And to Bowdoin faculty, staff, alums and community members who have all helped shape our college experience.
Four years ago, President Mills greeted the Class of 2011, on these very steps, and here he declared: “the Bowdoin hello lives!” It was my first hour of college and I was already confused. I wondered if I was going to be forced to greet everyone I crossed on the quad with some sort of special handshake. And I puzzled at how I would ever get to class on time.
Well, as it turns out, “the Bowdoin hello” is not a secret handshake. It is a verbal greeting that students, faculty, and staff extend to the people they pass along their journeys through Bowdoin. The catch is that it applies especially to people they do not know. Freshman year “the Bowdoin hello” starts as a simple “hello,” but as time passes, the “hello” is, more often than not, followed by the recipient’s name. For example: “hello, Wilson,” or “hello, Professor Albaugh.” And, each time that this “Bowdoin hello” rings from across the Quad or echoes through the halls of Hubbard, it testifies to the fact that at Bowdoin we invest in knowing others and being known in return.
Had I understood this on my first day of orientation, I would have been anxious for reasons other than having to memorize a handshake. As wonderful as it sounds to know and be known, it is actually tremendously laborious and often uncomfortable work.
I am a Haitian-American, evangelical Christian. I always have been comfortable expressing my racial and cultural identity. In fact, I wrote about them in one of my admissions essays. But, for me, the prospect of being known, as a Christian, on a secular, New England campus was absolutely terrifying.
When I checked the “yes” box to attend Bowdoin, I assumed that I would have to check the “no” box to being a Christ-follower. Well, at least in public. I fully expected that for four years, I would have to read my Bible in secret and maintain my faith alone. Instead, “the Bowdoin hello” forced me to engage people and build relationships, which ultimately helped deepen my faith.
To Be Known
Let me tell you about a particularly poignant time that “the Bowdoin hello” forced me to be known. One Sunday morning in the late fall of my sophomore year, I was walking across the quad on my way to church. As I took in the foliage, I noticed that my professor was walking his dog in my direction. I knew the “Bowdoin hello” was imminent, so I mentally fumbled to come up with an explanation for why I was awake and dressed so early on a Sunday morning. We passed each other, said hello; and when the awkward pause came, I could think of no excuse, so I mumbled something about being on my way to church.
To my great surprise, instead of running in the opposite direction, or solemnly explaining that I would need to find a new advisor, my professor engaged me in a lovely conversation. Turns out he knew of the church that I attended because his daughter had done a school project analyzing the church’s architecture.
That particular exchange was instrumental in assuring me that at Bowdoin was the sort of place where I could bring my faith to light. As I engaged in more “Bowdoin hellos” and let myself be known, I found that it created unexpected connections between me and others. The result has been that at Bowdoin my faith has not only survived, but blossomed.
To Know Others
As central as being known as a Christian has been to my Bowdoin experience, the most transformative part of “the Bowdoin hello” is the way that it has helped me to know and appreciate others.
My first year I made the mistake of bringing way too much stuff to Bowdoin. I am talking 27-pairs-of-shoes too much stuff. And more binders and packets of college ruled paper than I could possibly have used. I wanted to be prepared.
It was the end of first semester, and it had been a long four months of my roommates and I being “nice” to each other, whether we felt like it or not. It was the beginning of our very first set of college exams, and it was 20 degrees outside. In short, it was the perfect storm.
I came home one evening to find that my binders, that had been collecting dust on our bookshelf all semester, were stacked atop my already-too-full desk. Slightly delusional from stress and fatigue, I flew into a rage. My roommates were startled by my outburst and tried to calm me down. But it only made things worse. I was done being “nice.” The conflict escalated and ended with one of my roommates storming out of our room in tears of fury. I followed suit.
The thing is, at a small place like Bowdoin, you can only run from conflict for so long. A few days later, we all found ourselves in a proctor-led roommate mediation session. Again, I wanted to be prepared. So, I arrived to the meeting armed with a long list of complaints against my roommates. But that evening the Biblical parable about removing the plank from your own eye before pointing out the speck in another’s became all too clear to me.
To my great surprise, during our roommate intervention, for every complaint I fired off, my roommates launched three back in my direction. They said things like: Joelinda is never around; we barely know Joelinda, and we are tired of always tripping over Joelinda’s stuff. I thought that I was going to show them, but their gripes taught me something invaluable about being part of a community.
Upon reflection, I realized that although I had extended polite greetings to my roommates in an effort to be “nice,” I had not engaged them in the true “Bowdoin hello.” I had never made time to truly listen to and get to know them.
You see, the “Bowdoin hello” is not simply about being “nice,” it is about true acknowledgement of one another. Small and intimate spaces like our freshman dorm room and the Bowdoin community more generally speaking illustrate all too clearly that if we fail to acknowledge one another explosions like our “binder fiasco” are bound to exist.
I am happy to report that my second semester of freshman year was much better than the first, in part because I got rid of those dusty binders, but mostly because I made it a point to regularly engage my roommates. In the process, I not only learned a lot about the wonderful people who surrounded me, but the four of us succeeded in bridging the gap between four very different and very strong personalities.
These two anecdotes illustrate two lessons that “the Bowdoin hello” taught me.
The first lesson is this: Say “hello.”
Many of us can attest to the fact that when we are late to class and the bitter wind is howling and our minds are filled with thoughts of tests, saying hello is actually the last thing we want to do. In not too long, many of us will find ourselves, in cities or new environments with new winds and new tests. But in spite of these obstacles, we must carry with us the tradition of “the Bowdoin hello.” This hello is not merely a greeting. It is a lifestyle of engagement in our communities and in our world. And it is taken on by individuals willing to make themselves known no matter how scary it might be.
The second lesson is this: Do not avert your gaze.
A glance at all the people on the quad today illustrates the fact that we all come from different states, countries, backgrounds and cultures. Over the past four years, we have been thrown into dorm rooms, classrooms and onto athletic teams together. At times it has been tempting to try to ignore our differences. But undoubtedly, our proudest moments have been those times when we have vehemently disagreed but we have not looked away. Instead choosing to understand and maybe even appreciate each other’s perspectives. As we depart, let us take this with us, remembering not to avert our gazes, but to invest in knowing those who surround us. In doing this, we will affect positive change in our world and in our communities.
Class of 2011, it has been an honor and a great blessing to share these words with you. But instead of saying goodbye, I will say “hello” in hopes that we will be reunited in the future having built many more strong communities by knowing others and being known in return.