I Am Who I Am: Building Meaningful Relationships Online
December 17, 2020
Zoom class meetings are often a seemingly never-ending cycle of muting/unmuting, poor Internet connections, and awkward screen sharing. However, despite the awkwardness of online learning, Mari Torres and J.T. Snipes have managed to build a meaningful learning partnership in the virtual classroom. J.T. teaches in the College Student Personnel Administration (CSPA) graduate program at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE) in which Mari is a student. The program is traditionally on-grounds, but due to the pandemic, it has transitioned to be completely online. In this short reflective and dialogical essay, they discuss their individual reflections of their first online meeting and how it was a humanizing encounter for both of them.
A closure was one of the many things left undone in 2020. My senior year of undergrad was sadly cut short in March because of COVID. I did not have a chance to say my goodbyes to friends and professors from Fontbonne University, the place where I had made so many memories over the last four years. A shortened semester would end unceremoniously with a cancellation of my commencement. This meant that instead of crossing the stage to the cheers of friends and family I would inauspiciously receive a rolled-up degree in the mail. Despite the lack of closure, I began to prepare for the next stage of my life and career. I was strongly considering graduate school, and I had good things about the CSPA program at SIUE from my mentor Mason. He was a graduate assistant at Fontbonne and a student in the CSPA program. I remember him telling me that the professors were nice and he enjoyed the program. However, I was nervous about going to Cougar Day back in early 2020, before COVID required us to shelter in place. This day was reserved for incoming graduate students to interview for several assistantships. I remembered feeling overwhelmed at the breakfast table. Between the back-to-back interviews, I remember briefly shaking hands with you, Dr. Snipes. I wanted to have more of a conversation regarding your work and your role in the program. Unfortunately, I was quickly called into my next interview. During the rest of the Cougar Day, you were around to provide insight and conversation with people.
To be honest, in spite of the great introduction to the program at Cougar Day, I left feeling uncertain about the program. Most of the uncertainty was about my GA position. I learned that you, Dr. Snipes, were my academic advisor. I had remembered the brief but impactful comments you made during Cougar Day. As a result, I decided to make an advising appointment with you. I decided to commit to the program and had some questions about tuition reimbursement. I also saw this meeting as an opportunity to introduce myself before our classes started. I saw my previous academic advisor in college as a mentor, and I was seeking the same kind of relationship from my advisor in grad school.
During our first meeting, I remember your warm and inviting personality. You had a genuine interest in learning about me as a person first, then as a student. You asked me about my hometown, Kansas City, and explained your Texan roots which lead to a larger conversation about Latinx culture in the Midwest and Texas. We discussed Tex-Mex food and regional differences in language and cuisine. Then Dr. Snipes you asked me a personal question about my own ethnicity. I explained that I identify as being Latina, sometimes Chicana (due to my lack of knowing Spanish). You were open to hearing my experiences growing up Latina, and religion played a big part in my life.
I grew up in a socially conservative environment attending Catholic schools and attending Mass regularly. However, since leaving home, I’ve found myself questioning my identity as a Catholic. I find at times that many of my personal political and moral stances conflict with Catholic dogma. To be a pro-choice feminist Catholic is untenable at times. To help me navigate these messy religious tensions I have sought out new religious leaders and communities. As a result, the Catholicism I follow now is rooted in helping the vulnerable, restorative justice, and creating inclusive communities that are welcoming of all people. This type of Catholicism is a far cry from the faith I experienced in my hometown. It is nice to be a part of Catholic spaces that model a social justice lens ethic.
Dr. Snipes, you listened intently to my story and opened up an honest conversation with me about the lack of Latinx students in the CSPA program. You said that while there was a critical mass of white and Black students, it was not the case for Latinx students. To me, this was encouraging that at least you were acknowledging this part of our developing program. For the first time in a while, I didn’t feel tokenized. In undergrad I sometimes felt as though I was a token, being the only Latinx student in my classes. Here in this space, I knew that this still might happen, but you also made me feel like I could belong…
The date was August 12 and after a morning full of meetings, I took a minute to breathe before heading into my next Zoom call with an incoming student to the CSPA program. That student was you, Mari Torres. I had just twelve days earlier stepped into the role of CSPA program director. The transition had been everything but smooth. So the minute I took to breathe before our call was absolutely necessary. I didn’t want you to see me rattled or discombobulated. I wanted to appear as though I had it all together, despite the fact I didn’t.
After taking a deep breath, the Outlook meeting invite flashed on my screen. It was time for the meeting. Even after taking a moment to clear my mind once I logged into the meeting my mind flooded with fear and anxiety. However, soon those negative emotions and fears began to subside, as I remembered that this student doesn’t need me to know everything they just need me to listen and honestly serve them in the ways that I know-how. So instead of jumping straight to business, I decided to take the opportunity to spend at least a minute getting to know Maria Torres. You introduced yourself as Mari, I sheepishly repeated your name back to you trying my best to remember “Mar” like the Spanish word for ocean and “E” like the capital letter. “Did I pronounce your name correctly?” trying my best to remember an article that I had just read about the importance of properly pronouncing people’s names.
It wasn’t until that moment that I recognized the power in names. As a Christian, I can’t help but think about all the significant name changes in the Bible. Sarai, Abraham, and Saul all had their names changed in a thoughtful way. I begin to think about your name in this context. For me, these name changes are divinely inspired and are representations of divine transformation. Given my fondness for names, it should come as no surprise that I know that my given name Jeremy means “appointed by God.” Unfortunately, my full name is often obscured by my nickname that was loving bestowed upon me by my maternal grandmother. She disliked the name Jeremy; she thought it too closely resembled the word germy, so she began calling J.T. Being the powerful matriarch that she is, everyone followed suit. When I think about your name, Mari, lovingly bestowed upon you by friends and family. I can’t help but think of the dishonor and disrespect that often occurs when people mispronounce your name or worse yet don’t even try. My hope was that in attempting to pronounce your name correctly, I was affirming the divinity within you.
When I tried to pronounce your name correctly. Your face lit up ever so slightly as you noted that people often struggle to get it right and that so often you would let folks off the hook if they mispronounced it. “It’s a lot of work and sometimes people don’t even try,” you offered solemnly. “Well in my class,” I said, “I will make sure people pronounce your name correctly. I got your back.”
You flashed a bright smile that quickly graced my Zoom screen, what then followed from that moment was the personal conversation you shared earlier about finding the CSPA program at SIUE, what it meant to be one of a few. This brief and intimate conversation was a quick glimpse into our collective lives. It felt like the important and necessary soul work that drew me to education in the first place. I felt in that brief conversation that I got to see you not just as my student, but a human being with goals and ambitions, fears and worries, dreams and loves. I hope too that you saw me as a human being, flaws and all. I hoped that I would have an opportunity to make good on my promise to have your back. I hoped that you would feel supported and powerful in the program. I hoped that this new semester would treat us both with the dignity and care we deserved. I hoped…
This first meeting was the foundation of a relationship that has been able to flourish online. For me (J.T.) There is much work to be done and I look forward to a continued learning partnership with you. You care deeply about the work and you have the ability to not only think critically but to do so from a space centered on an ethic of love and care. I look forward to our new journey of learning together. It undoubtedly will be transformational for me. My hope is that it will be the same for you. For me (Mari) I know that I made the right choice is a part of this graduate program. Though I would have liked to be in a physical classroom with you and my other professors this semester, I have to believe that some higher power in our little section of the universe knew that putting us both in the virtual classroom together would be a rewarding and memorable experience.
American Civic Life