Essay Contest Third Prize - "A Non-Believer Making a Difference"

By: Colleen Tapen

December 1, 2011

I nearly turned down Georgetown. Naively, I thought that a rival university did a better job of promoting active citizenship, of stimulating intellectual discourse that served the common good, of fostering a community that would make a difference. How wrong I was! Founded in the Ignatian tradition, Georgetown is the apotheosis of humanitarianism and social justice.
In weighing my college offers, Georgetown’s religious tradition had no bearing on my decision to attend. I grew up a Catholic, attended Oak Knoll School of the Holy Child for seven years, and went to church weekly with my mother. However, as school became more rigorous and I found myself traveling six hours here and there for soccer tournaments, church took a back seat. When my mom was diagnosed with cancer, her religiosity grew, but despite the numerous times I attended church, both before and after her passing, mine did not. I had always questioned religion and loathed its divisiveness, yet the more I tried to buy into it, the more I found myself just going through the motions.

Despite the fact that I did not believe in the tenets of Catholicism or the attendant church rituals, I did develop a keen appreciation for religious values and morals. I may not be a practicing Catholic, but I proudly identify as culturally Catholic. From my religious background and my parents’ generosity, I began to find immense joy in helping others. In lieu of presents for my confirmation, I hosted a soccer drive for Cameroonian boys and girls and asked for donations to the hospital that treated my mom. Seeing pictures of the Cameroonian children sporting my gear, and receiving a thank you letter from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center brought me more pleasure than any Confirmation jewelry ever could have.

From these small actions, I knew I could not stand on the sidelines. It was up to me to make a difference for those who needed it most. It was in that spirit that I went on to found Together Teens Conquer Cancer in high school, which raised thousands of dollars for cancer research through bake sales and dress-down days. Senior year of high school, I befriended one of my peers after she too lost her mother to cancer. Even though we inhabited completely different worlds, we became pretty close friends. She came from a poor black neighborhood, and I from an affluent white one; and she couldn’t help but laugh at me whenever I rapped to “her music” on our way to lunch. Her mother was Muslim, and the funeral was my first encounter with another faith, besides the handful of Bar Mitzvahs I attended in middle school. I would never have believed that three years later I, the culturally Catholic non-believer, would be living in Georgetown’s Muslim Interest Living Community (MILC), hosting a suhoor (a morning meal during Ramadan) at 2 a.m. in my Santa apron.

I was invited to live in MILC by my friend, Wardah, just a few months after our first encounter in October. We met after I received a text asking if Wardah could help me bake a cake for a friend’s birthday. Thinking that “Wardah” was a guy’s name, I was beside myself with glee that a guy liked my friend so much that he wanted to bake for her. Imagine my surprise when I opened my door to a woman wearing a hijab! I was stunned momentarily, mainly because I was expecting a boy. Nonetheless, as our friendship blossomed, I became increasingly close with Wardah and now call her one of my best friends. Not only has she dispelled many preconceived notions I had about Islam, but she has also taught me how to become a better person, and a better friend.

Between my friendship with Wardah and with my African American friend from high school, I became increasingly interested in race relations. The fall of sophomore year I joined A Different Dialogue, which sprung out of President DeGioia’s Diversity and Inclusiveness Initiative. I relished the opportunity to delve for two hours each Tuesday into topics that were often considered taboo. While most of our discussions hinged on personal experience, and were thus private, one moment that I can share is when I posed the question, “why is Barack Obama considered black when he is just as white as he is black?” I am still confounded by this notion, and by race relations more broadly.

I am also troubled by the smear campaign, “Obama is a Muslim”. So what if he were a Muslim? Maybe some Americans see Muslims as second-class citizens, or not even citizens at all, but neither did mainstream America see blacks as productive citizens just half a century ago. Fifty years after the civil rights movement we have a “black” president. In 2061, I hope a Muslim is sitting in the oval office, and that he or she demonstrates that Muslims too believe in the America we know and love.

I became interested in presidential politics in 2007 after watching then-Senator Obama eloquently announce his candidacy for president on the steps of the Old State Capitol building in Springfield, Illinois. I quickly grew into an avid Obama supporter and desperately wanted to go to the inauguration, but my dad refused. Finally, 35 hours before the inauguration, my dad asked me asked me if I still wanted to attend. We traveled down to D.C. to stay with extended family, and I woke up at 4 the next morning raring to go. My memories from that magical day include the jam-packed metro, Aretha Franklin singing “My Country Tis of Thee” with great élan, and the elderly black woman next to me nearly fainting when Senator Obama was sworn in as president.

President Obama, with his roots in community organizing, has long been an advocate for social justice, and an inspiration to me. In a 2007 interview with David Brooks, Obama cited Reinhold Niebhur as his favorite philosopher; Obama was attracted to “the compelling idea that there's serious evil in the world [yet that] we shouldn't use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction. [Obama concluded] that we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swing from naive idealism to bitter realism.”

Honestly, I entered Georgetown with the naïve idealism Obama spoke of, thinking that I could, maybe not singlehandedly but with the help of my fellow Hoyas, solve the world’s problems. Before freshman year started, I participated in a preorientation program called First-year Orientation to Community Involvement, or FOCI for short. I vividly remember a FOCI leader telling us that it was arrogant to think we could cure the world of its ills. Given that as a fourth- grader my life’s ambition was to cure cancer, I did not take the harsh dose of realism very well.

But as I matured at Georgetown, I realized just how grand and nuanced, nigh insurmountable, these challenges really were. As a freshman I tutored D.C. public school students in math, and was deeply saddened by these 9th graders’ inability to solve basic algebraic equations like “14 – x = 9”. I was astounded that they had trouble with an equation that Georgetown students mastered many grades earlier.

Experiences like these motivate me to continue Dr. Martin Luther King’s legacy for racial equality. While whites and blacks now drink from the same water fountain, innumerable injustices occur behind the scenes. I joined a health disparities researcher at Georgetown’s Lombardi Cancer Center last spring, hoping to better understand why African American women get breast cancer at a 10% lower rate than white women but have a 37% higher death rate.1

Some ask why I, as an upper-middle class white, am so passionate about the healthcare disparities that pervade American society today. I lived alongside my mother who passed away nearly four years ago from cancer, and she had the best treatment in the world. I can hardly fathom the strain on an African American single-mother diagnosed with stage-four breast cancer, juggling work, her children’s activities, and her chemotherapy. Said single mother battling breast cancer motivates me to ameliorate health disparities. A black kid in Southeast D.C. cannot get treatment for diabetes. Heck, I can go to the doctor for an ingrown toenail. I want those on the opposite end of the skin color gradient to have the health benefits, educational opportunities, and most crucially the rights that have been afforded to me.

Learning more about these disparities leads me to question what I am called to do. As someone interested in problem solving and mathematics, I am drawn to finance. I have had much difficulty, though, coming to terms with Wall Street’s reputation for greed. During a summer sales and trading internship, a CEO’s announcement that he was selling his company for a billion dollars came across the ticker; hearing this, an intern remarked that if she had just sold her company, she would use the money to buy an island. While I am not one to join the Occupy Wall Street movement, and I know many genuine and honorable people working on the street, I do have trouble coming to terms with my passion for finance.

While I grapple with what a career in finance would mean for my future, I also survey other options, like government, education, and non-profit work. Ultimately, I hope to make a positive difference in the world while utilizing my first-rate education and my intellectual prowess. I immensely enjoy participating in HOPE, Hoya Outreach Programs and Education, here on campus and intend to continue serving the homeless after college as well. Each time I head to Dupont Circle, I wonder who will listen to the guys like my friend Manny if I don’t? Yet at the same time, I would prefer to perform community service that mentally challenges me. I want to use my brain to make a difference; I do not want my livelihood to be sorting cereal boxes in a food pantry. So I must delicately balance my desire for a prominent career with my passion for making the world a better place. I know the two are not mutually exclusive, but I have yet to determine how I will pursue both.

I am confident that no matter my path after Georgetown, I will continue to be a woman for others. I may not be a woman of faith, professing my love for Jesus or Krishna or Muhammad, but I have faith in the human race—that we can, and will, work for a better tomorrow. From the legacy of famous figures like Dr. Martin Luther King, to the example of my very own mother, I am inspired to make a difference in the world. I vow that my white upper-middle class privately- educated upbringing will not hinder, but rather inspire me to bridge the world of the haves and have-nots.

I may not go to church more than four times a year, but my Catholic upbringing instilled in me an appreciation for religious values. My interactions with people of faith, especially through late- night chats with my roommate and my experience in the Muslim Interest Living Community, inspire me to continue contemplating religion’s role in my life, and in the world. I firmly believe that I can be a good person too, the same as any good Christian or Muslim. While religion does not directly motivate my commitment to service, it has shaped the person I have become—one who grew up Catholic, studied alongside blacks, and lived alongside Muslims. As President Obama said in his interview with David Brooks, the world is littered with hate and hardship, but cynicism and inaction will get us nowhere. Coming into Georgetown, I may have been blinded by naïve idealism, but I vow not to fall prey to bitter realism. I am a Hoya, and I will make a difference in the world.
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Essay Contest Third Prize - "A Non-Believer Making a Difference"