Reflections on Imagining America: An Undergraduate Voice

Manisha Vepa, ’18, Economics and Global Studies, is Arts & Humanities Editor for the UMBC Review, and was a member of UMBC’s Imagining America conference planning committee.

IMG_0475-2For me, the recent Imagining America conference was the culmination of ten months of meetings, conversations, and logistics planning with other members of the UMBC community. Historically, IA had a low turnout of undergraduates, which was partly why I was invited to the planning committee. Throughout the ten months, I had worked to introduce an undergraduate voice and tried to start a conversation about undergraduates participating in the conference. Having this background, I imagined that there would be a slight shock when I introduced myself to other conference participants as a student, especially because I was leading a workshop and facilitating the closing plenary session. I steeled myself to answer a lot of questions about my credibility, and to prove that I actually have a voice.

However, I forgot that I was entering a space with a lot of artists, who are extremely good at going with the flow. Any time I introduced myself, I was immediately accepted into the space. No one jerked backwards in surprise or batted an eyelash and questioned my credentials. Instead, I was just another member at the table. For an organization without undergraduate representation, this was a progressive view. I was pleasantly surprised and surprisingly pleased by this adaptability.

From the opening plenary session onward, I felt that there was a frank tone to the conference. From the conversations between Dr. Hrabrowski and the other panelists, I could tell that any social issues would be tackled head on without the usual political correctness or academic stuffiness. And as I learned, the conversations would be real and intimate and intense wherever I went. I attended sessions with great conversations about engaging students and creating a sense of agency within a community. Although these conversations were directed primarily at faculty, I felt like I made significant contributions.

On the last day, I facilitated the closing plenary session. I led a reflection session in the UMBC Concert Hall, which was a surreal experience. I, a student, was on a stage challenging people much older than me to be more inclusive when they went home. Even as a student who has contributed to change initiatives before, I felt powerful recognizing that I was making a difference. And I was inspired to keep talking and sharing my voice so that I could keep making a difference.

The conference was a large leap and a great source of momentum. Working with the students I have met from outside of UMBC and within UMBC, I am ready to imagine a program for undergraduates to attend future IA meetings. I am also ready to build on the momentum from the conference and convert it into action here on campus. We’ve made progress, but still there is more imagining to be done.

Contact the author, Manisha Vepa, at mvepa1@umbc.edu.

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