This past August, I had the pleasure of leading nine incoming first-year students and three undergraduate student leaders through the alLUsions program. alLUsions began six years ago when two former graduate students in the department wanted to find intentional ways to build bridges with undergraduate students. The idea was simple: invite incoming students to move in early and use writing as a tool to build community and unleash creativity before they began their college careers. By writing at home, in the city, and in the country, students would, hopefully, begin to discover the world and, more importantly, themselves.
Six years later, the program has become a staple of the preLUsion program offered through Lehigh’s Office of First Year Experience (OFYE). When invited last summer to join as a program coordinator, I jumped at the chance to find new ways to engage with our students, and the experience has given me so much more than I ever could’ve imagined. This year was my second as a coordinator but the first leading it on my own. Feeling the pressure to continue the wonderful legacy this program has, I entered the week a ball of nerves, excitement, and sleep deprivation.
For context, we spend our first day in Bethlehem, PA exploring the literary sites of our hometown (particularly noteworthy is the visit to the gravesite of Bethlehem resident and modernist poet H.D.). On day two, we gallivant through New York City’s bustling streets and find inspiration in the Museum of Modern Art, Washington Square Park, and the Strand Bookstore. And on our last day, we hike up the beautiful waterfalls of Ricketts Glen State Park. What’s important is not the what of our days, but, rather, the how and the why.
The students that join alLUsions are often venturing out on their own for the very first time. On registration day, each participant approached our table in Iacocca Hall with enthusiastic hesitation, the uncertain yet hopeful look that screamed, Is this where I’m supposed to be? This year’s participants came from Peru, Maine, New Jersey, New Mexico, Alabama, and New Hampshire, so it became immediately clear that the world was about to expand greatly for all of us.
And that it did. As we grew in familiarity and trust through walks from South Side Bethlehem to the North Side, writing workshops, and rides in the 12-passenger van (lovingly named “Greg”), I overheard the sharing of ideas, the vulnerability of past experiences, and the excitement about starting anew. What has amazed me both times I’ve run this is the fairly immediate trust students invest in the program. Folks who are remote strangers at 12PM noon are commenting on each other’s writing and planning for game night by 4PM that same day. I had one student approach me this year and ask, “Is this real? We all seem to know each other without actually knowing each other. And I kind of love it.” The idea that young strangers can find trust and compassion in each other, especially in a political moment so fraught with violence and injustice, is deeply humbling and consoling. It’s the kind of questions and ideas these students offer that make this program so special to me as a graduate student.
Given that we’re first-year writing instructors or tutors for the Writing and Math Center, I think it’s easy for us only to see our students in a certain light. We focus on their writing or their participation or their seeming interest or disinterest in class, and that’s all well and good. However, it can be easy to forget the stories, narratives, and knowledge they bring into our classrooms. Our students have the power to amaze us and frustrate us and bewilder us all at once, and it’s so important to remind ourselves of the humanity they hold. It’s the discovery of each student’s humanity that has made alLUsions so meaningful for me.
I highly encourage each grad student to find ways to connect with our undergrads on campus. Whether it’s volunteering for the Undergraduate Committee, taking a graduate assistantship in another space, joining community organizations, or simply asking deeper questions when students come to our offices, take the time to learn from the wisdom our students can provide. It’s my sincere belief that we’ll be better scholars and teachers for doing so.
A final note: during the New York visit, we stop by the former home of feminist writer Edna St. Vincent Millay, who once wrote of her experience living in the city, “We were very tired, we were very merry.” No sentence has better summed up how I feel each time I finish alLUsions, and it’s one of the best feelings I’ve had during my time in grad school.