By Maren Johnson and Tess Steele
For the ninth consecutive year, Posse Scholars at Sewanee have invited classmates, faculty, and friends to the Posse Plus Retreat, also known as PPR, to discuss issues regarding race, social justice, politics, and more. The Posse Foundation “identifies public high school students with extraordinary academic and leadership potential,” and sends them to universities across the country, as stated in their website.
This year’s theme was “Sticks and Stones: Language and Speech in a Diverse Society, an exploration of how the words people say have intentional and unintentional consequences for the people around them.” This year’s discussion focused on the broad spectrum of identity and how individuals chose to identify themselves. The different facets of a person’s identity make them susceptible to language that might not seem offensive to the speaker. The importance of recognizing the plethora of experiences individuals have and how such experiences influence the values and identities of others was a theme throughout the weekend. Of the many topics discussed, a significant portion of the retreat examined the hypersensitivity of the millennial generation and whether this sensitivity has lead to an obsession with political correctness. There was a consensus that rather than millennials being sensitive, this generation is simply more aware of diversity than older generations.
Jonathan Brown (C’18) says, “I thought it was a great experience. I always look forward to PPR every year. It personally didn’t feel as emotional as the year before but I along with others had our eyes opened when it comes to the power of words and how your intention behind words is different than the impact of when they are actually said.”
Diversity was another key component of the weekend. Two hundred twenty-five people from Sewanee were there, with students from all classes participating in discussions with professors, administrations, and community members. Attendees brought in a variety of insights, especially pertaining to trigger warnings. Trigger warnings are a relatively new concept; according to Oxford Dictionaries, they are “a statement at the start of a piece of writing, video, etc., alerting the reader or viewer to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material (often used to introduce a description of such content).” Designed to keep people from experiencing PTSD symptoms that can arise when discussing certain subjects, there is debate about whether professors should be required to include trigger warnings when teaching.
Barbara Nadolna (C’18) pointed out, “I don’t think we need them because in daily life no one will give you trigger warnings.” Beginning a dialogue about the necessity of trigger warnings was a key part of the PPR experience.
The program offers a rare opportunity for individuals to disconnect from their everyday lives and come together to discuss issues that are often difficult to bring up in everyday conversation. PPR is a safe space for such conversations, making it easy to share experiences and opinions. The Sunday morning of PPR was a very emotional time for many. The activities left people with tear-streaked faces and smiles. There is no doubt that for both Posse Scholars and Posse Plussers alike, the weekend provided inspiration for how the community and university can make Sewanee a better, more inclusive place. As the weekend closed, there was an agreement amongst attendees to engage in Sewanee’s Passing Hello, as a way to recognize what was shared during the weekend. Reeda Shakir (C’17) said, “I made so many friends during PPR that I find myself saying ‘Hi!’ to people all the time on campus!”
Ashlin Ondrusek (C’19) says, “I’d say it was really influential. Watching people speak up and share experiences and opinions that were very important and meaningful to them was really moving. PPR definitely made me realize how crazy the amount of power is held in the way you place your alphabet.”
Barbara Banks says, “When that many people want to come together on one accord, striving for knowledge and a change on campus, you know all your hard work is not in vain!”
With contributing reporting by Lam Ho (C’17).
Photos by Kimberly Williams