Hearts were warmed on the chilly afternoon of Monday, February 6, when nearly 100 members of the University of Bridgeport community gathered at Carlson Plaza in front of the Wahlstrom Library to stand together in support of immigrants and refugees at the student-led “Fight to Unite” Vigil. Organized by Youssef Agiez ’17, president of the Student Government Association, the event drew speakers President Neil Salonen, Provost Stephen Healey, Professor Robert Riggs, Professor Steve Hess, Dean of Students Edina Oestreicher, and student poet Nick Villacis ’18.
President Salonen took to the mic first, addressing all as the crowd grew thicker in short time. Offering an historical perspective, he pointed out that while America began and still thrives as an immigrant nation, many groups of immigrants who come here are not widely welcomed at first. “New England was a Protestant stronghold when the Catholics came, and they were resistant,” he shared, acknowledging that such resistance “happens in every country,” but “it’s not unique, and it’s not new.”
Referencing the current uncertainty surrounding travel to and out of the United States, Salonen explained that:
” … In our messy diplomacy, we have three equal branches of government. It makes things take a long time. The President is the President, Congress is Congress, the Courts are the Courts. They often fight with each other and in the end, you have to hope [it turns out right]. At the moment it’s going the right way. Will it go temporarily in the wrong way? It might–if you were a Patriots fan you didn’t enjoy the whole Super Bowl, but you enjoyed the end of it!
“… The point is, our voices make a difference. Make sure they’re specific. Make sure they can be respected. Yelling, screaming, name-calling–let other people do that. You can do it if you want to, but I don’t recommend it, because you don’t get people’s attention that way. Make your point. Make it strong. Don’t let them forget we care.
“And we know what we’re talking about. We know the benefits of people living together. You see it every day here. And we’re not going to be quiet, and we’re not going to stop until things are formally and officially the way they should be.”
Provost Healey took to the mic next as the wind picked up. He spoke from a heavy but full heart, acknowledging that “Fight to Unite” was exactly the right message, as:
“… the greater struggle for what’s right is a struggle that takes take us into ourselves so we can be the persons we need to be for each other … If you want to fight to unite, we have to take it into ourselves, we have to be a community that withstands the temporary shifts of power that causes us, ourselves, to not always know whether we can be together.
“… I want to assure you that I’m here to be with you. The President, I know, is also of that mind. We, like you, can’t necessarily withstand or even understand everything that’s going on on a larger scale–we understand it in part. But what we do understand is that our role here is fundamentally to be a support network for you.”
Healey then pointed toward Yumin Wang, director of the International Center for Students and Scholars, who helps international students come to UB on Visa. “She’s here doing that year-round, and the University supports that function because we want to support you all.” Referencing the many support services in place at UB for both international and domestic students, whose education is greatly enhanced and enriched by the multicultural composition of the student body, Healey offered, “We’re here to help you understand insofar as we understand … For now, let’s hang together. Let’s fight to unite. Take it inside. Do the fight inside, that’s the place to go.” He then scanned the audience to read the signs students were holding and repeated a few: “We’re ‘Stronger Together’ because ‘Love is Power’,” he read. “See when you don’t know what to say, just read the signs!”
Following Healey, Professor Robert Riggs spoke next, sharing a personal anecdote involving his foreign-born wife and how stunned they were with the realization that they could not travel outside the country without risking the possibility that she might not be able to come back in.
“It caused us to reflect a little more deeply about what had brought us together originally, and what was the underlying essence of being a human. I have always believed this, but it became more and more real to me in the last couple of weeks that the underlying, foundational tie that connects all of us here, I believe, is love. … What we came to realize over more and more time is that in the end, nothing can disrupt our lives together, she and I. Because there’s something deeper than politics, something deeper than national or ethnic or linguistic differences of identity. And I guess what I’m trying to say is, that’s an analogy for us. We’re not all tied together by marriage or that specific kind of relationship, but we are bound together by a shared common sense of humanity and love for one another … I love teaching here … I think this University represents our country, [and] it also represents the world–humanity–who we really are.”
While Professor Riggs purposefully steered away from politics, Professor Hess got into it a bit, illuminating the fact that America’s trajectory of success has and continues to be dependent on immigrants–not only for its founding but for its historically rapid ascent as a world leader.
“I don’t know if you [realize] this,” Hess pointed out, “[but] we are lucky to have foreign-born residents! If you talk to any international student here you would be amazed at what these students are capable of. If you look at the statistics, immigrants are twice as likely to start a business as a native-born citizen. They are less likely to commit crimes than they’re native-born counterparts. These are model citizens. And we’re lucky to have you! This is actually what makes America a great country. It’s the fact that [we attract] the best and the brightest from around the world. If we stop doing that, these people will find another place to go. It’ll benefit Canada or Europe or other countries that will open its arms. We don’t know who the next Andrew Carnegie is going to be, we don’t know who will be the next Albert Einstein, a refugee from Germany. Or Steve Jobs, who was native born but whose father came from Syria…”
The vigil concluded with a second thank you to the crowd for uniting from Agiez, who introduced Nick Villacis ’18, a junior and president of the Poetry Slam student club. Villacis’s poetry rap dovetailed with the messaging of Professor Riggs’ analogy that we are all bound by “a shared common sense of humanity and love for one another” and the student-designed sign “Love is Power.” An excerpt from the poem drives this universal messaging home to UB:
If you carry love for longer than an instant
You can inspire someone to truly make a difference.
Every small step is taken by you.
Reach out your hand and say follow me through.
Lead the people in your school and in the community.
Be the voice to call for Civil unity.
But be the ones to understand the people in pain.
Be the ones to defend those crying in vain.
Be the ones to comfort who have been directly affected.
Be the hero for someone who’s dying of oppression.
Be the one to be an ally for those buried in dirt.
Be the one to scream for those who can never be heard.
Be the one to be present when we want to stand together.
Be the one who says I’ll keep on fighting forever.
Never lose hope based on the current situation.
And instant gratification don’t apply so please be patient.
The fight is long but you’re not fighting alone.
This right here is an army of those against wrong.
We have to be the ones to stand for what’s right.
No matter how scary or how big the fight.
Advocate by day and protector by night.
That’s partly why I’m a proud and sound Purple Knight.