Dear World, are you listening? This is FDU's story

By Kenna Caprio

December 5, 2017 — “The lesson is: We all have stories. Keep these conversations going.”

Casandra “CC” Corrales’s words reverberated through Wilson Auditorium at the conclusion of Dear World, a two-day storytelling and portrait event. Storytellers, including Corrales, take the narrative project, which started in New Orleans, La., in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, from state to state and country to country to collect stories and take portraits.

Hundreds of Fairleigh Dickinson University students, faculty and staff participated at the Metropolitan Campus, writing meaningful words, some heartbreaking and some joyful, on their hands, arms, faces, chests and backs. Their portraits, their words, are our story.

At the finale, a packed house, four members of the FDU community told their stories — students Sixto Mahecha, Samantha Altschuler and Nina Marie Disla, and staff member Childerick Barthelus, assistant dean of commuter affairs and special projects.

Sixto Mahecha“The nurse’s name was Anthony”

Senior biology major

Sixto Mahecha

“We went to New York City. Took the subway. Got pizza in Chelsea. Took a selfie. I was so nervous. At the community health center, the nurse’s name was Anthony. He administered my first shot of testosterone.”

“I did this to be a voice for other transgender people who are afraid to speak on this topic or don’t have the support system to do so. I wouldn’t have been able to share my story if I didn’t have the support of my family, friends and fraternity brothers. I actually had a fellow transgender student from the FDU community reach out to thank me. So far, I’ve had nothing but positive feedback, and it’s made me really happy to be a part of the FDU community.”

Childerick Barthelus“Sad Xmas”

Assistant dean of commuter affairs and special projects

Childerick Barthelus

“My three best friends from high school — the four of us were together everywhere, at college and weddings. We did DDS (dads, daughters and sons) outings. The phone rang. And rang again. ‘This is not supposed to happen.’ My friend, one of those best friends, had been shot and he died. At 8 a.m. on Christmas morning, I was holding my four-month-old daughter. I had to put on a merry face. It was the most heartbreaking 24 hours of my life. I got angry and then I forgave. Now I’m able to separate my daughter’s Christmas and the death of my brother.”

“In my experience, listening to how people overcome any struggle can be galvanizing. I felt nervous, a bit anxious, yet excited, to share a story that is not uncommon; tragedy does not discriminate. And when it hits, it hits hard. Telling my story elevated my healing journey. Time does heal wounds, but my tragic story continues to impact me. Whether sad, happy, empowering or encouraging, our stories humanize us. There is a sense of taking control when you can share your story and empower others.”

Samantha Altschuler“They should’ve asked!”

Freshman psychology major

Samantha Altschuler

“I was being bullied. I was cutting. I did it because I liked the pain. Before my 16th birthday, I had a mental breakdown and was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. While I was away, rumors spread about my whereabouts. People suspected a drug problem. I dumped every pill bottle onto the counter. Handful by handful, I swallowed them. My mom’s instincts kicked in and she drove me to the emergency room. I’d swallowed over 100 pills and had to drink activated charcoal. In this moment, I had an epiphany. I’m happy to be standing here. With pain comes strength.”

“After years of fearing that people would judge me, or label me as “crazy” for my mental illness, telling my story was very important to me. There’s a huge stigma behind mental illness, and sadly, millions of people who are suffering fear being open about their struggles. At the finale, I was approached by dozens of students, faculty and staff who thanked me, and were amazed by my courage and strength.”

Nina Marie Disla“She gave me a fist bump”

 Sophomore history major

Nina Marie Disla

“My mom has diabetes and was in a wheelchair. We always would play fight and tease each other to show our affection. Last spring she was in and out of the hospital, and ultimately intubated for three weeks. I was falling behind at school. On their final try to take the tube out, I took out my phone to record it. In that moment, my mom gave me a fist bump. She pushed herself at physical therapy and now she’s walking. And now I push myself to accomplish my goals and dreams.”

“My mom’s story is also my story. We grew and became stronger together. Sharing something so personal, allowed me to really be my true self and no longer hide behind the truth. Being able to share how strong my mom is, and being able to be vulnerable on stage, in front of my peers, helps me be stronger, too.”

“Dear World allows for vulnerability and control to occur at the same time, which is magical. You get to decide what story you’ll share, but you need to let go of any pretention to be fully present while you’re participating,” says Jessica O’Brien, director of student life at the Metropolitan Campus. “That levels the playing field among titles, degrees and other social constructs that sometimes get in the way of achieving a true sense of community.”

O’Brien and her team brought Dear World to FDU specifically to build a stronger sense of campus community spirit. “We must deepen the connections among faculty, staff and students. Once the project is complete,” she says, “I believe people will get a deeper understanding of our collective power to express concern for our students and one another through small actions.”

See a collection of portraits from the event on the Dear World Facebook page, in the album called Dear World LIVE @ FDU.

“Most of all I like the idea that people felt that the risk of putting themselves out there in such a personal way was worth it. They made an individual decision to be uncomfortable for a moment to create a more comfortable environment for our future,” says O’Brien.

Photo credits: Dear World