Daring To Dream: Associate Professor Nick Pena’s Convocation Speech

Pena ConvocationThe growth of our campus and community was apparent on Monday as my colleagues walked from our newly minted Rosa Deal School of the Arts Building to gather for lunch in our newly renovated dining hall. It was even more apparent when we left Alfonso to bear witness to the sun, moon, and earth beginning their alignment for the solar eclipse.

While we stood outside of the Thomas Center, each taking turns to marvel at the interactions before us, both The Great American Eclipse and our re-aligning CBU community – I felt a difference on our campus.

EclipseI don’t know if you felt it, but I was very aware of the palatable excitement found around each corner of our campus, an excitement that was beyond the celestial phenomenon.  Later, as I reflected on that feeling, I was reminded of my first visit to a university campus.  I was a junior in high school, not much younger than you are now, visiting Morris Library on Southern Illinois University’s campus to begin research on a paper for a biology class.  I vividly remember the buzz of students congregating in the quad, while I walked, unsure of the direction to the library I witnessed students walking with purpose from building to building.  At that moment, I was enamored with the energy, excitement, and collective buzz. Monday’s atmosphere on campus reminded me of my younger self – daring to dream that one day, I would walk with purpose.

“Daring to dream,” I know, it sounds like a motivational speaker’s catchphrase, along with “Your smile is your logo,” or “Your personality is your business card.” Yet, when preparing my remarks for this evening’s address, the expression “Daring to dream,” really is the most appropriate expression I could think of when presenting my theme.

What that theme is will need some priming, so a little historical context is needed. I was born in 1978 so I am not quite Generation X and not quite Generation Y or “a Millennial”. I am a product of a “mixed-race” family. My mother’s family is of English and German descent and my father’s family is of Mexican and Spanish descent.

I look like I should speak Spanish, but I cannot. Needless to say, this has caused some confusion for others throughout my life. Many Latino Americans make assumptions and start speaking Spanish to me and when they realize I cannot, I feel they are left with noticeable disappointment. On the flip-side, many Caucasians also make the same assumption. In the end, I believe it’s because I am, and look, Latino.

I was a “jock” throughout my childhood and in High school, but I hung out with, and was, a punk skateboarder who loved art classes. I was born and raised in the Midwest. For those of you unfamiliar with life in that part of the country, allow me to elaborate. I think the actor and comedian Keegan-Michael Key hit the nail on the head when, during an interview on NPR’s All Things Considered, he described that being Midwestern was always assuming that you have to think badly of yourself, because that’s being humble.

“I’m from the Midwest,” Key said, “so I always assumed: Well, I have to think badly of myself, because that’s being humble. And where I’m from, you get points for being humble and you get an extra special big house in heaven. That’s the rule, right? Now, you have these dirty dreams in the back of your mind: … What if there was the first black James Bond, and it was me? You’re going to hell. You’re never allowed to dream that big.”

What Key is pointing out, and the reason why it resonates, is that many of us, Midwestern or not, find ourselves culturally conditioned by old-fashioned underpinnings.  It took me a long time before I realized the amount of cultural conditioning thrust upon me growing up in a single-parent household. My parents divorced when I was six. The aftermath of that separation meant relocating to a small, rural Southern Illinois town were my brother and I were two in a handful of minorities. For many years, I bought into the idea that I was supposed to stay in my lane.

However, what I realized during my journey through adolescence was that despite our fractured foundation and relocation, my mother, without telling me, consistently dared me to dream. She did so because she was multifaceted and exceptional – it just took me awhile to accept it, with her being my mother and all.

Growing up on a farm during the 1950s, she was one of nine children and the only person in the family to receive her high school diploma and years later, while I was entering high school, she became the first person in her immediate and extended family to receive a college degree. My mother showed me, by example, how someone dares to dream. To better yourself no matter your situation, keep learning, keep failing, have faith, educate others, and keep an open heart.

The other revelation appeared around the time I mentioned earlier, my junior and senior year in high school, and it was because I was equipped, by my mother, with a foundation in daring to dream. I began finding and being drawn to other individuals who left their “prescribed lanes” to pursue their dreams.

Nick PenaGloria Jones, who immigrated to the U.S. to study art education, was my high school art teacher. When our paths crossed in 1995, she changed the trajectory of my life forever. While helping me build the foundation I needed to receive a full scholarship to study art at the university level, she dared me to dream. Without her example, I would not be standing here today.

The list continues: Erin Palmer, Assoc. Professor, in Painting/Drawing at Southern Illinois University; William Hawk, Professor Emeritus, in Painting/Drawing at the University of Missouri; Jana Travis, Associate Professor and my Visual Arts colleague in the Rosa Deal School of the Arts; Dr. Paul Haught, former Dean of the School of the Arts and current Vice President of Academics at CBU; and finally, Cat Peña, my wife and my partner in crime in daring to dream.

Dreaming and living for your dreams is not something that can or should be done by yourself. My advice to you, class of 2021, is, as you embark on your journey at CBU, to take a minute to think about the amazing position you have put yourself in. You are at a University that was founded by a dreamer, which embraces DREAMer’s, and which hires dreamers. I know, because I am one of those dreamers.

In closing, I wish you many fantastic changes during the next four years. It is without doubt that each of you are remarkable and I would like to congratulate you on your academic prowess. You have all had a multitude of successes throughout high school. You have already established your strengths and you will always be the wonderful person you are today.

However, at CBU, we believe you can do better – we dare each of you to dream while we help you build your foundation.

Thank you.

Nick Peña is an Associate Professor of Visual Arts. You can see more of his work on his website. This speech was given at Community Convocation on August 17, 2017.