UNO is What You Make It

This semester’s editor-in-chief, Veronika Lee, writes about the 2019-20 school year at UNO.

V%27s+first+UNO+picture+before+she+figured+out+where+the+LA+building+is+located.

V’s first UNO picture before she figured out where the LA building is located.

Veronika Lee, Editor-in-Chief & écrivaine

Writing this piece, I cannot believe an entire academic year has passed by. It seems like only yesterday I was nervously trying to figure out where the hell the Liberal Arts building is and where the best place to eat on campus would be during my two-hour Monday and Wednesday class break. I would go on to meet new friends, in my classes and at Driftwood, and find my way amongst the weird geography that is UNO.

This past semester has been so sadly different from the one before. Last August, I came to UNO newly excited and thrilled to be back in school as a grad student. I shared all the new joys of being a New Orleans resident – Halloween parades and holiday parties with the great people who made this place feel like home. 

Gibran Khalil Gibran, the Lebanese-American writer and philosopher, once said: “You may forget with whom you laughed, but you will never forget with whom you wept.” I don’t know if that is entirely true, because I will never forget experiencing some of the best laughs I have had this past year (especially those in the form of Entertainment Editor Trey Guillotine’s deadpan humor). But sadly, now I know what it is to mourn sitting in the same room as students you only kinda knew but wished to know better, to miss being able to meet up for dinner with classmates on a Saturday night, to share a victory at Homegrown Pizza, to go to your first New Orleans parades and experience the magic with others. 

If there is anything I really learned at UNO this year, it is that the experience of attending a university in America’s most vibrantly creative city is not transactional. So many times, I, as a graduate student, talk to undergrads who are going through the motions at UNO to get a degree to get a job. And that is fine on one level. The American university system, as this pandemic has shown us, is grossly flawed. Since Day 1, I have been impressed that UNO students are not buying what higher ed has been shelling out for years – that getting an expensive education with tons of debt is the way to succeed. I see undergrads working 40+ hours per week, working multiple jobs, to ensure they do not graduate with the amounts of debts accrued by the generation before. 

That is such a smart move, and I support all of you in that decision.

But one thing I cannot support is those of you not taking the time to breathe this all in. We have some very inspiring teachers around this place, if you know where to look. I can promise you this – once you are acclimated to the working world, you are not going to hear tidbits of wisdom floating around you the way you do on this campus. 

This year, Driftwood interviewed Dr. Christine Day, Professor and Chair of UNO’s Department of Political Science; UNO filmmakers KC Simms and Paige Touzet; English professor Dr. Daniel Doll; Dr. Simon Lailvaux, Associate Professor in the Integrative Ecology and Evolution Lab at UNO; Anna Boe, a student who works seasonally at Scout Island Scream Park. I promise you these are not the voices the New York Times hears when they scan the New Orleans scene for stories to broadcast to the nation about what’s happening in our little microcosm. 

UNO is a unique melting pot of all the minds and talents that make New Orleans who she is. We are not the tourist industry; we are not the tree-lined quaint campus of Tulane or Loyola – we are the working-class underdogs who demand more bang for our buck when it comes to education.

While that makes perfect sense, I just ask that you slow down and appreciate all that UNO has to offer. Maybe next year we will see the private uni kids decide they are paying too much and join our ranks. Or maybe we will see them pledge allegiance to American capitalist education. But that is no reason for you not to take a good look at your investment in the eye (I know we are not a school of mommies and daddies paying our way through school. If that is you, congrats, but I would proudly say most of us here, both graduate and undergraduate, earn our way.) 

Turn off your phone and look your professor in the face. (I have been on their end of things and man, it really hurts when people are not paying attention.) You might just learn a thing or two. Or hear some words that end up sticking with you forever or even just change you for a season. 

You are not livestock. This is not a system where you need to be funneled through to join Handshake and acquire a job. There are professors who have dedicated their lives to teaching you what they have learned. And as someone who has been a cattle amongst the working-class conditions of American adulthood, I promise you there is almost no chance that any of your bosses will stop to teach you a thing or two along the way. (I will say, I was blessed to have that kind of boss at times, but they are a rare breed.)

And just like our professors, Driftwood is not transactional. It is a testament and a document to what you have experienced here at UNO. One day you may want to verify in your mind’s eye that those car break-ins happened during Mardi Gras and kept happening while you attended this school. You may want to remember that Privateer Place really did suck or that a quiet cute guy in your Victorian literature class made really good music. You may want to tell your kids one day that you went to school with Paige Touzet or KC Simms.  The New York Times sure as hell is not documenting what video games were popular when you were a student. 

So in closing, my moment of pausing is me looking at all of you and thanking you for allowing me for the past several months to tell and to curate your stories and the stories of this city and our school. I hope our Driftwood team of aces this year has convinced you that media on your level is just as important, if not more important, than media at the national level. (This news directly affects your wallets, friends!) And if anything, I hope I can humbly convince you just to take a moment to appreciate all that you have and all you have had at this school. Because if you really think about it, at the risk of sounding too sentimental (Dr. Doll would argue me on sentimentality and Laurence Sterne here), UNO is a cool place to be.