Photos Courtesy Dear World
Iowa Alumni Magazine | January 2018 | Features

Dear World

By Shelbi Thomas
Through their portraits, Hawkeyes tell personal stories of tragedy and triumph that are written across their arms—and on their hearts.

After a year of disappointment and heartache, UI junior Jennifer Hood wasn't sure she wanted to share her story of resilience with the world. But motivated by her peers' tales of courage at the UI's Dear World storytelling event this past fall, Hood found her voice. "It was like I was trying to keep my whole life together; I didn't want anyone to know the struggles that I was going through," she says. "Who knew a simple picture and words could make a person feel so liberated? I honestly think that talking about it helped me heal."

Hood—who wrote on her arms the lessons she learned from being denied admission to nursing school, losing a friendship, and grieving the death of a close neighbor—was one of 300 UI students, staff, and faculty members who took portraits over Homecoming week that revealed the most defining moments of their lives. Participants rolled up their sleeves to bare their hearts and souls for the Dear World event hosted by the Campus Activities Board and Homecoming committee. Attendee and UI senior Marcus Smith says, "People chose to share memories that made them laugh, cry, cringe, and feel nostalgic, and you could feel a true sense of vulnerability and community in the room."

The Dear World project began in 2009 when founder Robert X. Fogarty asked New Orleans residents to write a love letter to their city to boost morale after Hurricane Katrina. Since then, more than 70,000 people worldwide have told stories about everything from love to loss with Dear World. As they're invited to share their experiences in a safe and nurturing environment, participants connect one-on-one and learn they have more in common than they think. "Everyone has a story, and every story matters," says Dear World storyteller and event lead Casandra Corrales. "It's surprising when given the platform and a warm smile, people just want to open up."

And open up they did. After a hectic week of classes, meetings, and deadlines, Hawkeyes were ready to reflect upon their past experiences and stretch beyond their comfort zones. They paired with a partner—often a stranger—who helped them shape their narrative and write it on their hands, arms, and body for the photo. The portraits were later shared on social media to spark further conversation and connection. "It felt really good to strip away a lot of layers of grief and bare what I have been struggling with for a few years of my life," says participant and UI senior Ameena Chaudhry. "This effort to showcase diversity while also encouraging people to be brave, honest, and reflective seemed like something the world really needs right now."

Here are just a few of those Hawkeye stories, including some web exclusives that didn’t appear in the print edition of the magazine.

 


Ariana Gevov

Senior from Los Angeles majoring in communication studies with a certificate in human rights

"Just before junior year, I was adjusting my halter top when I grazed my breast and felt a lump. My blood ran cold. I was stunned because I was so young and facing this head-on. I was lucky that [the tumors the doctors found] were benign, but I didn't know how to think positive about it, because I was so frustrated and angry. I realized that I had to accept what happened and find it within myself to be positive. I wanted to share that this is not just something older women with a family history face, but that it could happen to anyone."


Hunter Gillaspie

Senior from Marion, Iowa, majoring in ethics and public policy

"In high school, I was much quieter and reserved, not outgoing, and uninvolved, and I knew that was something I wanted to change coming into college. There are tons of opportunities to do that at college, and now that I'm a senior, I can look back feeling fulfilled from my undergraduate experience and accomplishing my goals of becoming more outgoing and more involved."


Sarah Henry

Sophomore from Johnston, Iowa, majoring in ethics and public policy and sociology

“I grew up really shy, and I missed out on a lot of opportunities because I was scared of being uncomfortable or because I didn’t want to make a mistake. My parents have both told me that they’ve always known I could achieve whatever I wanted to, but—knowing the person I was growing up—they never would have guessed that I would be where I am today.”


Marcus Smith

Senior from Bolingbrook, Illinois, majoring in political science

"This past summer I was an intern for the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program for Undergraduates in Washington, D.C. It was a weeklong conference focusing on civic engagement and social entrepreneurship. The 100 Iraqi students all had dreams, hopes, and ambitions just like we all do, but I could not help but feel guilty of the fact that they will probably have a much harder time reaching those goals due to the political instability in their country. I felt useless that I could not fix this problem.

"At the end of the program, one of the Iraqis I became close with said, 'Meeting you has been one of the best things that has happened to me.' I was so touched. That moment taught me how one person cannot change the world, but you can change the world of one person."


Jacob Heid

Sophomore from Coralville majoring in statistics

"Last spring, my grandfather passed away due to complications associated with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. My childhood was just a process of watching him deteriorate, and so it was full of a lot of sad moments. I really try to advocate for research on neurological diseases because I have seen firsthand how they destroy people afflicted and also their families."


Ameena Chaudhry

Senior from Pakistan and Quincy, Illinois, majoring in creative writing and gender/women's/sexuality studies

"My dad died suddenly when I was 10 years old, and I didn't process his death in any way until I was about 15. This was also a time in my life that I was forming my own identity about things that I had previously aligned with my parents—like my religious beliefs and sexual identity. Realizing that a lot of the pieces of me were turning out to be things I know my dad would have disagreed with or disapproved of was difficult for me. I felt like I had to change myself if I wanted to be someone he would be proud of. It took a long time for me to accept these parts of me and decide that even though I live my life differently than he would, I like myself and I will make him proud anyway."


Cassie Walizer

Student success coach and tutor coordinator, UI Center for Diversity and Enrichment

“My husband and I married, had our first daughter, and bought our first house in Iowa, but we knew we’d eventually move down south to be near my husband’s family and for job opportunities. In 2016, we moved to Atlanta, and it wasn’t a positive experience for us. We made the hard decision to move back to Iowa after only eight months. That’s when we learned that Iowa is our home. Home is not just a place, but the people you’re with.”


Alexia Sanchez

Sophomore from West Des Moines majoring in political science and ethics and public policy with a sociology minor

"One summer night at home, I was playing dominoes with my parents, sister, and grandparents. My grandma was going through intense sessions of chemo and radiation therapy for her cancer, so every day she was in pain and drained of her energy. This one night stands out, though, because even with everything happening to her, the laughter completely overshadowed any pain. It was such a pure night of happiness and fun."


Meghan Yacinthe

Junior from Kennesaw, Georgia, majoring in speech and hearing with a linguistics minor

"I've been holding my story in for so long that it was just time for me to share it with the world and let them see another side of me.

"Every seven years, your cells replace themselves, so basically, you're a new person. Being a sexual assault survivor, it's just a positive way for me to think that, in six years, I won't have that trauma on my body anymore."


Alexis Tansey

Junior from Bettendorf, Iowa, majoring in communication studies and journalism

“When I was a sophomore in high school, I was in a really bad car accident. I was ejected through the backseat window, landing hard on my back. After I hit the ground, I stood up and walked toward the car and my friends, despite an enormous amount of pain. I ended up breaking my left scapula in the accident.

“The accident has changed my perspective on life by teaching me to live every day to the fullest. You never know what could happen, so seize every opportunity you can.”