Shattering expectations: RCCC event challenges students’ perspectives

Published 12:03 am Saturday, February 18, 2023

They say that before you judge someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. A Living Library event at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College allowed students to do just that.

“We have themes each year in the library for our events and programming, and this year, it was that we all belong in the library,” said Lisa Shores, the RCCC library services coordinator. “The idea is not to convert anybody to any way of thinking but to have two people sit down and have a face-to-face conversation.”

The event’s goal was to combat prejudice by allowing people to connect with someone they may never have had a chance to speak with otherwise.

“It is harder to judge people when you actually sit down and talk to them,” Shores said.

Jenny Billings, the RCCC English Department chair, added, “All of these living books are stories based on stereotypes that we have encountered at some point in our life.”

Her living book, “From Walking on Eggshells to Walking Proudly in My Dr. Martens,” shed light on the abusive marriage she endured for a decade.

“I am the survivor of a domestic-abuse relationship and a marriage I got out of about nine years ago,” Billings said. “For years, I couldn’t talk about it. I didn’t want to talk about it. Then one day in the classroom, I thought if I said something about it to that one student, they would feel more open, honest, and willing to talk about it. That made all the difference.”

She’s offering her testimony in hopes that it might help others, as it already has in her classroom.

“When students in my English course write about domestic abuse, I will go in and comment and say I am a survivor, so I understand,” Billings said. “If you need to talk to me, or if you need me to help you get resources, I can do that. Being open and transparent has helped me establish relationships over the years and helped me deal with what I went through.”

For Skills, Opportunity, Awareness, Readiness (SOAR) instructor Ingrid Nurse, her story, “Holla if You Hear Me,” challenged people to stop just seeing her as the “hearing-aid girl.”

“I am personable and friendly, but still, they were like, oh, that’s the one that can’t hear,” Nurse said. “Stop identifying me as can’t hear, and get to know me personally.”

Nurse lost her hearing after a reaction to medicine as a child. While she may be hearing-impaired, she doesn’t let it stop her from singing.

“I do praise team,” Nurse said. “I had a team of 30 kids, and we went to nursing home industries and made a joyful noise.”

One of the library assistants at RCCC, Dana Ravo, is a 32-year-old with multiple sclerosis. Her story, “But, You Don’t Look Sick,” explored the difficulties of having a chronic condition that isn’t always easily visible.

“I was sharing my everyday struggles with MS and being a working mom and a wife,” Ravo said. “It’s an invisible illness for some people. Not everyone is in a wheelchair. For some, it’s a spectrum as far as mobility goes. I’ve had days where I could probably have used a cane, but buying a cane is not very high on a 32-year-old person’s to-do list.”

Although she may look completely healthy, fatigue, pain and eyesight issues are recurring problems for her.

“You can’t always see when someone is struggling,” Ravo said.

The library assistant insists on transparency about her condition.

“I have been open with it from the moment I had my first symptoms and got diagnosed,” Ravo said. “I am open with it because I feel like your secrets are what keep you sick, both physically and mentally.”

An RCCC science student, Jubiley Xiong, checked Ravo’s book out and talked with the author. What stood out to her was just how suddenly Ravo’s life changed.

“She told me that she lived a normal life until one day she woke up, went to the bathroom and couldn’t see,” Xiong said. “It surprised me and interested me because you can live normally thinking you are healthy, and then, all of a sudden, something happens. If I were in her shoes, I would be super-duper scared.”

Conversely, art student Jonathan Villanueva discovered that life changes don’t always happen overnight.

He checked out “It’s Not Easy, But It’s Worth It.”

“I talked to Jessica, who was addicted to drugs,” Villanueva said. “She was telling me about her backstory about how she got into it and how much it really affected her.”

Those revelations became apparent to Villanueva as the story unfolded.

“I didn’t really understand why she got into it until she shared her background,” Villanueva said. “She grew up rough. She grew up in poverty. She told me that it got to the point where she had to fight with rodents to get her food.

“Her parents were also very abusive as well. She got into it because of a friend. A friend had given her cocaine or crack, and she got into it really bad to the point where she got addicted, and her life drifted that way.”

The story does have a happy ending, as the author now shares her account of overcoming addiction and the wonders of recovery.

A personal connection to the author’s experience was not required, but in some cases, it did happen.

Tanasia Phillips is an art student at RCCC. She talked to the author of the living book, “Grew Up Baptist and Gay.”

“It was interesting to talk about how it affected her family life and how she struggled with knowing that she would not be accepted,” Phillips said.

Although she was not raised Baptist, Phillips said she was Protestant and indicated that being gay, she did not always feel welcome.

In her book “No Retreat, No Surrender,” named after her favorite Bruce Springsteen song, Nan Ellis wants young people to know they should not get discouraged.

“Sometimes, they just need to know that what they are going through now has happened before,” Ellis said. “Watergate and Nixon are similar to Trump, and the unhappiness people felt with politics in our country. Between the Vietnam War and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there are a lot of similarities. Sometimes, they feel like they are going through everything for the first time. It can be disconcerting and overwhelming.”

Ellis grew up in the ’60s, lived through the Cold War, the birth of rock and roll, mini skirts and young women entering the workforce. She faced stereotypes in the workplace but came through it all with a smile on her face.

She does want young students to take advantage of studying abroad opportunities.

Ellis traveled abroad in college, and one student that checked her out was curious about that experience.

“She had never met anyone who had actually done it,” Ellis said. “She wanted to know how it worked, even when I did it 100 years ago.

“I went with my roommate. Her dad was a Marine and was stationed at NATO in Belgium. We took train trips to Paris and Rome. This was in the middle of the Cold War, and we were not allowed to go to Berlin. We were both military brats, and we could have been kidnapped.”
Thankfully, Ellis made it home in one piece, and she’s been living and sharing her stories ever since.