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Honor Council essay contest second runner-up: My words define me

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Editor's note: Every year, the Duke Honor Council invites incoming first-year students to submit essays inspired by the Duke summer reading book. The following essay by Quinn Smith was this year's second runner-up.

You’re white. Smith. “Smiths” are to “pallor complexions” as “hot air balloons” are to “the state of New Mexico.” And yes, New Mexico is a state. Contrary to the belief of some, there is an expanse of land between Texas and Arizona. There is not a great void of oblivion for where the Rio Grande river dumps into the depths of purgatory. Instead, this great void is found in the academic disparity which has left some students unaware of perhaps the most vibrant cultural center in the nation. Additionally, over sixty percent of New Mexicans belong to at least one ethnic minority group. I’d like to introduce myself now. My name is Quinn Smith, I am a member of the Chickasaw tribe of Oklahoma, born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I am not defined by the words of others. My words define me, I create my own identity. 

I leapt for joy when I found out that Duke University was going to introduce me to NASA. I mean, I wasn’t even a freshman and I was going to meet representatives from one of the world leaders in space exploration. I showed my mother the invitation too, and she was taken aback. Upon further exploration into the invitation I discovered that NASA was an acronym for something else at Duke. It stood for Native American Student Alliance. And while the disbelief faded after this revelation, the amazement persisted long after. Why does a school in North Carolina care so deeply about Native students? Especially native students of the pallor-smith variety? 

Through my short visit during Blue Devil Days, I was taught that my presence at an institution of higher education in the United States of America went against everything. Professor Myron Dewey and Cherokee Supreme Court Justice Brenda Pipestem—a Duke alum—joined NASA in sharing. Native American culture should be protected, preserved, and celebrated on a college campus were answers to my ancestor’s prayers. Their impassioned speeches moved me greatly. Admissions Dean Stephen McLaughlin sat out, in front of every incoming NASA member, a copy of the book “There, There” by Tommy Orange. I was instructed that even if I did not enjoy reading, I would love the novel. I do love reading, and this novel furthered my love of the written English language. Little did I know what impact this book from Duke would play in the upcoming months. 

Dene Oxendene is attempting to create a documentary attempting to give a voice to those who seldom have the chance to hear their perspectives affirmed. He let the content direct his artistic pursuits. This moved me so greatly. See, for months I had been brainstorming ways to use my new Christmas video-camera to showcase a perspective of which much of the United States is unaware: Albuquerque and New Mexico. One day I sat out with my friends to interview people in downtown Albuquerque. In the next few weeks I created a YouTube channel by the name of Watermelon Ridge (named after the Sandia mountains which overlook Albuquerque) and a small internet documentary series by the name of Enchantment 505 (New Mexico is the “Land of Enchantment” and 505 is the area code of much of the state). I had no plan in mind, I let my content direct my artistic merits. This plan paid off. 

I met a Native American man who lived all over the nation, who carves canes made from wood. I met a man who registered teenagers to vote and a woman who worked at one of the most unique gas stations, Russell’s Travel Center in Springer, New Mexico. Through the words of Tommy Orange, and because of the overwhelming support from Duke University (who gave me those words), I was able to share a perspective seldom showcased. I was not given the gift of storytelling. Perhaps I do not possess it. I was merely given the inspiration and motivation to follow one of my deepest passions. It has changed my life; one story can inspire many. 

Quinn Smith is a first-year. 

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