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Ramapo College Welcomes New Students at Opening Convocation

August 31, 2023

And now, the academic year can begin! In Ramapo College tradition, the 2023 Opening Convocation brought incoming first-year and transfer students, faculty, and staff to the Bradley Arena on Tuesday afternoon, August 29, the day before the classes officially began. Carrying the College mace, the dais party was ushered in by faculty marshal Dr. Ken McMurdy, associate professor of mathematics and president of the Faculty Assembly. Ramapo College President Cindy Jebb, Ph.D., welcomed everyone and introduced Board of Trustees Chair Susan A. Vallario, who led the Pledge of Allegiance. The National Anthem was sung by Lindsay Ruggiero ’24, accompanied by Dr. Lisa Lutter, associate professor of vocal performance, on piano.

President Cindy Jebb

President Jebb noted Ramapo is a national leader in student retention, underscoring the commitment to resources, information, and support systems available to students. She also explained how each year, Convocation serves as the space in which students gather to hear from the author of the book selected for the Summer Reading Program. This year, Tastes Like War: A Memoir, by Grace M. Cho, was selected for all first-year students to read. Convocation is also an opportunity for students to think more deeply about the lived experiences of others and the similarities and differences to their own. “Through whichever lenses or roles we experience this world, what unites us is that we all have something to share, we all have something to learn, and we are all Roadrunners,” said Jebb.

Ramapo Munsee Lenape Nation Chief Dwayne Perry

Chief Dwayne Perry of the Ramapo Munsee Lenape Nation then approached the lectern to provide the Class of 2027 blessings as they embark on their education. Ramapo College sits on the traditional and ancestral land of the Ramapo Munsee Lenape Peoples, and it is important to not only acknowledge, but respect the land on which the campus lives.

Provost Michael Middleton, PhD

Opening Convocation was not only a first for the newest Roadrunners, but for Provost and Vice President for Teaching, Learning, and Growth Michael Middleton, Ph.D., who joined Ramapo in April 2023. Provost Middleton reminded students that “shared traditions are customs that unite a group of people and provide a sense of belonging,” which is what the First-Year Summer Reading selection is: A tradition, housed in the First-Year Seminar. FYS is the first course in the general education curriculum at Ramapo College with the goal of developing students’ critical thinking skills using open discussion, reading, writing, and experiential learning.

Demiana Ghattas, Ryan Grompone, Grace M. Cho, Yvette Kisor, and Sarah Glisson

It is also home to the Summer Reading Program Essay Contest, for which Dr. Yvette Kisor, professor of literature and director of the First-Year Seminar program, had the honor of announcing the winners, all New Jersey residents, this year: Demiana Ghattas ’27 of Monmouth County, Sarah Glisson ’27 of Burlington County, and Ryan Grompone ’27 of Bergen County. Cho read all three essays and was “incredibly moved to by the different ways in which my book resonated with their own experiences. The essays were all successful in their specificity of showing exactly how [they] connected to my story, and their words vibrated with passion…these young people have great potential as writers and thinkers.”

In Tastes Like War: A Memoir, Cho recounts her journey to re-establish a connection with her mother in adulthood. Within its pages, she delves into the challenges her mother confronted during her childhood, both amid the Korean War and in the aftermath of a devastated Korean economy. Cho learned her mother was a sex worker for U.S. troops stationed in Korea, and attributes her mother’s schizophrenia to these traumas. The devastation of learning about this secret kept by her family affected Cho deeply, feeling her own shame. It was this shame, which she shared with the students, that led to examining systems of oppression that “not only created the material conditions of my mother’s life, but also deployed shame as a tool for keeping us silent about those conditions.”

Cho also talked about the role of food in her family and, in particular, the marked trajectory of her mother over a ten-year span. When her mother could no longer cook, Cho began cooking for her, which coincided with the ten-year period of research and writing for her doctoral dissertation and first book, Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War. At first, her mother refused to eat, but then began asking Cho to make the foods of her childhood and even teaching Cho how to make her grandmother’s recipes. It wasn’t the prescribed medicine from a psychiatrist, which was the norm back then, but it was medicine, a medicine that brought even a small part of her mother back to her before her sudden death in 2008.

Ramapo student Shane Shaji asking Grace Cho a question following her moving remarks about her book and family.

It was these two themes, mental health and food, that resonated most with the students, as evident in the thoughtful questions they asked Cho during and after Convocation, and the serpentine line that formed for the book signing.

Students lined up for Cho’s autograph following Convocation.

One of the many questions Cho is often asked is why she decided to write about her mother. “Because no one knew her…I wanted Tastes Like War to correct that, so that people would know her. She may have lived her life in the shadows, but in her death, I hope that my mother – and everyone like her – can move towards the light.” 

Cho generously shared her time throughout the day with various groups of campus members including the Honors Program students and First-Year Seminar faculty. When asked how she is able to connect so well with the students, she shared that she always tries to make herself vulnerable so they feel comfortable, adding, “I appreciate how open young people are now, and speaking with them feels like a safe space.”

The Ramapo College Opening Convocation and First-Year Seminar program attracts award-winning, notable and impactful writers like Cho. Previous keynote speakers include Erica Armstrong Dunbar, who wrote Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, and David Grann, who wrote Killers of the Flower Moon, which was made into a movie written and directed by Martin Scorcese starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert DeNiro, and Lily Gladstone, and will be released this fall.