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Nicholas Xenophontos discusses “Meanings of America”

Who gets to define what “America” means? Politicians get a lot of air time. We wanted to hear what “the people” think. So in Fall 2021, we launched a contest asking UConn students to tell us what “America” means to them. We received a diverse array of responses in the form of short essays, creative writing, poetry, photography, and other forms of original artwork, from students across UConn’s schools and campuses. Of these, eight winners rose to the top based on their originality, creativity, and quality.

View the video below to hear First Place Prize winner Nicholas Xenophontos read his essay and discuss his inspiration for this work.  

“Meanings of America”
by Nicholas Xenophontos
CLAS, Sociology and Math
Class of 2023

Let us renounce stars, stripes, and eagles, for America is meaningless and in that fact we have our greatest strength. Albeit a maddening and confusing claim, it is nevertheless true that the defining trait of our sovereign nation is its lack of definition. This does not disavow any claims that we, as a people, hold certain traits or meanings as wholly American. After all, we are America the free, the brave, and the just, and in our shared belief of these principles we bring them into reality. However, we fail to recognize the consequences of these values’ existence, and how our creation of American meanings ultimately destroy themselves. 

Consider: America is free, thus you are free. You can vote and run for office when eligible. You can live wherever, eat whatever, and work however you desire. You can do anything. However, America is free, thus your neighbor is free too. They can vote and run for office when eligible, even if that means voting for or creating policies that make you less eligible. Or perhaps your neighbor is your landlord, bodega owner, or boss, with the freedom to set your rent, prices, or wages. They are free enough to trap you financially, so that even with the freedom to buy carrots, your wallet will demand you always buy the cheaper produce. Hence, America is free, but you are merely dreaming of freedom, just as you are of carrots. You can do anything, but you will only do some things. 

Consider: America is brave, thus you are brave. You have the courage to be yourself and pursue your Dream. You have the strength to cry when sad, laugh when happy, and swear when angry. You do not hold back. However, America is brave, thus your guardian is brave too. They have the courage to be themself and pursue their Dream, even if that means keeping you and your aspirations grounded. Or perhaps your guardian is your advisor, teacher, or religious leader, with the bravery to force you to stifle your tears, smiles, or language. They are brave enough to make sure you hold your tongue, so that even with the bravery to curse at failure, your heart will demand you remain reserved. Hence, America is brave, yet you are merely dreaming of bravery, just as you are of sobbing. You do not hold back, but you will manage expectations.

Consider: America is just, thus you are just. You know your morals and always support that which is right. You know what it means to be good, what it means to be evil, and how to tell them apart. You know all truths. However, America is just, thus, your sibling is just too. They know their morals and always support that which is right, even if that means supporting what you know is wrong. Or perhaps your sibling is your police, judge, or local activist, with the justice to enforce good, condemn evil, and debate the differences. They are just enough to build laws, so that even with the justice to know such laws are wrong, your mind will demand you accept them. Hence, America is just, yet you are merely dreaming of justice, just as you are for fair laws. You know all truths, but you cannot understand others’ truths. 

Try any core pillar of American identity and you will find hypocrisy, redundancy, and irony. Our entire history is one of betrayal to any of our intrinsic merits, starting with the colonial destruction of the Natives’ society, land, and culture, leading into a scarred and bloodied past far too extensive, with wounds which still ooze today and keep us locked in false sanctimony. So, though we may have meaning in theory, in practice America is meaningless. Yet this is no weakness, as it frees us of any nationalistic chains. If we only realize that any meanings we conjure are but illusions, we can forgo the burden of continuing any “American legacy” and instead focus on building our future how we want. 

Consider: America is meaningless, thus you are meaningless. You can define what being American means to you and follow that meaning unabated. You can be free, brave, or just, but if you so choose you can also be humble, bashful, or kind. And, America is meaningless, thus your fellow Americans are meaningless. They can define what being American means to them and follow that meaning unabated, without interfering and interference from you. They can be humble, bashful or kind, but if they so choose they can also be free, brave, or just. This is our future, if we collectively abandon a strict definition of what it means to be American. This is our future, if we allow each of us to find meaning in America however we wish. This is our future: a nation full of potential, but to meet our potential requires the full nation.

Srivani Agnihotram discusses “America”

Who gets to define what “America” means? Politicians get a lot of air time. We wanted to hear what “the people” think. So in Fall 2021, we launched a contest asking UConn students to tell us what “America” means to them. We received a diverse array of responses in the form of short essays, creative writing, poetry, photography, and other forms of original artwork, from students across UConn’s schools and campuses. Of these, eight winners rose to the top based on their originality, creativity, and quality.

View the video below to hear Honorable Mention winner Srivani Agnihotram read her poem “America,” and discuss her inspiration for this work.  

AMERICA
by Srivani Agnihotram
CLAS, Physiology and Neurobiology
Class of 2023

America.
The Land of the Free,
The Home of the Brave,
The Melting Pot of diversity,
Where there’s Liberty and Justice for All. 

America.
Opportunities at your doorstep,
Anyone can thrive,
You just have to try…HARDER,
Why are you so stressed? 

America.
It’s an achievable goal.
If you’re not at the top,
Then you’re lazy as hell.
Is this what “your people” taught you to be?
Go back to your country – you’re not welcome here. 

America.
Access to education,
Kids hopping on school buses while parents peep through windows.
The white mother says “go have some fun!”
The black mother says “if you see a gun, run.” 

America.
Equality and peace at our foundation,
Are these really what govern our country?
White privilege muffles the cries of minorities.
What’s the point of a protest if you can’t HEAR me? 

America.
Monopoly, monopoly, monopoly.
Oh, you found something good? Let me do you a favor.
I’ll take
these off your hands,
And you can just buy from me, okay? 

America.
“If you go out like that, you’re asking for it.”
“Honestly, it’s your fault for being unconscious.”
“Why couldn’t you say no? It’s not that hard.”
Another death. Suicide. Rape. Murder.

America,
When does this end?
I thought I could thrive here, but I’M DYING
Of laughter
Because you couldn’t uphold what my ancestors thought you were all along.
You’re a con, a fake, I can’t trust you at all.
I depended on you for my family’s success,
But you just give me a downfall.
I’m too far down to pick myself up. You’ve crushed me past my limits.
I’ve had it. I’m done.
But I can’t let go.
You’re toxic, I’m toxic. I have what I need here.
You need me for diversity – I need you for opportunity.
Even though you’ve made me cry and bleed,
I come back to this land grateful for what I’ve seen
And explored.
You’ve given me strength to fight for my rights.
To embrace who I am, and show the world my might.
America, instead of burning me down to blacken,
Try lifting me up and see what happens.



Emma Kathryn Parente discusses “A Student in America” 

Who gets to define what “America” means? Politicians get a lot of air time. We wanted to hear what “the people” think. So in Fall 2021, we launched a contest asking UConn students to tell us what “America” means to them. We received a diverse array of responses in the form of short essays, creative writing, poetry, photography, and other forms of original artwork, from students across UConn’s schools and campuses. Of these, eight winners rose to the top based on their originality, creativity, and quality.

View the video below to hear Honorable Mention winner Emma Kathryn Parente read her poem “A Student in America,” and discuss her inspiration for this work.  

A Student in America
by Emma Kathryn Parente
CLAS, Sociology and Psychology
Class of 2022

Shutting off my alarm 6 times before going to class
Quickly getting dressed
Biking to class, out of breath, sitting in my lecture
Should I be taking notes?
Is everyone else writing this down?
My face covered by a mask
Laptop screens reflecting off our eyes
I’m tired from a night of studying
“Work with the person next to you”
“You need to know this for the exam”
Ugh.
Why am I here?

The opportunity to go to class
The chance to dress how I want
To express myself
The gift of accessible transportation
The ability to take notes and learn
The responsibility to keep myself and other students safe
The luxury of having resources and technology
The freedom to expend my energy on gaining knowledge
The exchanging of ideas and opinions with the people around me
The excitement of learning something new
The achievement of passing an exam
I get to be here
I get to live with these gifts

We often take for granted what America means to us. We especially forget what it can give to us. We get so used to painting our freedoms to be burdens. It’s easy to get stuck in a negative mindset, always thinking of what we have to do instead of what we get to do. Students work hard, because they can. America is the opportunity to embrace who we are and reach our full potential. This can never be a burden, even if we sometimes forget that.

Lisbeth Peguero discusses “Everything but Apple Pie”

Who gets to define what “America” means? Politicians get a lot of air time. We wanted to hear what “the people” think. So in Fall 2021, we launched a contest asking UConn students to tell us what “America” means to them. We received a diverse array of responses in the form of short essays, creative writing, poetry, photography, and other forms of original artwork, from students across UConn’s schools and campuses. Of these, eight winners rose to the top based on their originality, creativity, and quality.

View the video below to hear Honorable Mention winner Lisbeth Peguero discuss “Everything But Apple Pie.” 

Everything But Apple Pie, by Lisbeth Peguero

Rianka Roy discusses “Coming to America”

Who gets to define what “America” means? Politicians get a lot of air time. We wanted to hear what “the people” think. So in Fall 2021, we launched a contest asking UConn students to tell us what “America” means to them. We received a diverse array of responses in the form of short essays, creative writing, poetry, photography, and other forms of original artwork, from students across UConn’s schools and campuses. Of these, eight winners rose to the top based on their originality, creativity, and quality.

View the video below to hear Honorable Mention winner Rianka Roy read her poem “Coming to America” and discuss the inspiration for this work. 

“Coming to America”
Rianka Roy
Graduate Student, Department of Sociology
Class of 2024

As I stood at the airport, waiting for the doors to open to a new land, I held

My breath in suspense and awe. A man behind the counter was checking my papers.

Embracing an odd courage that I never knew I had, I

Recalled in wild excitement what I had read about this land. I remembered how

Immigrants, thousands and thousands before me,

Crossed perilous borders. Legal and illegal paths merged

And mingled into a dream of many colors whose borders were never real.

I was walking those paths. I was in history. I would be another brown streak on the canvas. But do

Sleeping children see their mothers, who live on the other side of a wall?

A wall made of bricks so heavy that they can pull your souls down to the dark depth of a pond.

Do I dare cross these bridges? Do I have the keys? Who do I have to walk with me?

Real histories are written in the sands of time, but are the grains too fine to see?

“Enter, please. Here’s your passport. Welcome to America.”

An ‘alien’ forever, perhaps legal, perhaps not.

My journey begins. Like others, I too shall build my destiny.

Jenna K. Trott discusses “Because of the Brave”

Who gets to define what “America” means? Politicians get a lot of air time. We wanted to hear what “the people” think. So in Fall 2021, we launched a contest asking UConn students to tell us what “America” means to them. We received a diverse array of responses in the form of short essays, creative writing, poetry, photography, and other forms of original artwork, from students across UConn’s schools and campuses. Of these, eight winners rose to the top based on their originality, creativity, and quality.

View the video below to hear Honorable Mention winner Jenna K. Trott read her poem “Because of the Brave” and discuss the inspiration for this work. 

“Because of the Brave”
Jenna K. Trott
Graduate School of Social Work
Class of 2023

Home of the free because of the brave
Because of the ones with something to say
The ones who challenged what’s “right”
Who stood up
And sat in
And joined in the fight.

Home of the free because of the brave
Because of the ones who helped pave the way
The Baldwins
The Parks
The Angelous and the Kings
And the ones who took on Uncle Sam in the ring

Home of the free because of the brave
Because of the ones without names to their graves
The ones who carried a nation on their back
Only for 200 years later be still under attack.

Home of the free because of the brave
Because of the ones knowing if Rittenhouse were black he wouldn’t be saved
Because of the Taylors
The Martins
The Rices and the Jones
And the ones unable to ever come home.

Home of the free because of the brave
Because of the ones fighting for a better tomorrow today
The ones waiting for Ms. Liberty’s kiss
For love
For life
For the pursuit of happiness.

Home of the free
Because of the brave
Because of those who stood their ground unafraid
The ones who pursue justice for all
For united we stand
And divided we fall.

 

Kyra Arena discusses “Fly Away”

Who gets to define what “America” means? Politicians get a lot of air time. We wanted to hear what “the people” think. So in Fall 2021, we launched a contest asking UConn students to tell us what “America” means to them. We received a diverse array of responses in the form of short essays, creative writing, poetry, photography, and other forms of original artwork, from students across UConn’s schools and campuses. Of these, eight winners rose to the top based on their originality, creativity, and quality.

View the video below to hear Exhibition Finalist Kyra Arena read her poem “Fly Away” and discuss the inspiration for this work. 

Fly Away
by Kyra Arena
CLAS and NEAG (Double Majoring in English and Secondary English Ed.)
UConn Class of 2023

I see a glorious eagle menacingly swoop down and
Crush the rabbit’s neck with its talons.
Disturbed, I cry out:
“He can’t breathe!”
After a moment of grief, I fly away.

The next day, I saw the eagle
Circle above a nest of squirrels who
Dispersed in terror at the sight of their predator.
Never to be united, for the eagle was now between them.
Upset at their predicament, I fly away.

By the river I saw the eagle loom innocently,
Until he dived into the water, resurfacing with a fish.
The surviving fish have no place for refuge,
For their home is now a feeding ground.
My heart strings tugged, yet, I fly away.

I weep for the rabbit, squirrel, and fish
But remain blissful in my ignorance.
Until I hear the remaining animals say:
So what do savages do?
“Fly away.”

Cassandra Barrow discusses “Envy” 

Who gets to define what “America” means? Politicians get a lot of air time. We wanted to hear what “the people” think. So in Fall 2021, we launched a contest asking UConn students to tell us what “America” means to them. We received a diverse array of responses in the form of short essays, creative writing, poetry, photography, and other forms of original artwork, from students across UConn’s schools and campuses. Of these, eight winners rose to the top based on their originality, creativity, and quality.

View the video below to hear Exhibition Finalist Cassandra Barrow discuss the inspiration for “Envy.” 

Envy, by Cassandra Barrow
Envy, by Cassandra Barrow

Announcing the Meanings of “America” Contest Winners

The Meanings of Democracy Lab is thrilled to announce the winners of the 2021 Meanings of “America” Multimedia Contest. We received a large number of high-quality submissions, but these finalists distinguished themselves with their originality, creativity, and the overall quality of their work. We invite all members of the UConn community to join us in congratulating them, and to stay in touch with us on Twitter and Instagram for updates on future events where we will be sharing their wonderful submissions. 

First Place Prize Nicholas Xenophontos, “Meanings of America” Honorable Mentions Srivani Agnihotram, “America” Emma Kathryn Parente, “A Student in America” Lisbeth Peguero, “Everything but Apple Pie” Rianka Roy, “Coming to America” Jenna Trott, “Because of the Brave” Exhibition Finalists Kyra Arena, “Fly Away” Cassandra Barrow, “Envy” Matthew S. Dentice, “American Hope”

First Place Prize

Nicholas Xenophontos, “Meanings of America”

Honorable Mentions

Srivani Agnihotram, “America”

Emma Kathryn Parente, “A Student in America” 

Lisbeth Peguero, “Everything but Apple Pie”

Rianka Roy, “Coming to America”

Jenna Trott, “Because of the Brave”

Exhibition Finalists

Kyra Arena, “Fly Away”

Cassandra Barrow, “Envy”

Matthew S. Dentice, “American Hope”

Work with us (Spring 2022 Opportunities)!

[DEADLINE: Friday, December 10, 2021]

The Meanings of Democracy Lab, directed by Professor Ruth Braunstein of the Sociology Department, is offering five research assistantships for interested, high-achieving undergraduate students in Spring 2022. Research Assistants will work with Dr. Braunstein on research related to the contested moral and cultural foundations of American democratic life, including on ongoing projects on the moral meanings of taxpaying and on battles over American history and identity.

Students’ activities could include collecting and analyzing data and reviewing existing research, as well as disseminating information through social media and podcasts. No specialized research skills are required, but extra consideration will be given to students with the following skills/interests:

  • web data collection/scraping
  • digital storytelling

We will meet virtually on Mondays from 11:00am-12:30pm during Spring 2022.

Students will receive three units of 3000-level independent study credit.

The positions are open to rising sophomores and juniors. Preferred GPA is 3.6 or higher. Students from any campus are welcome to apply.

To apply, please fill out this application: https://forms.gle/xEWpXxAbaZscRRKw7.