Message from the Dean


Message from the Dean

Fall 2021

Dear Honors Alumni,

I am excited to begin my term as dean of the Commonwealth Honors College, and I am grateful for the warm welcome I have received from across our community.

As a professor, first-generation college student, and mother of a Commonwealth Honors graduate, I am very committed to undergraduate education and providing students the opportunity to delve deeply in their studies. Having worked with many Honors students in the past in both classroom sessions and in thesis projects, I know firsthand the excellence, scholarship, and enthusiasm that each student encompasses. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to work closely with the Honors College student body.

Undoubtedly, the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent social justice movements that have struck our nation mark a sign of change to come. Now, more than ever, the ability for students to make a positive impact in the world through their research and academic studies is incredibly important. The mission to create a more just, fair world comes through our collective effort to enact change. It is my hope as dean to continue developing the future generation of leaders of the Commonwealth and beyond through our commitment to building an immersive educational environment and research community, and collectively working together to reimagine a new world.

I know that any vision and goals that I have for the Honors College will come as a collaboration between myself, the Honors faculty and staff, students, and alumni. Our diverse voices and perspectives are critical in envisioning new possibilities. Change does not occur simply through the classroom or in what we study, but in ways in which we engage empathetically with one another. I’m looking forward to connecting with members of the Honors College community in a variety of ways, including meeting with alumni over the year to come.

While it pains me that I cannot meet you face-to-face under the current circumstances, I am reminded of the struggles and adversity that many of our ancestors once faced. Ultimately, they had to overcome many day-to-day challenges to bring us to this point today. While coronavirus presents a significant obstacle for us and much sadness for the impact it has had on our families and friends, the struggles and challenges we face now will only strengthen us with resiliency and persistence in the long run. By doing everything in our power to use this as an opportunity to learn, grow, and develop personal depth, the hardships faced now will prepare us for future uncertainties in the road ahead.

When struck with adversity, I am constantly reminded of the poem “The Oak Tree” by Johnny Ray Ryder Jr. He wrote:

A mighty wind blew night and day

It stole the oak tree’s leaves away

Then snapped its boughs and pulled its bark

Until the oak was tired and stark

But still the oak tree held its ground

While other trees fell all around

The weary wind gave up and spoke,

“How can you still be standing, Oak?”

The oak tree said, “I know that you

Can break each branch of mine in two

Carry every leaf away

Shake my limbs, and make me sway

But I have roots stretched in the earth

Growing stronger since my birth

You’ll never touch them, for you see

They are the deepest part of me

Until today I wasn’t sure

Of just how much I could endure

But now I’ve found, with thanks to you

I’m stronger than I ever knew.”

The story of the oak tree reminds me that during these uncertain times, building strength and staying resilient helps us not only to survive, but to thrive.

I know for all of us, this is not how we imagined this year to unfold. It’s easy to focus on what we are missing during this time, but I encourage you to focus on, engage with, and enjoy what we still have.

When I was in high school, my family and I suffered a spell of homelessness that could have totally pulled me apart. However, I often look back at that experience as some of the best memories of my childhood, because it allowed my mom, my siblings, and I to build a deep bond with one another. Even though it was an incredibly challenging time, it also taught me that we could survive anything when we depended on one another with a positive mindset. This period of my life is really what fueled my desire to work towards civic engagement, attend college, and shaped so much of what I wanted to do with my life. There are certainly challenges that strike us all, but within these challenges come opportunities that can light a path forward and fuel us for the rest of our lives if we look at it with a sense of possibility, despite how hard it can be.

I urge you to embrace the adversity we face this year with the knowledge that you are not alone and that you’re rooted in community at the Honors College. In the end, we are all stronger and more connected than we think we are.

Best wishes to you and your family.

Warm regards,

Mari Castañeda, PhD

Dean, Commonwealth Honors College

Professor, Department of Communication