President’s Posts

Michael Rao, Ph.D.

During this election year, I’m particularly grateful for the work of service members in uniform who protect our democracy. It’s my honor to share a message from my colleague and a veteran, Dr. Aashir Nasim. Today, Dr. Nasim serves as Vice President of Institutional Equity, Effectiveness and Success, and professor and director of iCubed, but as a college student and Army Reservist, he served in Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm.

Thirty years ago this month, I was called up from Army Reserves status to active duty to serve in Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm. A freshman in college at the time, I was just settling into my first-year courses and experiencing all of the trappings of college life.

That fall became a particularly difficult time for my family and friends, fellow soldiers, classmates and professors. The impending war and rumors of chemical warfare created immense anxiety, stress and uncertainty. Few believed that we would return home as we had left.

I enlisted in the reserves with a peculiar mix of purpose and naiveté in my teenage years. Maybe I knew what I was getting into, or perhaps I didn’t. I have since reflected on and recontextualized that period of time as a ‘gap year,’ well before its near-universal recognition as a yearlong sabbatical between high school and college.

While I was serving on active duty in a war abroad, I was still a reservist in the newest battle of a chronically persistent war at home (Rodney King) during the height of concurrent epidemics (crack cocaine and HIV) that also were ravaging racial and ethnic minority communities. My experiences of that year presented profound challenges.

On the one hand I was proud to serve my country. Yet, on the other hand, I was disheartened by how I perceived my country to serve people like me. I became compelled to reconcile these warring ideals through active citizenship, education and service.

This year we have witnessed the collective spirit of those fighting to preserve the intent and promise of our democracy; the combined resiliency and resolve to overcome threats that compromise how our democracy works; and, the concomitant streams of hope and optimism that flow into a democracy not yet fully realized.

We do not always have the option of choosing our battles. Sometimes they are chosen for us either by conscription or conviction. Regardless, we must endeavor to reconcile and restore our physical and mental health, our trust in each other, and our faith in the tenets of our democracy.

In some ways all of us are veterans by the shared virtue of our lived experiences as we battle and persevere through this year’s pandemic, protests and elections. My sincere hope is that we will reflect on and recontextualize this time as our nation’s ‘gap year’ toward a more equitable, inclusive and perfect union.

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