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Aleyna Rentz Speech at Honors Day

April 5, 2016

As a writer, I have an innate dislike of talking to people, especially when a large group of them are watching me and I happen to be speaking into a microphone, so I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was just a little nervous right now. I actually experienced a similar anxiety a few days ago while at a writing conference in Los Angeles, where I had the chance to meet one of my literary idols, and arguably the most famous living novelist in America, Jonathan Franzen. By some miracle, my nerves subsided and I retained my ability to form coherent sentences long enough to hold a brief conversation. Even more astonishing, I said something witty enough to make him laugh. As someone with a longstanding history of awkwardness, I spent the rest of that afternoon wondering how I had made it through such an encounter, and then I started thinking about this speech: When, I wondered, had I become the type of person who chats with famous writers and willingly agrees to give long speeches? I could only conclude that I’d come a very long way during my time at Georgia Southern.

To give you some idea, as a freshman, I could hardly speak to my professors, much less to any famous writers. In spite of this impairment, I brazenly auditioned for our theatre department’s production of Hamlet, my all-time favorite work of literature, and was given the part of Queen Gertrude’s attendant. Fortunately for everyone involved, this part had no lines, but I was elated nonetheless.

Part of this production required filming a wedding party for the King and Queen, which we shot at former university president Dr. Keel’s own home. My role during this shoot was simple: I had the enviable job of keeping watch over the Queen, all while silently stuffing my face with meatballs and mini cheesecakes. In that moment, I felt a surge of importance: there I was, only a freshman, indulging in fancy hors d’oeuvres at the President’s house. This moment of arrogance persisted until one of the mini cheesecakes slipped from my fingers and exploded into a million tiny crumbs on the floor of Dr. Keel’s kitchen. I did what any smart person would do: I put on what I hoped was a neutral expression and walked across the room, pretending nothing happened.

Of course, I grabbed another cheesecake on my way there.

But I eventually left Hamlet’s Denmark and traveled on to Ireland. The summer following my freshman year, I participated in the inaugural Honors Inquiry in Ireland study abroad program, led by Dr. Steve Engel and Dr. Howard Keeley, where my fellow classmates and I researched factors that contributed to diaspora from County Wexford, Ireland, to Savannah, Georgia. We became acquainted with many figures from both Savannah and Ireland’s history, specifically Irish immigrant William Kehoe, the son of a tenant farmer who became one of the Southeast’s leading iron producers.

During this study abroad program, I was surprised to have been cast in a role much larger than Gertrude’s attendant: Along with two other students, I was selected to present mine and my colleagues’ research at the John F. Kennedy Trust in New Ross, Ireland to an audience of around 100 people that included Rory Kennedy, the daughter of Robert F. Kennedy. This not only proved to me that I could speak in front of strangers without suddenly forgetting the English language, but it also revealed the enormity of our project-there we were, eleven Georgia Southern students, in a room across the ocean sharing a forgotten narrative in Ireland’s history that we had recovered.

I feel obligated to mention that there were hor d’oeuvres at this event, but I wisely kept my distance.

This presentation should have prepared me for my triumphant return to the stage during the fall of my sophomore year, but it did not. I had been named runner-up for a scholarship in the Writing and Linguistics Department and had to read my winning short story out loud at an awards ceremony-an awards ceremony followed by a reception with tiny appetizers, no less. Despite having lectured about Irish history to an Irish audience just a few months ago, I was terrified. Delivering a speech was one thing; reading my own fiction was another.

That semester, I also was taking my first writing class with Professor Jared Sexton. I happened to mention to him that I was not exactly looking forward to reading my short story, which I had, in true writer fashion, grown to hate. He offered to help me revise it, and when we met to talk about it, he asked me what I planned on doing after graduation. I just awkwardly shrugged and said, more to the floor than to him, “I don’t know, be a writer, I guess.” I probably stuttered out a few more unintelligible words until Professor Sexton told me something I’ll never forget. He looked at me and said, “If you want to be a writer, then you’re going to be a writer. We’re going to make this happen.”

Even though I nearly tripped on my dress during the reading and sped incoherently through my story, that night marked the moment I became an adoptive member of the little family that is Georgia Southern’s Writing and Linguistics Department. Since then, I’ve had the privilege of getting to know many of the professors in the department, including Professor Sexton, who was good on his word: he’s helped me see several short stories into print, as well as offered guidance when a few of my friends and I decided to start our own literary journal, Moonglasses Magazine. He was also very forgiving when I borrowed a book from him and spilled food on it.
I think I speak on behalf of all the students here when I say I feel extraordinarily lucky to have worked with so many great mentors while at Georgia Southern. We’re all in this room this morning because of our wonderful accomplishments this year, but none of us got here alone. Behind each of us is a mentor, someone who has helped us find our footing as we stumbled onto the paths leading to our futures.

And somewhere along that path, I became a mentor myself. Just as I had the chance to return to the stage on campus, I also had the chance to spend another summer in Ireland, and this time with special distinction-I was a peer instructor. Just the summer before, I had dropped my sack lunch in the middle of a busy Dublin intersection, so I couldn’t help but wonder if I was actually qualified to help lead anybody.

But a lot can change in a year. Mentoring wasn’t as difficult as I expected, and no sack lunches were sacrificed to early morning Dublin traffic. Even better, I was able to help lead our expedition to the hometown of aforementioned iron mogul William Kehoe. The majority of our trip was spent in the archives, but after about a week, we finally had a day outdoors. A synthesis of various sources, including land records from the 1830s and oral histories from local community members, led us to what we referred to as an “archive of place,” a tiny rural townland called Mount Howard. While exploring the small village, we ran into a local farmer. Our professors explained our research, and when Kehoe’s name was mentioned, his eyes lit up.
“I know all about the Kehoe’s,” he told us. “They lived right back there in my field.”
And then the farmer was gracious enough to let us drive our bus across his field, where we stopped at a patch of dirt under a shady tree.

“There it is,” he told us. “That’s where the house used to be.”

We had not come to Mount Howard expecting to discover the birthplace of William Kehoe, but there it was. I looked at the small square of dirt and realized I had contributed to something larger than myself. Two summers of hard work had brought us to that field in Mount Howard, and I had played an integral part of it.

And that’s when I remembered-my twentieth birthday was the next day. Slowly but surely, it was happening without me realizing it-I was growing up.

Georgia Southern has helped me mature as a scholar, as a writer, and above all, as a person. Even though I’m supposedly pretty crafty with words, I can’t think of any worthy enough to express the gratitude I feel toward professors like Dr. Engel, Dr. Keeley, Professor Sexton, and countless others. Their undertaking is one both noble and difficult-not just to educate us, but to help us transition from timid freshmen to sophisticated thinkers capable of going out into the world and making a difference–and sometimes talking to famous writers. They have helped us cultivate our talents and provided support whenever we faltered, and we should remember them today in the midst of our accomplishments, just as we should remember our families, our peers, and ourselves just a few years ago when we were leaving behind our own proverbial patches of dirt for new beginnings.

Whatever challenges come my way in the future, I can confidently say Georgia Southern has equipped me to handle them…including the reception following this ceremony. I heard there’s going to be food there, but I’m not too worried-I think I just might be able to hold my plate steady.

Thank you.

Last updated: 7/26/2016