Q&A: Commencement senior speaker learned to plant seeds of her own confidence

Teresa Chico ’22, this year’s senior speaker at Commencement, arrived at Bates from New City, N.Y., as a first-generation college student with a single perception of her future: She would study science and pursue it through to a medical degree and a career as a physician.

This, she thought, was a story that her immediate family would be proud to share with her extended family. But soon, Chico found herself moving toward a different future, one where her sense of self and purpose would be better met by two majors within the humanities: Africana, and rhetoric, film, and screen studies.

Teresa Chico ’22 of New City, N.Y., a double major in Rhetoric, Film, and Screen Studies and Africana, will be the Senior Speaker at the 2022 Commencement. She poses on Alumni Walk and the Historic Quad. Also shown with Jeremy Bruce ’22 of Portland, Maine.
Teresa Chico ’22 of New City, N.Y., a double major in rhetoric, film, and screen studies and in Africana, will deliver the Senior Address at the 2022 Commencement. (Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College)

She compares her changes during the past four years to her plants; she has two, a hard-to-kill pothos and a “dramatic” Chinese money plant. At first, the pressures and struggles she felt as a first-year biology major were overwhelming, but she pictured herself like the pothos. She wouldn’t bend under the pressure. Resilience was as rooted in her as it was in the houseplant that “basically takes care of itself.” 

But in the course of her time at Bates, trying to nurture that Chinese money plant, she came to see that it was okay to require some care, to embrace the help she found on those hard days “where my professors watered me with their knowledge and support.”

Watch Teresa Chico’s Senior Address at Commencement on May 29, 2022:

A few days before her Commencement, Chico spoke with us about her experience as a first-gen student, how growth isn’t a linear process, and how one course changed the trajectory of her entire college career.

And, why she claps really loud when a cup is dropped in Commons.

Why did you choose to attend Bates?

Well, I’m first-gen, so a huge part of my college process was just being confused. I didn’t really know what I was looking for or what to expect out of college at all. I just remember touring a bunch of schools with my mother. We just saw so many schools, but it wasn’t until I came to Bates, and there was just this feeling I got being on campus; everybody felt very warm and welcoming and I really liked that.

What’s a highlight of your time at Bates?

Definitely taking Professor [Charles] Nero’s class, “White Redemption.” That just changed my whole plan of life. Before that I was planning to be a biology major, and it wasn’t until I took that class, and it just opened my eyes to a different world. I loved studying films and I loved talking about race, and doing both of those things at the same time was something that I was really passionate about.

Can you describe what it was like to move from an intended major, biology, to another?

It was a hard decision for me. There’s just an expectation that when you’re the first person to go to college, you’re going to come out with something that’s really “impressive.” But I realized that it wasn’t something I was interested in. And also, being a woman of color in that space was really hard, and I knew that no matter what I decided to do in life, it’s going to be hard to be a woman of color, but I might as well be doing something I love to do. 

I’ve always loved film, but didn’t realize that I could follow that interest in an academic setting. And for my dad, who didn’t really go to school and didn’t go to college, watching films together is how we’d bond. He always says, “Oh, you get your smarts from your mother,” but I’m like, “I also got my smarts from you.”

People don’t really look at film as being academic, but it really is so important, like representation and all the things that come with films. And so that’s what I really wanted to pursue. And I just decided it would be worth it in the end. 

Teresa Chico ’22 of New York City. a double major in Rhetoric, Film, and Screen Studies and Africana, will be the Senior Speaker at the 2022 Commencement. She poses on Alumni Walk and the Historic Quad. Also shown with Jeremy Bruce ’22 of Portland, Maine.
Teresa Chico ’22 of New City. N.Y., holds her Chinese money plant, which has become a symbol of the ways she has grown and learned to take care of herself during her time at Bates. (Phyllis Graber Jensen/Bates College)
How did your major in Africana affect your perspective at Bates?

I think that Bates is an institution that really is trying to be more diverse and talk about race and talk about what it means to be anti-racist. And I think that sometimes we just fall short because that’s just what happens. It’s not anyone’s fault, but we’re still trying to get to a point where we’re talking about these things in a way that’s going to produce change. 

Being a woman of color, I wanted to talk about race and I wanted to talk about the experiences that I was having in my life, but in an academic setting. And Africana gave me language to be able to talk about my experiences that I didn’t have before. 

And being in the Africana department gave me a place to talk about these really important topics. In other classes, the mentality is “we need to talk about race because we have to.” When you’re in an Africana course, you’re talking about race because you want to.

Who are you bringing with you to Commencement?

I’m bringing my whole family. It’s a huge deal. I’m the first person to graduate from college, so my whole family’s coming: my mom, my dad, my grandma, my godparents, all five of my siblings, and one of my aunts.

Why did you want to give the senior address?

I’m usually very introverted, but as a first-generation student and as a woman of color, I felt it was important for me to share my experiences. I also want to let other people who are graduating know that yeah, college is hard enough for everyone, but it’s just different for people that are going to a predominantly white institution or people that are going to be the first person in their family to go to college.

And even though my story is very personal, I think there’s a bigger story of growth there that everyone can relate to.

Did either of your two majors influence your decision to submit a speech or what you will say at Commencement?

The professors who are in my departments really help me be the student that I am today. And even if that’s not said in the speech, I would never have had the courage to even submit a speech if it weren’t for my professors — Therí Pickens, Charles Nero, and Ian Khara Ellasante. They encouraged me to speak up in their classes and to value my own thoughts.

In your speech, you talk about how growth isn’t linear, and life is about taking those opportunities to stretch and grow. What are some of the opportunities, unexpected and otherwise, that you took to grow at Bates?

Taking some risks. I think that switching my major was a huge risk, but I also took smaller risks. For a while I joined 2 B.E.A.T.S. [a hip hop club], and I’d never danced before, but I was a senior; I wanted to try something new. It really introduced me to a great community full of supportive people, and taking risks has helped me build confidence in myself.

The summer after sophomore year, I was really disappointed. I didn’t get an internship, and there was COVID. And then I started questioning myself. But the summer after that, I got two internships and it was like, if I didn’t keep believing in myself, I wouldn’t have applied again. 

You completed an internship with WGBH in Boston with American Experience. What was that like?

I felt like I was a real working woman!

It was a post-production internship, and I was really surprised that I got the internship, because it included reading licenses, and I had never done anything like that.

I helped filmmakers apply to festivals, like the Sundance Film Festival, the Toronto Film Festival, and the Berlin International Film Fest. They weren’t my films, but it felt like I was applying too, so when we got the notifications that a film would be accepted or denied, I felt that so deeply. And then they asked me to stay on for the fall semester.

The annual Bates Film Festival is produced by a course in your rhetoric, film, and screen studies major. How did your internship connect to working on the BFF?

With the internship, I was talking with filmmakers and helping them apply to festivals, and then with the Bates Film Festival, I was on the other side of that. Being in the selection process and delivering the acceptances — and rejections — was really cool.

You helped lead the Campus Activities and Traditions program on campus. What kind of experiences did you gain from working to plan activities for your peers?

One big goal of Campus Activities and Traditions, especially last year [when pandemic guidelines were in full force], was to make sure that people had things to do and that they weren’t feeling so isolated.

When we put on an activity for people, and saw them gathered in one space, I was so happy and proud of us to be able to look around see all these people out here to paint or whatever. Everyone’s masked and everyone’s socially distanced, but they were meeting new people and we’re hearing real life conversations. 

The Class of 2022 is the only current cohort of Bates students who experienced an uninterrupted, pre-COVID academic year. What’s something that you lost as a result of doing college during a pandemic? 

We lost so much. I don’t even really remember all of what freshman year looked like. I think study abroad was the biggest thing we lost. [Only 9 percent of the class studied abroad, compared to nearly 60 percent for a typical senior class.] I know for me that was a huge thing.

I was like, “Wow, I’m going to Italy.” And then they were like, “No, you’re not.”

I had the program picked out, it was all set, and then the program got canceled. That’s an experience that I would’ve loved to have. I mean, I didn’t even have a passport before and I remember applying for one and I was like, “Wow, I’m going to Italy.” And then they were like, “No, you’re not.” I still want to go abroad, but maybe not Italy. I mostly picked Italy because I like pasta!

How about something that you gained. Was there anything?

I think like when you go through a pandemic, or something like this where the whole world is going through the same thing, you really value close relationships with people.

I remember when I first came to Bates, I hated it, and I thought, “I’m never going to be a person that claps.”

We were lucky enough that Bates brought us back for 2020–21, even though everyone’s like, “Oh my God, that was terrible.” Like, we were eating out of boxes for so long, but it’s that experience that really bonds you to people. I know that there are some people that I’ve met during that year that I’m always going to be friends with. 

Another thing is the traditions. There was like this huge weight on us to keep up the traditions, like when a cup drops in Commons, people clap. Now, we’re clapping as loud as we can so that other people know like, that’s what you do. It’s what you have to do.

I remember when I first came to Bates, I hated it, and I thought, “I’m never going to be a person that claps,” but when I noticed hardly anyone was clapping anymore, I knew I had to join.

At the beginning, it was obnoxious and it was annoying, but we have to keep these smaller traditions alive. And that was something that was really put on our class: to remind the first years and the sophomores that we have traditions here that we need to keep going.

Do you have any advice for incoming students? And/or what advice would you give your younger self?

Just put yourself out there. I wish that I tried 2 B.E.A.T.S. my freshman year, and not just my senior year when I gained the courage to put myself out there more. And not just socially, but academically, too. If I didn’t try to take “White Redemption,” I would not be majoring in what I am now. I would just be suffering in silence as a bio major.

What is your next step post-graduation?

That is the question! Right now I will be going back to a temporary position at GBH where I did my internship last summer, and then I’m not sure.

I think my next step is just to do something unexpected.

I feel like I wanna do something crazy, like a big move. When I was a first-year and I got here and I was meeting seniors, I thought they were so old, like the next step would be starting a family. But like now that I am a senior, I’m like, “I’m so young!” Like I should go to California or something and just live — like who knows?

I’m never going to be this young again. I think my next step is just to do something unexpected.