By Gabrielle Chevalier, Chattanooga, TN—Best selling author and journalist Warren St. John spoke to students at UTC’s Convocation 2012 about his biographical book, “Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team and One Woman’s Quest to Make a Difference,” and why students should not take the college experience for granted.
“I try to relate the theme of the book and of transition and building a community from a set of very diverse backgrounds to the context of being a freshman,” St. John said. “I think there is a lot that can be learned from what the people of Clarkston are going through.”
“Outcasts United” is the true story of a soccer team of refugees from all over the world, coached by a Jordanian-born woman in Clarkston, Ga.
It was the UTC First Year Reading Experience committee book selected for students for the 2012–2013 academic year.
“It was a typical Southern town…and then suddenly became a resettlement center for refugees,” St. John said. “People from all around the world were suddenly being located– relocated– into Clarkston. My thesis is that Clarkston is sort of a time machine that allows you to go into America’s future a little bit and see what is coming down the pike. I think, truly, the demographic changes in Clarkston are a sort of hyper-speed version of what is also happening everywhere else.”
St. John said he first heard about the soccer team, called the Fugees, from a fan of a previous book he had written, who encouraged him to find out more about the team of refugees and their story.
When he met the people involved with the team, St. John said he knew he had to find out more about them and their individual stories. He still keeps in contact with the people from his book, and speaks to them often.
“I learned what real resilience looks like, I learned to appreciate my own life a lot more and that a lot of things that I look at as problems are not problems, just things to deal with,” he said. “It has just changed my whole world view. One of the kids in the book– it is [now] his second week of college, and it is hard. It was hard for me and I had everything going for me.”
St. John said he hopes students can take the message of the book and apply it to their own situations, and not take the opportunities presented to them for granted.
“I don’t want to sound like the old, hectoring old man, but it is a valuable thing to understand the depth of struggle…I think a lot of students that I have encountered—I know this was true of me—may not fully be aware of how fortunate they are to be in college and what an extraordinary opportunity it is,” St. John said. “It is really the only opportunity you are likely to have in your life where someone is just going to say, ‘Go learn for four years, find something you are interested in and learn.’”
University professor Dr. Sara Jorgensen, assistant professor of African and world history, and chair of the First Year Reading Experience committee, said when the book selection was announced that she hoped it would inspire students and make them think.
The different perspectives presented in the book should encourage other students to engage and collaborate with others, and learn from each experience, Jorgensen said at the presentation last spring.
“I hope the book just adds to the net amount of empathy in the universe in some small way,” St. John said. “I hope it helps people appreciate what some of the other students around them may be going through.”