William Meng and Haddiyyah Ali, Homecoming King and Queen

You may not think that a Christian, Asian American mechanical engineering student and an African American Muslim woman in the pre-law program could possibly have anything in common.

Turns out they do, and they are celebrating that- along with their differences. William Meng and Haddiyyah Ali are UConn’s 2015 Homecoming King and Queen, and they both owe the win to the second families they have found within UConn’s cultural centers.   Representing the Asian American Cultural Center (AsACC) and African American Cultural Center (AACC), respectively, they are recognizing diversity and working to bring different perspectives to a pretty homogenized campus.

William Meng and Haddiyyah Ali were named Homecoming King and Queen. [Photo credit: Allen Lang/Daily Campus]

Looking through a different lens

Ali believes that she is only the second black homecoming queen in university history.

“I’m Muslim, I’m black, and there are things about me that may not be seen as a homecoming queen,” she said. “I wanted to show other people that you can achieve what you want to do despite what people tell you that you are.”

Ali, extremely insightful and well spoken despite being only a sophomore, majors in Africana Studies and Political Science with a minor in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies.  After graduation, she hopes to work for the African American Policy Forum at Columbia University and focus on many issues of race and gender, including the intersectionality of sexism and racism for women of color.

Her involvement and experiences with the center have been invaluable in shaping her college career.    

“I carry the diverse space of the AACC with me throughout campus, and look at all of my classes and involvement through that lens,” she said.

For Meng, a junior from Farmington, the AsACC has had an equally powerful significance.  It may be hard to believe, but in high school, this friendly and easygoing student felt shy and quiet, and only opened up to a few people.  Now, the hundreds of people in the center and the leadership opportunities he has pursued have greatly changed him.

“I feel like the person I am now is more myself than the person I was in high school,” he said.

 

Getting involved

The cultural centers have helped both Meng and Ali to get more involved on campus.  Meng has been involved with the Pan-Asian council and several mentoring programs.  Ali has a role in student government as well as in several student groups centering on the black or Muslim experience.

Based on the positive impact the cultural centers have brought them, it was a no brainer when presented with the opportunity to represent them at homecoming this year, though both took slightly different routes getting to that point.

Ali participated in the AACC’s annual “Mr. and Mrs. AACC” pageant during Black History Month.  She won and was designated as their homecoming nominee.

Meng volunteered and was eventually voted in.  He was happy that everyone in the center accepted the fact that he planned to use his Christian beliefs to guide his participation in the pageant, even if they did not share the same faith. 

“Having them vote me in and support me in my intentions showed a lot about the what the center’s really about.   It’s about acceptance and about how they are supporting whoever is a part of it. That was something that really touched me and grew me closer to the center overall,” he said.

At first, he was not even sure he liked the idea of homecoming.   He was hesitant because he felt that Homecoming's goal is to bring people together, yet the various events seemed to just pit groups against each other.

His opinion has since changed- somewhat.

“At lip sync, I saw people putting their hearts out to represent their organizations…I just wish there could be more collaboration between the groups in the future,” he said.

AsACC took first place in the “Fee Funded/Cultural Center” category at lip sync with their representation of Pirates of the Caribbean in the movie-themed competition.  The AACC took third with Shrek.

Members of the Asian American Cultural Center representing Pirates of the Caribbean at the Homecoming parade. (Photo credit: Asian American Cultural Center Facebook Page)

 

Talents, with important messages

The homecoming pageant was another chance for them both to share the message of the cultural centers.

For the talent portion, Meng did a spoken word tribute to the individuals who died or were injured in the Oregon community college shooting.  He discussed the analogy of the notion of “normal” being a killer of individuality within our own society.

“I feel like a lot of people want to fit in and end up losing an important part of themselves, when they could have ended up growing and strengthen it and making it what separates them from everyone else,” he said.

Ali chose to read a poem called “Black Privilege” by NYU student Crystal Valentine, which discusses the black experience in the U.S..

“She talks about this idea of black privilege, but really it’s what happens to black Americans every day, “ she said.

This video shows Valentine's original reading of her poem:

 

Empowerment and acceptance

Meng and Ali believe that the culture centers are helping to confront some of these issues.

Ali recalled a horrifying moment she experienced right here on campus.

“Last year, I was walking from the mosque on campus to go to class and someone called me a ‘terrorist whore,’” she said.  The first place she went to talk about the issue was the AACC.

“Being in the AACC, I know I have a safe place to talk, vent, or get help,” she said.

Meng agreed.

“Without the cultural centers, it would be a lot more difficult to be yourself,” he said. While he was able to find a good group of friends when he first came to UConn, he felt like he was not able to focus on his Asian American qualities.

“Coming to the AsACC…helped me to identify what parts of me that I had been trying to hold back or hide and how I can use that to my own advantage and how it’s something that’s unique to me that I should be portraying instead of hiding,” he said.

This was part of Ali's outfit for the Homecoming pageant, representing different African countries.  She said it really represented the fact that the AACC is home to anyone from any African country.  (Photo credit: Haddiyyah Ali)

Hopes for the future

Winning the homecoming pageant is something both the king and queen hope will bring increased visibility and appreciation of the culture centers on campus.

“The cultural centers have a very unique role on this campus and I think visibility was made very high by seeing us win homecoming crowns, which are incredibly coveted,” said Ali. She discussed how all the cultural centers were really born out of a struggle.

“All of the centers were founded because a group of people saw an injustice and they fought to overcome it,” they said.

“I hope that the way we portrayed the center at the pageant will let people know what the centers are all about, so they will be curious and willing to find out more- at least stopping by once!” said Meng.

Judging by Meng and Ali's enthusiasm, there is no doubt this will happen.

Meng and Ali after winning the pageant. (Photo credit: Haddiyyah Ali)

 

(Thumbnail Image photo credit: Allen Lang/Daily Campus)