Just over 70 seniors stood at attention near their booths, eyes wide with relief that their projects had been prepared in time, but their eyebrows telling they also felt a twinge of the fear of needing to rely on the merits of their own work. Some stood in front of their booths, calling out for attention and grabbing at anyone they could get their hands on, while others hid behind their booths, patiently waiting for a wandering eye to catch the hours of work they had put into their senior project.
Though it was chilly outside, the sun, shining brightly through the windows of the BYU-Idaho Center lobby, quickly warmed the hundreds of students as they bustled about the halls, enjoying the senior showcase. Paige Cole is a senior finishing up her studies in strategic organizational communication. She stood off to the side of her booth, both demanding attention then quickly redirecting it toward a collage of pictures that was reminiscent of a crime scene investigation.
A mood that was previously light could become heavy when she entered into her explanation of her project.
“It’s on adverse childhood experiences, which is called ACEs,” Cole would say, then she would direct attention to the pictures suspended in front of walls of text. “What you can see here is their stories about different family members and different family friends who have gone through these adverse childhood experiences, which can be abuse, neglect, having a parent imprisoned, divorce, living with parents who have mental health issues, and a variety of other things.”
Cole was well versed in her material, carefully weaving a narrative that was compelling and insightful about ACEs and where they were in the world around us.
“One of the statistics that I like to point out is that 5 out of the top 10 deaths can be linked back to adverse childhood experiences,” Cole said. “Those can be things like heart disease, suicide, diabetes, asthma — all those kinds of things can be linked back to how hard your childhood was.”
The analytical gears clicking in her mind seemed to lock up and release the reigns as her heart’s fire took over, and she dove into the stories beside her, presenting not only her pride in her research but her pride in the individuals for coming so far in their own lives.
“TJ is a guy that my family met when they moved up to Alaska, and I was able to interview him,” Cole said. “TJ was born in Louisiana and spent a lot of time there and then bounced from house to house. I knew he had a rough childhood, but when he told me about it, I was kind of shocked that he’s now a stable adult and has a beautiful, cute family and is a youth leader at our church.”
Cole went on to explain that TJ’s troubles began while wrestling with his dad while young. His dad lashed out and broke TJ’s femur to the point where it was sticking out of his leg. After being in a cast for three months, he went to live with his grandparents for a time until his grandfather was brutally murdered. He was then put back into the care of his parents. TJ jumped around from house to house, the whole time being his father’s punching bag. His mom decided to leave his dad, causing even more turmoil.
When interviewing with Cole, TJ told her, “Paige, I knew I was meant to be more than what I was and born into the situation that I was.”
TJ also told Cole something that stuck with her enough for her to include it as the final piece in the paper hanging resolutely behind the pictures of the smiling young boy.
“I had a feeling that something could change,” TJ told her. “I could do better and be better. I didn’t want to be like my dad. Life isn’t about the cards that you’re dealt; you have a choice every day to choose to be better.”
“I love that he has this mentality to be better and do better, and he tries to change every day,” Cole said.
She expressed that the process of forming that mentality and trying to change every day looks different for everyone.
“For Josh, the process was that he joined the Marine Corps and was taught to be tough and to be strong,” Cole said, referring to another cluster of pictures surrounding a life story. “He had to make the choice.”
“John and Sally again decided to not be like their parents and decided to not be in the situation that they were in,” Cole said, referring to yet another cluster of pictures.
“To get out of ACEs, not only do we have to be better as a community, to be more involved, you have to make a choice, to not have that victim’s mentality, to move forward and move on and to forgive,” Cole said resolutely, with a firmness behind her words that reminded those listening to her.
Cole’s booth was a small booth, just like any other, but all who listened for a moment experienced a subtle shift in perspective. Suddenly, every person walking past was someone who had struggled with something, and perhaps was still struggling. Every senior who was showcasing his or her projects was a victor, a warrior fighting the bitter cold of reality by changing themselves into who they wanted to be. Suddenly, everyone there in that place was human and worthy of undivided attention, flaws and all.
For more information about ACEs, you can visit the NPR website here.