March 30, 2015 | The Pitt News | www.pittnews.com
TABLE OF CONTENTS 4 | Cassandra DellaCorte, comedian 6 | Nina Visgarda, religious convert 7 | Ashton Gibbs, trainer 8 | Pat Narduzzi, coach 11 | Phil Aitken, comic book author 12 | Maxine Bruhns, world traveller 14 | Eric Daniels, cashier & caretaker 18 | Allie McCarthy, gender activist 20 | Elizabeth Dunn, thriving survivor 21 | Terrance Hayes, poet 22 | Berin Simsek, legacy child 24 | Shayna Fiorina, bodybuilder 26 | Derek Stillman, Irish dancer 28 | Ophelia Ferguson, believer
LETTER FROM THE EDITOR
rafts of stories glide past us at Pitt every day because of conversations left unshared. These talks could have been about the “next big thing,” the latest Netflix series or solutions to our world’s ills. It’s 2015, yet we still sling mud over skin color, cringe about sexual preference and roll our eyes at what we deem “basic.” But where we used to fall silent, we now seize the unfamiliar. We travel to immerse ourselves in foreign culture, read books to take perspective from their pages and observe old moments with a new lens. While we can’t map out everyone’s lives at our large, public university, our firstever Silhouettes edition is one stab at dropping some pins within our diverse Pitt community. We compiled this series to give you a glimpse into the lives of prominent, unheralded or simply interesting humans and their ties to campus life. Maybe you don’t cheer at football games, but you’re interested in the play that outlined Pat Narduzzi’s coaching on the field. Maybe you laugh through sitcoms, but you’ve never taken the stage as an improv performer. Maybe you grab your late-night snack at Quick Zone, but you’ve never said “How are you?” to the cashier. Empathy is a bottomless virtue and one that’s rarely swallowed in our own busy lives. Let’s all turn one chapter of someone else’s story and see what we can learn. -Natalie Daher Editor-in-Chief
March 30, 2015 | The Pitt News | www.pittnews.com
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Story by Abbey Reighard Photos by Theo Schwarz
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DellaCorte eats couscous out of a glass jar as she watches the performance unfold. She covers her mouth with her hands as she chews and laughs at the jokes her colleagues come up with. She’s dressed in a teal track jacket and wears silver earrings that are long, like miniature elephant tusks. She has long, brown curly hair that she clips into a heavy bun at the back of her head, except for her bangs, which curl across her forehead.
In general, I don’t find offensive comedy funny. There are so many things in the world that are innocently funny. You don’t have to offend people.
hether she’s on a stage or in a classroom, Cassandra DellaCorte won’t stand — or sit — for sexism. “Part of the reason I sit like an animal, with my legs everywhere, is because we all deserve space ... so I take up a lot of space,” she said, speaking about women’s tendency to fold their bodies in while men spread out. DellaCorte is the vice president of Ruckus, a student improv group formed in 2012. Gender politics continuously play a role in her life, and, when she looks to older comedians for inspiration, she confronts a serious rift. “It’s hard because I’m pretty damned feminist and a lot of the people I’m trying to emulate are white dudes,” DellaCorte said. “It’s harder when they all look like the establishment ... like, when I grow up, I want to be a 50-yearold man.” Despite the lack of diversity in the current comedic world, for DellaCorte, inducing laughter with her impulsive antics during Ruckus’ shows is still “such a high.” “Being involved in Ruckus is kind of an easy sell, because you get to hang out with your friends and make jokes and sing songs and make people laugh,” DellaCorte said. On a Sunday afternoon in the Cathedral of Learning, DellaCorte sits at the front of the rows of desks filling the room for a weekly four-hour practice. Some prospective jokers come and go, which DellaCorte says is
Cassandra DellaCorte stands up for gender-inclusive comedy
When the exercise is over, DellaCorte stops laughing and starts critiquing. The performers look to her as she gives advice to the members who just completed the exercise. DellaCorte is easygoing, but she has rules. She urges her peers to not offend audience members, even for a laugh. “In general, I don’t find offensive comedy funny. There are so many things in the world that are innocently funny. You don’t have to offend people,” DellaCorte said. Despite her busy schedule with Ruckus, which includes one weekly practice, two weekly on-campus shows and a podcast every Saturday afternoon, she still lives a life off the stage. “I have a whole other life that the Ruckus members don’t know about,” DellaCorte said. She’s currently re-watching every episode of “Gilmore Girls” on Netflix. She also enjoys making pizza cups — like cupcakes, but with pizza. DellaCorte is a junior majoring in history and communication with a French minor and a certificate in global studies. She studied Modern Standard and Egyptian Arabic for her freshman and sophomore years. Last summer, DellaCorte studied abroad in Jordan, where she studied Jordanian colloquial Arabic. She said she got to see some of the myths about the Middle East she’s noticed in American culture debunked during her travels. “We have this caricature of the Middle East as Americans, that it’s just violent and unhappy, but there is this incredibly welcoming, vibrant culture,” DellaCorte said. “It’s easier to stereotype entire groups of people when you don’t see them or come into contact with them.” DellaCorte hasn’t quite pinned down what she wants to do when she graduates and adlibs fake plans as she goes. “I don’t have to be a historian. I can do lots of things. I tell almost everyone something different,” DellaCorte said. “I want to be Ryan Seacrest.”
OK, because improv performers “are still students, too.” During the practice sessions, the troupe plays games to improve its improv skills. One of the games the group plays includes a gameshow-like exercise called “Good, Bad, Worst,” in which the audience asks the host a question, usually for advice, and three performers give either good, bad or worst advice.
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A FACE OF ISLAM Nina Visgarda
finds solace in her new faith Story by Elaina Zachos Photos by Christine Lim
Shahada — the Muslim testimony of faith — at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, and she’s proud to wear a hijab today. “I found [Islam] by accident, and I tried to get away from it pretty quickly,” Visgarda said. “But once you know your personal truth, it’s not if [you’ll] do it, it’s how you’ll go about doing it.” Visgarda, a senior economics major, grew up in a small town in eastern Pennsylvania where she found that most people thought with the same conservative
conversation about religion with a side of pizza was an early course in Nina Visgarda’s conversion to Islam. As a freshman, Visgarda was unsure about her Christian religion and spent countless hours trying not to become a Muslim. She lived that year in Litchfield Tower B’s Global Village Living Learning Community, next door to Subhana Chaudhri, a moderately practicing Muslim student whom she befriended. Often, they discussed religion and controversy over pizza. Their exchanges prompted Visgarda to learn more about Islam in order to defend the wavering faith with which she associated her identity. Two years later, Visgarda took her
It’s nice, being a face of Islam … this can be as liberating as someone wearing a bikini at a beach.
and whitewashed mindset, she said. Her graduating high school class of 200 was mostly white and Christian. Although she identified as a Christian because of her upbringing, Visgarda said the faith didn’t resonate with her. “I didn’t understand why God had to be a man. Who imposed these rules on God?” Visgarda said. “It was like some sort of weird disconnect between my identity and my actual logic.” Based on what she saw on the news and what people had told her, Visgarda said she thought Islam was backwards and counter to mainstream American culture. She thought the religion oppressed women, forcing them to cover their entire bodies and subject themselves to female genital mutilation. She later found these practices are cultural, rather than religious, and emphasized more in certain regions of the world. Visgarda said Americans and the media often don’t separate the “cultural baggage” of the Middle East with the Islamic faith, which makes the religion seem violent and dangerous. “I think it’s really comfortable
when you’re in a conflict with another group of people for resources to want to make them ‘the other,’” Visgarda said. “That’s sad. Terrorism has no religion.” As Visgarda read more about Islam, she realized she actually agreed with many of the religion’s values, such as the direct worship to Allah and lessons in modesty. Islam made her feel more confident and encouraged her to become a better person, she said. Because Muslim women tend to be viewed as subservient by many Americans and Europeans, Visgarda said, the misconception drives her to make herself known “as a good person, someone who’s not afraid to talk.” At the end of April, Visgarda will graduate with a degree in economics. She will relocate to South Carolina to continue her current job as an accountant for Eaton, a power management company, and eventually marry her fiancé, Omar Abdelzaher, who is a Muslim student at Pitt from Egypt. Visgarda has grown comfortable with her visible conversion, and she feels confident flaunting it to the world. “It’s nice, being a face of Islam,” Visgarda said. “This can be as liberating as someone wearing a bikini at a beach.”
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steadily grown, as he said about 25 kids are currently involved in the academy. The Ashton Gibbs Basketball Academy has experienced so much recent success that Gibbs is considering hiring coaches to assist him, as he is currently running the academy alone. He charges between $25-$65 per session, and local high schools and middle schools have contacted Gibbs and asked him to run a practice or a clinic. While he doesn’t yet run his own gym, he’s working on an agreement with the owners of several local gyms for regular access to facilities. “If I had my own gym already,” he said, shaking his head, “It would be crazy.” Since Gibbs’ ankle injury brought him back home, he’s seen a lot more of his daughter, Arielle, who is now almost one year old. “Being back in Pittsburgh, I’ve gotten to spend a lot more time with her, which I couldn’t do when I was playing,” he said. Gibbs watches over his two younger brothers’ basketball careers: Sterling plays for Seton Hall University in New Jersey, and Temple, a junior at Seton Hall Preparatory School in New Jersey, is collecting a series of Division I offers. Between training and spending time with his family, Gibbs has been busy. He still makes time for Pitt basketball and attends games whenever he can. Oakland Zoo members recognize him and know where he sits, which leads to introductions, handshakes and informal smartphone photoshoots. It’s hard for a recognizable character within the Pitt basketball community to keep a low profile at the Pete, especially when sitting just feet from Carl Krauser, another former Pitt point guard and arguably the loudest voice in the building at men’s basketball games. But Gibbs welcomes fans appreciatively, posing for pictures and thanking them for their support. Now that he has gotten his basketball academy off the ground, Gibbs can weigh a number of options. He could make the transition to coaching, but he’s not entirely sure at which level he would coach or that he’s even ready to give up on his playing career. “It’d be tough to just hang it up right now,” Gibbs said.
During a break at a fall workout for the Pitt women’s basketball team in the main gym of the Petersen Events Center, Ashton Gibbs grabbed a ball from the rack. Its circumference was an inch smaller than the slightly larger men’s regulation balls Gibbs was used to, but that doesn’t matter. The ex-Panther guard finished a low crossover, breaking the ankles of an invisible defender. Then, he dribbled down the right sideline, took a few steps across midcourt, pulled up and knocked down a 30-footer. He turned around and grinned at the rest of the women’s practice team — a group of volunteer players who provide extra depth during the team’s practices. “That’s Providence,” he said confidently, referring to the 2010 game-winning buzzerbeater against Providence College he’d just finished recreating. Since that memorable shot, the former Pitt guard finished his college career, traveled to Europe to keep playing and returned to Pittsburgh to open the Ashton Gibbs Basketball Academy in Shadyside. Gibbs graduated from Pitt in 2012 as one of the most decorated Panthers in recent history. The 6-foot-2 guard was a four-year contributor and a three-year starter on a handful of solid Pitt teams. As a sophomore, he earned second team All-Big East honors and the conference’s Most Improved Player award. Before his senior season, Gibbs was named the Big East Preseason Player of the Year and averaged almost 15 points per game en route to a College Basketball Invitational postseason tournament championship. Since his college heyday, the former Pitt star has taken a tour of Europe, playing professionally in Greece, Spain, Romania and Lebanon, where a serious ankle injury caused him to return to Pittsburgh. The setback kept him off the court temporarily but Gibbs has found a new outlet to remain involved in the basketball community. Last summer, Gibbs began training aspiring basketball players in the Pittsburgh area. “Maybe 10 of them were really serious about it,” Gibbs said, referring to players who initially enrolled when Gibbs opened his academy. Less than a year later, the numbers have
Story by Alex Wise Photo by Heather Tennant
Former Pitt basketball star Ashton Gibbs teaches younger generations
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LIFE ON THE GRIDIRON Story by Dan Sostek Photos by Jeff Ahearn
INCE ACTING athletic director Ran-
dy Juhl introduced him as the 36th head coach in Pitt football history on Dec. 26, Pat Narduzzi has injected some newfound vigor into the program. The Pitt News sat down with the Panthers’ new play-caller in early March. The Pitt News: While you aren’t technically from Pittsburgh, you are from close by, hailing from Youngstown, Ohio. How much did that factor into your decision to go after the Pitt head coaching job? Pat Narduzzi: It was a huge factor, really. It gets us a little closer to home. My mom’s in New Jersey, my mother-in-law and father-in-law are in Rhode Island, so it gets us a little closer to home, but not too close. As I was telling someone the other day, football is so good in the state of Pennsylvania, so that was a major factor. TPN: Your dad, Bill, was a very successful coach at Youngstown State. How much of an impact did he have on your aspirations to become a coach and your coaching style in general? PN: He had a major impact. Growing up in a family of six, I grew up a little guy just running around the football field wherever we lived. Being a ballboy on gameday [for him], just being around it, I loved it. We use a lot of the same coaching techniques, fundamentally and motivationally. He was a big emotional guy, a pretty intense guy. He always had this big vein. I don’t think I have the vein he had, but his old players used to say when that vein used to pop on the side of his neck, watch out. I don’t think anyone’s ever said anything about my veins. TPN: How was the experience of playing for your dad at Youngstown State for one year in 1985? PN: Oh boy. It was rough. I was a freshman. Me and another player, Jerry Pacifico, both started at linebacker as freshmen. Sunday film review was not fun, let’s put it that way. I got ripped every Sunday, and I wouldn’t talk to him until maybe Wednesday or Thursday. He was my position coach, as well as defensive coordinator and head coach. But it was one of the best years of my life, because you’re with your dad every day,
Pat Narduzzi talks about his lifelong bond with football
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Growing up in a family of six, I grew up a little guy just running around the football field wherever we lived.
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for you guys to decide how much it’s benefited. I don’t look at it very much. I don’t read many of the things after they’ve been sent. I just kind of post some stuff to let people know what we’re talking about, what we’re doing and what’s happening in the program, so I don’t really know. Some other people in the office get excited when they see likes and favorites and all that stuff, but I want to recognize our kids. I think it’s important. We need to put the University of Pittsburgh out there. People need to know how well we’re doing. Like last night, tweeting at the ACC All-Academic basketball players we got, those three guys. And it was nice to get a message back from those guys saying “Thanks, Coach,” even though I’m not their coach. But, to me, those are important things, and we need to recognize those, just like birthdays. We send out tweets for our kids’ birthdays. It’s important. At Michigan State, for years, I tried to get us to tweet them out. Coach [Dantonio] always had this thing where we could recommend things, and I always said they don’t want to get birthday cards on our Michigan State stationery. But kids like [social media]. To me, if we can get it out there and kids are looking at it, then they’re finding out about University of Pittsburgh football. TPN: What’s the story behind the “Pitt Is It” tweets that the Pitt fanbase enjoyed so much? PN: We haven’t had one for a while. We need to get another one of those. Basically if you got a coach or a player to commit, we can’t go out and publicize it. So it was a way to get out there
and the only reason he yelled at me was to make me better. It’s a good lesson to all young players. It was hard, but it made me a better player and a better person. TPN: When you left Youngstown State after that year, what was your journey like? Did your father’s battle with Hodgkin’s disease [lymphoma] play into it? PN: [My father’s Hodgkin’s disease] was a factor. I was going to try to get as close to home as possible. I was three hours away from him, as far as a drive from University of Rhode Island to Teaneck, N.J., so being close to home was important, and I found the best fit for me athletically and academically, as well as being close to home as I could be, so it worked out in the end, that’s for sure. TPN: You have your master’s degree from Miami University (Ohio). What is that degree in? PN: It’s in sports studies. So you can ask, “what’s sports studies?” It was really more of sports psychology. It was a great major. Robin Vealey was a teacher I had for a lot of classes, but it was really psychology of sport, although it’s not titled that. I probably enjoyed my two years there more than my four years of undergrad. It was just interesting, and it was a field of study that I was getting really into, as far as my career, so it was great. TPN: You’ve really embraced social media to the fullest extent. In what ways do you think usage of social media can benefit the program? PN: You know what, I don’t know ... We’re just trying to get out there. That’s
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and say, “Hey, Pitt’s having a good day today,” and that something happened. It’s something I’ve seen done in the past at other schools, and I said when I become a head coach, I want to let people know that something’s happening, and they can try to find out what it is. TPN: Obviously one of the goals of this staff is to turn Pitt into the premiere football school in the state of Pennsylvania. You guys are going to be restarting the rivalry with Penn State in 2016. How excited are you to kick off the rivalry again? PN: No more excited than I am to open up on Sept. 5 against Youngstown State. It’s just another game. I think the fans would like to make more of it. I think maybe the media has made more of it than it really is. I think, initially, when Coach [John] Peterson tweeted out something like that [regarding Pitt being the state’s premiere football school], I’ll give you the inside scoop: It was really his 16-year-old son who tweeted that out for him, but I don’t think his 16-year-old son meant for it to be that. I think his son’s enthusiastic that his dad got a new job and is excited about the University of Pittsburgh and said that it was the premiere school in the state without really thinking about it. But we’ve got a great university. We’re really tough about our place. I think it was just saying how great we think this place is. But the game is just
another game. We’ll deal with that the week of the game, but we’ve got a long time ‘til that. TPN: In your 25-plus years of coaching, which players stick out as some of the best you’ve ever coached? PN: There are different types of players. At every school, you have a favorite that makes you go, “Wow, that guy was amazing.” The guy who had the best motor that I ever coached that made me go, “Wow, if I had 11 guys like that ... ” was [defensive end] Trent Cole, who I coached at Cincinnati. He was one of those guys, when you talk about playing like you practice, that guy, the way he practiced was the way he played. I’d be able to compare him to other guys that didn’t practice well, and they think they’re going to be gamers, but they play the same way they practice. So he had one of the best motors I’ve ever coached. Looking at other great players, Jerel Worthy, who got drafted by the Green Bay Packers, and Darqueze Dennard, who was just a true football player who was drafted as a corner with the Bengals. Also [current NFL draft prospect] Trae Waynes was probably one of the smoothest, fastest corners, probably faster than Darqueze but not as great a blitzer, but just a phenomenal football player, and will probably be a first rounder. You can go on and on and on. There are special guys every coach has. There was a guy at Rhode
Island, Frank Ferrara, who played five years in the league. We got him from Milford Academy, and when we got him — he’d be embarrassed if he read this — he couldn’t do a jumping jack. But we took this guy from way down there and got him all the way there [to the NFL] and he spent five years with the New York Giants. People said there was no way, but he did it, and he was another one of those motor guys who you could never tell him no. So there were great ones everywhere you’ve coached, so I can’t wait to find out who the next one is here. TPN: Speaking of former players, you’ve been on the college coaching staffs for two big names in this town, Ben Roethlisberger at Miami (Ohio) and Le’Veon Bell at Michigan State. What were they like in college, and what’s it been like to watch them develop into what they’ve become for the Steelers? PN: Ben, back in 2003, I spent a season with him — just a super person. There are things you remember about Ben. No. 1 is that I learned a lot about football from Ben. You know, coaches learn from players just as much as players learn from coaches, it’s not just a one-way street. We’re always learning from players, but I learned a lot from Ben in terms of what he does and how he does it, which can help us out on defense. But he was just a super kid, one that you could talk to all the time.
Before every game, Ben used to run around the field and throw balls into trash cans 50 to 60 yards downfield and put them right into the trash cans. That was like his pre-game routine, before everyone else came out, just in his pants and a T-shirt. Also, he actually babysat the kids that lived across the street from us. He was just a super person. And Le’Veon is the same way. We recruited him, saw him go all the way through his junior year, carrying the ball 300 times. He was just a war daddy — you talk about a beast carrying the rock, and leaping over people. Just a fun guy to coach. Both of them, never a problem. It’s great to see that you can be good people and also be great players, too. TPN: You’ve coached mostly from the press box recently at Michigan State. How excited are you to return to the sidelines, and what kind of energy can fans expect out of you on Saturdays? PN: My wife says I better calm down as a head coach. I’ve actually done both. I’d usually spend three quarters in the press box and would usually be able to get downstairs. Now, in the head coach’s role, it’s a little bit different. There will definitely be emotion on the sidelines. I probably won’t be able to control myself, but I hope the cameras aren’t on me when I can’t. So I probably have to learn to control it a little bit, but I’m an emotional guy.
A super writer
P N I L
Story by Jack Trainor Photo by Ali Greenholt
T E S you find something to write,” he said of his daily writing time. “Writer’s block doesn’t ex-
struck by an idea that quickly evolved into an obsession: What if superheroes were not only real, but extinct? Since that night, he has devoted an hour nearly every day to writing his story about a boy who discovers he has superpowers in a post-superhero world, where “a Lex Luthor-type villain” rules the world before it sees the return of masked crime fighters again. Nearly two years into the project, Aitken estimates that he’s only about halfway done, but he remains enthusiastic about his creative process. “When you’ve been working on something every day [for so long],
ist.” Aitken is no stranger to commitment. Before he began work on his comic, he kept a blog of short stories that he posted every Tuesday and Friday from December 2012 to December 2013. He stopped blogging to focus more seriously on the comic. Aitken hopes to one day publish his story independently on the Internet for free in 60 issues, though he admits that publication is still too far in the future to think about. As for his next project, Aitken paused to think. “I need to focus on this first, and, when it ends, I’ll figure out what comes next,” he said.
stories about original characters that he said paid homage to, as well as critiqued, existing well-known superheroes like Superman, Batman and The Hulk. Superhero muses planted seeds of inspiration long before the class, however. Aitken remembers the cover of the first comic book he ever bought when he was 10 years old. “It was ‘Ultimate Spider-Man,’ [Issue 87] I think,” he said. The cover, which shows Spider-Man in the clutches of a female villain with a raised dagger in hand, made an impression on him. “I’d never seen a picture of a superhero in such peril,” Aitken said. It wasn’t until nearly a decade later, walking home from work one night during the summer of 2013, that he was
as long as I can
hil Aitken has decorated the shoulder strap of his satchel with bright pins, each advertising a different superhero’s face or symbol. The slew of colorful iconography climbs up across his torso, immediately catching the eye of anyone who so much as glances at him. “I’ve loved superheroes for as long as I can remember,” said Aitken, who credits his parents with exposing him to comic book culture at an early age by dressing him up in Spider-Man pajamas and Halloween costumes. Among his favorite characters today are Superman and the lesser-known Marvel character Dr. Strange, whose pin rests, appropriately, near the top of his shoulder strap. Aitken, a senior fiction writing major with a minor in film studies, is putting his love of superheroes and writing to work. Since July 2013, he has been feverishly writing an original comic with the help of a friend, who is drawing the illustrations from Minnesota. Even before coming to Pitt, “all I knew was that I wanted to write comics one day,” Aitken said. Aitken began thinking of story ideas in 2012, his freshman year, when he took an introduction to fiction course. He wrote three
Inside a Pitt student’s passion for comic books
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Pittâ€™s Nationality Room director, Maxine Bruhns, recounts her travels, scars
Around the world in 91 years Story by Grace Kelly
Photos by Nicole Gye
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As staff members lift her father, he grabs Bruhns’ hand, panicking, and says, “Maxine, I’m going to let you have it!” His eyes close as he descends into the chair. Thinking he had fallen asleep, Bruhns returned home. The phone rang 45 minutes later — Bruhns’ father had passed away in that moment of movement. “He thought I had lifted him up, and he squeezed my hand so hard that he left a bruise,” Maxine says, holding her hand to demonstrate. She loved her father, which makes the memory stick with her in all its pain and rigid reality. “The unexpectedness of it stayed in my mind. He blamed me ... I guess that makes it memorable,” she said.
ences she’s had in her 91 years. But scars have scored her colorful life. On Bruhns’ knee is a scar from a cow’s bite, and she jokes that she might be the only person in the world who’s been bitten by the gentle bovine. She pats her knee and explains, feeling sorrier for the cow, as it had to bear her weight. “My uncle put me on his cow, and she swung her head up to get what she thought was a fly and nicked my knee,” she said. Another scar cuts deeper. Bruhns is in a hospital room, and the neon lights buzz ominously. It is Oct. 4, 1975. She stands over her father in his hospital bed, an oxygen mask on his face, his eyes heavy. The medical staff members decide they’ll put him in a chair to make him more comfortable.
axine Bruhns is a fantastical woman. She has lived in Cambodia and Lebanon, feasted with Bedouins and offered her hand for a kiss from the former head of state of Poland. In the last five of her more than nine decades alive, Bruhns has been the director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Nationality Rooms and its Intercultural Exchange programs. She has spearheaded the addition of 10 new rooms. In her office, she lounges in a blue chair, legs crossed and arms dangling, clanking with lines of silver bangles and fingers studded with rings. Surrounding her is a swirl of papers and sculptures, and a petite sand garden sits on a black obsidian table. Her adventures are marked by trinkets, small reminders of the extraordinary experi-
“The unexpectedness of it stayed in my mind. He blamed me ... I guess that makes it memorable.”
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BUMP & SWIPE
Story by Anjana Murali Photos by Meghan Sunners
or Eric Daniels, whose philosophy in life is to “always stay positive, because there is always somebody watching,” crying usually seems like a drag. Daniels, 34, grew up in Beltzhoover, a neighborhood in Pittsburgh’s South Side. He now lives in Mount Washington with his younger brother, whom he’s taken care of since their mother suffered a severe stroke 10 years ago, and works as a cashier and stocker at the Quick Zone in Sutherland Hall. A self-described “big kid at heart,” Daniels still plays video games and watches cartoons, while devoting his life to pursuing others’ happiness. “Hearing people say that I’m a nice person and a great person to be around ... sometimes I don’t see it, because all I do is just work and try to help y’all out,” Daniels said. “When people come down, I like to joke around, make them smile, make them laugh. If they feel sad, my job is to try to pick them up.” Daniels tries to raise his coworkers’ spirits, he said, and they do the same
Quick Zone and Perch cashier Eric Daniels overcomes shyness thing for him. “That’s why I enjoy working here ... [My coworkers] are also some of my best friends,” Daniels said. Although Daniels prioritized taking care of his family over attending college, he might still pursue higher education. He’d study business, he said, or a field that would allow him to interact with kids. “My initial plan was to always study business. I just wanted to be able to run my own business. It didn’t matter what it was, as long as I was the man running it,” Daniels said. Daniels has been working at the Quick Zone as a cashier and stocker for almost 10 years. “I’m proud of the fact that I’m working and have been working for a long period of time,” Daniels said. “It’s fun. [I] wish I would have known this a long time ago.” Although the job comes with some slower days, Daniels said he doesn’t mind the lapses in work because he finds tasks to do. “As long as I’m down here, and as
long as y’all come to see me every day, I can never get bored,” Daniels said. His favorite part of the job is meeting students and getting to know them. When students walked by, they all greeted him with “What’s up, E?” “Hello, sir” or “Hey, Eric,” and Daniels addressed them all by name, offering a fistbump of greeting. The comforting figure wasn’t always eager to talk to people. “My teachers used to always get on me about ‘If you have a question, then open your mouth,’” Daniels said. “But I would always be in the back of the class and not ask any questions.” Being shy is one of Daniels’ biggest regrets, but he said he opened up after high school. “When I got out of high school, I realized if you need something and you want something, that is when you have to open up your mouth,” Daniels said. Daniels went to South VocationalTechnical High School in South Side, but the school closed in 2003, and the space was used for condominiums. “I was sad to see it go, because I wanted to see my brother go through
it,” Daniels said. Although Daniels said he made a couple of bad choices during his senior year, his best memories were making the honor roll sophomore year and graduating. “Graduating high school was my greatest moment ever,” Daniels said. While The Pitt News interviewed Daniels, one of his coworkers asked him what the story was about. Daniels began to cry, but not because he was sad. “Look man, I’m already bashful as it is,” he said as he smiled and wiped away tears. “I’m nervous now ‘cause you walked over here.” Daniels is a jolly man — even as he walks around Quick Zone, he has a bounce to his step and a beaming smile on his face. His mindfulness of other people is evident in his everyday life. As he rings up students’ items at his register, he talks to them and waves to others as they walk in. “I’m very blessed to be where I am right now ... there are some people who I happened to grow up with who are less fortunate to make it to my age,” Daniels said.
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Coming out strong Story by Stephanie Roman Photos by Zach Schaffer
Rainbow Alliance President Allie McCarthy discusses gender flexibility
llie McCarthy came out as gay in 2010, before her junior year of high school, when an exchange with her mother went, “Mom? You know So-and-So? I think she likes me ... and I think I like her, too.” In 2013, McCarthy joked to her family, “I hate to do this again ... ” and came out a second time as transgender. It was “totally awkward” for her friends and family at first, McCarthy said, but eventually everything was OK. Now, passing is always on her mind. Her appearance, gender and the treatment she receives occupy her mind around the clock. McCarthy identifies as a woman but passes for male. Every day brings awkward exchanges like, “Sir, I mean ma’am, I mean … ” or people addressing her and her group of friends as “ladies” when she wants to be treated as masculine. McCarthy identifies as “trans-butch,” a term she discovered while researching a project on butch and femme communities for a class on queer theory. She preserves her association with
womanhood, but not femininity, which can be confusing, she said, and added that her sex and her gender are not the same thing. “I don’t know if I’ve completely figured it out myself,” McCarthy said. She compares herself to her older sister, Jillian , who’s “super feminine.” McCarthy explains that they’re both women — but not the same gender. She’s also not attached to any pronouns because “none of them really work for [her],” but usually goes by “she.” McCarthy is of moderately tall stature, and her wardrobe includes flannel shirts, beanie hats, colorful skinny jeans and red-laced combat boots. Generally, she doesn’t subscribe to a lot of the gendered concepts assigned to femininity. She doesn’t want to look feminine and won’t wear clothes that cling to her curves. She chooses to pass as a man and prefers to be treated as such. “My gender is something I think about like every second of my life, ‘cause it’s something that’s such a big part of human interaction,” she said.
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It’s nice to be in a queer space during your day with people who ‘get’ you.
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A native of Point Breeze, McCarthy chose a public university because she wanted to diverge from her Catholic high school. McCarthy and her elder sister are close and talk almost every day. The whole family is “super tight,” she said, and her parents are “really awesome.” She called her parents pretty liberal Catholics, who pray every night before dinner. A couple of weeks before McCarthy sheared her shoulder-length brown hair down to a more masculine cut, she warned her dad, Tim, who liked her long hair very much. She tried to prepare him for the short locks, so afterward, at dinner, he lovingly added to his list of prayers, “Thank God for Allie.” McCarthy takes her experiences, like the unstable boundaries of gender and the stress of coming out, and uses them to counsel anxious freshman students in her role as president of the Rainbow Alliance. At Market Central during the early weeks of the academic year, McCarthy treats conflicted peers to meals and helps them resolve their problems about gender and sexuality. “It’s nice to be in a queer space during your day with people who ‘get’ you,” McCarthy said. The Rainbow Alliance clubroom is one example of a comfortable “queer space.” McCarthy appreciates these places because queerness is a nonissue. Friends in queer spaces don’t misgender or maltreat each other, she said, and they easily accept questions about gender and sexuality. If confronted with the possibility of changing sexualities, McCarthy would not choose to be straight. “I love being queer. I like being able to see things in the world from a certain perspective,” McCarthy said.
HEALTHY, ACTIVE AND PARALYZED
Elizabeth Dunn’s perseveres through a life-altering injury
“When I got down to Pittsburgh, there’s a lot of spinal cord injury support groups, so you meet people, and they’ve been through the same thing. That helps, too.”
Story by Jessica Boddy Photo by Theo Schwarz
lizabeth Dunn was like any other college student who didn’t have the entire road ahead mapped out, until life steered her toward an alternate track. A car crash during Dunn’s junior year of college redirected her career path. While her initial destination was a career in pharmacy, she’s now in her first year of Pitt’s nutrition and dietetics master’s degree program and pursuing a degree in adaptive sports. The reroute began while she was an undergraduate at Gannon University and asleep in the back seat of a vehicle that another car struck. “The guy that was driving ran a stop sign, and another car hit us,” Dunn said. “I woke up so confused.” Dunn had sustained a C6 incomplete spinal cord injury. Because of the injury, she experiences some sensation, but has a limited range of movement in her arms and some of her core. “My C5 vertebrae shattered, and [the doctors] had to take out all the pieces, so they put my neck back together with a bunch of metal,” Dunn
said. “It’s pretty crazy what’s hanging out in there.” Recovery from her injury required inpatient and outpatient rehab, and Dunn’s support system accelerated her through it, she said. “A lot of my friends came and visited me every single day in the hospital, so that helped a lot,” Dunn said. “When I got down to Pittsburgh, there’s a lot of spinal cord injury support groups, so you meet people, and they’ve been through the same thing. That helps, too.” Dunn’s favorite way to stay active is to play the extremely high-contact sport of wheelchair rugby. She’s a member of the Pittsburgh Steelwheelers, a sporting organization for quadriplegics that has basketball and rugby teams. “Quadriplegic rugby is pretty intense,” Dunn said. “It’s a full-contact sport. When people first watch it, they’re shocked.” Before the crash, Dunn was active in sports like snowboarding and soccer in her hometown of Warren, Pa. Now, she still kayaks, cycles, skis, lifts
and rows without the use of her legs. Besides the frustration of performing daily tasks like getting ready in the morning and taking notes in class, Dunn said she also faces a compromised sense of freedom, like the need to request rides to any place she wants to go. In a month, she’ll receive her first adapted vehicle — a modified Mazda3 hatchback — whose system will aid her steering and push/pull for the gas and the brake. “I can’t wait,” Dunn said. “I used to drive all the time, and now it’s like, ‘Can someone take me? I want to go here!’ And now, with my own car, I can.” The lifestyle changes that came with Dunn’s injury fueled her new career path. After gaining a few extra credits at the Community College of Allegheny County, she was accepted to Pitt’s nutrition and dietetics undergraduate program as a junior in 2012. She now wants to become a registered dietician. “After my injury, I realized because I was in good shape, I recovered a lot
better,” Dunn said. “Making sure people stay at a healthy weight is good, especially after traumatic injuries. I’m hoping to work with adaptive sports.” For Dunn, Pitt was the obvious choice to continue her education. The accessible buildings like Forbes Tower, an excellent nutrition and dietetics program and the presence of UPMC spinal cord doctors made her decision to attend much easier. After a stellar academic performance in her undergraduate career, Dunn gained admission to Pitt’s master’s program, as well as a fulltuition scholarship for her two years in graduate school from the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation. The foundation supports research and rehabilitation for those with spinal cord injuries, and Dunn said the scholarship goes to a select group of four to five students. Despite the initial accident, Dunn has stayed motivated with her eyes looking ahead. “A lot of bad comes with the spinal cord injury, but some good comes out of it, too,” she said. “You have to take what you can get.”
Drawn to Hayes
Story by Dan Willis Photo by Heather Tennant
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way. But there are so many ways to cent book, 2010’s “Lighthead,” be right in art. There are maybe more may have won both a National ways to be wrong, but there are still a Book Award and a MacArthur Fel- lot of ways to be right. lowship — known informally as the TPN: What about the obligation to “genius grant” — but the effects of his write? Do you feel the need to increase rising profile, as he describes them, your creative output? have been far from validating. The TH: Well, even when I’m not writpoet and English professor has experi- ing, I’m writing. mented with form and language since TPN: What does that mean? his first volume of poetry, “Muscular TH: It’s the difference between Music,” which was released in 1999. practice and play. Which is to say, I His work ranges from a series of more don’t feel like I’ve finished a poem than 100 “anagram poems” to varia- since last summer, but I still write tions on a Japanese presentation style every day. There’s a poem I was called PechaKuworking on for cha. Meanwhile, five years, which one of his bestI stopped writing ...having won these known poems is last summer, and a sonnet that re- awards, the pressure is it’s about 244 pagpeats the same that people expect me to es long. And it’s a line (“We sliced bad poem, which the watermelon be knowledgeable, when is why I stopped into smiles”) 14 I actually really value not it. But now that times. Hayes’ people are watchknowing. most recent coling, and there’s all lection, “How to this pressure, I feel Be Drawn,” debuted this month. like I should go back to it. I feel like The Pitt News: Do you find it easier I should come to terms with all the to teach and write now that you’ve failed things that I’ve made. been bestowed with such respect and TPN: You’ve used some really unapproval? usual techniques and forms. It seems Terrance Hayes: It’s been just the academic, but at the same time very opposite. The page is always empty playful. Is that something you’re gobefore you start, and I like that. I think ing for? I work better with a degree of uncerTH: OK, so, my third book was tainty. Even when I’m doing big read- called “Wind in a Box,” and I’ve alings, I always try to read something ways liked that image, because that’s new because otherwise, there’s a kind what poetry is to me — where the of comfort which I don’t actually think box is kind of like the form. And the is good for being creative or push- thing that I always say to other poets ing yourself. So, having won these about form is this: breakdancing is awards, the pressure is that people cool. Seeing someone do a backflip or expect me to be knowledgeable, when a headspin is cool. But seeing someone I actually really value not knowing. do it in a straitjacket is even cooler. But I value uncertainty and anxiety and that’s poetry. It absorbs everything. questioning, so it’s actually quite diffi- If it just sounds academic, or if it just cult for me, being seen as an authority. sounds street, it’s not needed. Poetry The problem with any kind of teach- is useful when it tries to absorb, reing is that it suggests that you’re the flect, imitate and emulate everything authority, that your way is the only around it.
ERRANCE HAYES’ second most re-
MacArthur Fellow Terrance Hayes talks about his work, juggling authority
S E T T E U O H L I S N
Pitt sophomore Berin Simsek takes us beyond ice buckets, reflects upon her mother’s battle with ALS Story by Chris Puzia Photos by Theo Schwarz
Her mother’s path B
erin Simsek has not seen her mom walk since she was a
child. Her mother’s speech became difficult shortly after, and, when they went to the mall together, Simsek pushed her in a wheelchair. But now, Simsek looks back fondly on those days. When Simsek was just 16 years old, her mother, Basak, passed away after a long fight with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The Pitt sophomore said that, despite her mother receiving the diagnosis 15 years earlier — when Simsek was just one year old — Basak always had a smile on her face. “I just really don’t remember her complaining a single time. I’m not kidding,” Simsek said. “Whenever I came home, she would be like, ‘Oh my gosh, Berin, hi!’ The classic mom, acting like you haven’t seen me in five years when it’s been 20 hours.” Simsek would not be where she is today, figuratively and literally, without her mother. Basak graduated from Pitt — even though she did not know a word of English upon entering college — after moving with her husband from Turkey. After Basak passed, Simsek wanted a way to honor her mother. She decided to attend Basak’s alma mater to follow in her footsteps. “She was the epitome of greatness in my eyes,” Simsek said. “I’m still going my own way, I’m just living through her.” Although Simsek never got to experience what her mother was like before her illness, she heard about similarities. People have told Simsek that she and her mother have the same laugh and that they even eat yogurt the same way.
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from benevolent roots. “I knew some people just wanted an excuse to get in their bathing suit and make a video,” she said. “I did participate, but for me it was
book to spread awareness for the illness by dumping water on their heads. Simsek said she appreciated the support for ALS as long as it came
like, ‘This is for my mom’ ... I wasn’t too nitpicky about it.” She joked that friends nominated her a second time but — instead of participating again — she made her cat do the challenge. “It was a hit,” she added. Now in her sophomore year and a member of the honors fraternity Phi Sigma Pi, Simsek is in the midst of a similar Pitt experience to the one her mother had. She still loves remembering that she and her mother shared the same walks to classes in the Cathedral of Learning. Of course, during college, Basak did not face the difficulties that troubled her during the fi nal 15 years of her life. Still, those 15 years helped inspire Simsek to be grateful for what she has. “We’re complaining about finals, but at least we can walk to the library to go study,” Simsek said. Thinking back, Simsek does not remember the bad times as much as she fondly remembers the good ones. She does not think about complications, instead focusing on the simple things — just as her mother did. “Other people were running her life, and she was so helpless, but always smiling,” Simsek said. “She sat in the same chair every day and watched the birds get fed on her front porch. That just made her so happy.”
“I would put it on my spoon, and I don’t take all of it off right away,” Simsek said with a smile. “Oh, and we look identical. It’s unreal. We’re twins.” Simsek also recognizes that she was afforded more time with her mother than the doctors had predicted. The life expectancy for many individuals diagnosed with ALS is about three years, but Basak Simsek held on for 15 years. They used those years enjoying a mother-daughter relationship much like any other. “It was so normal for me,” Simsek said. “We liked watching a lot of movies together on Netflix and just hanging out, because she was pretty much one of my best friends.” But, earlier on, it was hard for Simsek to recreate that normal relationship. She said, when she was younger, she did not want people to look at her as “the girl with the troubled family life.” “I was a little embarrassed of it. She obviously didn’t look healthy. In her face, you could just tell she was sick. You could see bones,” she said. “But when she passed away, I was like, ‘You know what? She was a legacy in my eyes’ ... I just became so proud. I grew from it, too.” Even as recently as last summer, Simsek witnessed how people who are not directly affected by the disease interacted with and treated ALS. When the Ice Bucket Challenge peaked over the summer, her friends all took to Face-
S E T T E U O H L I S N P T
Shayna Fiorina discusses bodybuilding, college
hayna Fiorina wakes up each morning thinking about her lift. She goes to bed each night envisioning herself walking through the doors to the Pete. As she sits in class, eating chicken from the plastic containing her fourth or fifth meal of the day, she watches the minutes tick down on the clock. She’s excited for the day to be over so a new one can start. Fiorina began bodybuilding in 2013, during the summer before her freshman year at college. Now a sophomore, Fiorina has already
competed, placing first and second in her two divisions, and is currently preparing for her second show. Her “prepping” season — the 16 weeks she spends getting ready for a competition — includes working out six days per week, eating six meals per day and rising at 6 or 7 a.m. daily. “It’s like a job,” Fiorina said. To make sure she gets the right nutrients throughout the day, Fiorina eats every two and a half hours.
“I’m that kid in class that pulls out a Tupperware thing full of chicken and rice,” Fiorina said. “My backpack is called a six-pack bag, and it’s like a mini fridge in one section.” She usually eats the same thing for each meal, although she can vary certain food choices, such as vegetables. Similar to her eating habits, Fiorina’s schedule is structured, and she follows a daily routine — gym, eat, class, eat, class, schoolwork, eat and sleep. Fiorina
Story by Lauren Rosenblatt Photos by Nate Smith doesn’t mind the repetitiveness, describing it as comfortable. One day each week, however, breaks routine — Saturday. Not only does she get a day off from exercising, she also gets to cheat on her diet. Neglecting the strict rules that she follows for the rest of the week, Fiorina gets to indulge in a cheat meal once per week. A cheat meal is exactly what it sounds like — a chance to eat whatever she wants. Two weeks ago, she went to Burgatory and cleaned her plate
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future, she wants to get a job that she loves, but that allows time for her to pursue other passions outside of the workplace. Fiorina is majoring in global management and supply chain, but said she does not have a clue why. “My parents said a business degree is pretty versatile and I could get a job with pretty much
I like to be ‘go, go, go’ all day,” Fiorina said. “That’s probably why I can go to sleep so early.” Before her bodybuilding career, Fiorina had a goal of finishing a half marathon — check. Then finishing a half marathon in under two hours — check. Then competing in a bodybuilding competition — check. Now, her goal is to win her second competition. In the
“I like to have something to work toward. I like to be productive, and when I’m not doing anything I get anxious. I like to be ‘go, go, go’ all day.”
every company, so at least I’m working toward something,” Fiorina said. Although she doesn’t know yet what she wants to do, she plans to go through internship programs until she finds something that she loves. “There’s no way to know [what you want to do] until you go out there,” Fiorina said. “You have to find out what you don’t want to do to figure out what you do want to do.” Fiorina had a similar mentality with her fitness goals — she tried lifting, decided she loved the feeling of strengthening her muscles and always looking for ways to improve her mental and physical health, and she hasn’t stopped since. “It’s pretty amazing to see what you can make your body do,” Fiorina said. “I never would have pictured myself being able to lift what I can now.” Fiorina set a new personal record a few weekends ago for deadlift — 225 pounds. “It’s a great feeling,” Fiorina said.
of burgers and fries while slurping down a milkshake. Last week, she went to The Cheesecake Factory, where she reveled in fried chicken and biscuits and turtle pecan cheesecake. The cheat meal has another benefit besides delicious food — time with friends. “Whenever I’m not eating, making food, doing cardio or at the gym, I’m doing school work or sleeping,” Fiorina said. “I’m not gonna sacrifice my sleep for a social life.” Although she has given up a “normal” college experience, Fiorina said her friends work around her schedule, planning dinner outings around her cheat meal or letting her know ahead of time where they want to go so she can look at the menu and find something she can eat. Often when she goes out to eat for non-cheat day meals, Fiorina will bring her own chicken along with her. “I can still go out to eat, I just have to put in a lot more effort,” Fiorina said. This amount of effort extends to all parts of her life, but she finds it rewarding, rather than daunting. “I think I’m just a very goaloriented person. I like to have something to work toward. I like to be productive, and when I’m not doing anything, I get anxious.
S E T T E U
Irish dancer Derek Stillman moves through life’s routine
Story by Danielle Fox Photos by Theo Schwarz
hen Derek Stillman held the stage at the World Irish Dance Competition, he showed the judges the perfectionism accompanying his rigid form and mountainous personal expectations. What the judges didn’t know is that Stillman, thirdgeneration Irish, was competing with a broken back. “I was kind of like ‘Ha ha! Look at me,’ but dying at the same time,” Stillman said. His broken back went undiagnosed, but has been ever-present since 2007, and drugstore painkillers erected his board-stiff posture — a requirement of Irish dance. The doctors, who finally discovered the break in 2009, issued a brace and ordered a studio hiatus that Stillman couldn’t yet obey. Hellbent on choosing his love over his health, Stillman danced on, taking home “the big globe trophy” with his team in Philadelphia a month later. “Everyone always says, ‘Don’t be a baby. Don’t complain,’ so I was dancing with the broken back,” Stillman said. “You do crazy things for what you love.” Stillman, a 23-year-old junior studying digital media, professional communications and Chinese, has been Irish dancing for two decades. He mimicked the film adaptation of “Riverdance” in
his living room before he was old enough to enroll at the Murphy Irish Arts Center in Ohio. After a childhood of international competitions and Thanksgiving meals at airport McDonald’s, he continued pursuing the art at Burke Conroy School of Irish Dance in Squirrel Hill after starting at Pitt in 2009. “Irish dance was a way to define who I was at a young age. They say everything is a melting pot in America, but I’ve never been one to melt,” Stillman said. “Through dance, I was able to ground my Irish roots.” Performing instilled confidence in Stillman and made him a popular mega-extrovert, but it sent him a bill. After spending thousands and enduring long-term health effects and sacrifices, Stillman often asked himself why he kept dancing. “When I look around my trophies at home, I think how many thousands of dollars have gone into that, and now, it’s like, OK, I got some trophies,” Stillman said. The metal and the break ushered in a lull in Stillman’s competing that survives today. The painkillers disintegrated Stillman’s stomach lining, slashing his weight to 90 pounds and halting his first fall semester. Fueled by Pepsi Max, the still “fast-paced and caffeinebased” Stillman used the time off from competing to
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“Irish dance was a way to define who I was at a young age. They say everything is a melting pot in America, but I’ve never been one to melt.”
H U E T T E S
this is that there is no money. There are no scholarships. You do it because you love it,” Stillman said. “I can tell people [that] me and my team are ranked third in the world. OK, now what?” While on top of the acropolis looking out over Athens during spring break, Stillman plucked his fortune, saying to himself: “You know what? Finish school.” Picking the option that “will open up doors,” Stillman looked ahead to see how his skills and their health effects will manifest into his life’s dance. “I just decided it was really going to derail my life. It’s happened to me so many times already,” Stillman said. “The touring show will always be there. I kind of just need to put myself first, finish it, move on.”
pursue internships at casting agencies and fashion houses, while spending his summers teaching Irish dancing and English abroad at East China Normal University. Once school let out, Stillman tried to return to America, but fainted in the airport. After doctors diagnosed him with twisted bowel syndrome at the hospital, he underwent emergency surgery.
“I had to call my mom … like this might not be it, but it could be the end,” Stillman said. Stillman returned home and missed the fall 2013 semester, extending his undergraduate career even longer and keeping his misshapen dancer ’s feet away from the professional stage. “Irish dancing is not natural. Dance in general is not natural. That’s often why dancers have so many injuries,” Stillman said. “I can’t tell you how many friends I’ve seen snap their ankles.”
Then the call came. A touring Irish dance show offered Stillman a spot on its team. Stillman had to decide if he should roll through the routine — college, internships, the job market — or take a leap of faith. “One day, I’ll wake up and I’ll say, ‘I’m doing it. This is it.’ And then, one day I’ll wake up and say, ‘no, don’t do that,’” Stillman said. Undecided, Stillman began training again, choreographing his options. He could make a living from touring, but not the life he likes to live. A fashion-forward jetsetter who spends more weekends abroad than on campus, his high kicks would never offer him the luxury kickbacks that he’s grown to crave. “The crazy thing about all of
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Story by Dale Shoemaker Photo by Christine Lim
Market & the Messiah O
phelia Ferguson’s church — the one she refers to as “my church” and the one officially known as Christ Temple Apostolic Church — is an old, yellow brick chapel in the Homewood neighborhood on Mt. Vernon Street. She goes every Sunday for the service and every Wednesday for prayer. She goes to other churches, too, including Bethesda Presbyterian Church in Garfield, which she visits on Tuesdays for prayer. One Sunday after church, along the street in front of Christ Temple, a red minivan was squealing. Ferguson went over to inquire. “Is that your belt? You should get some of that spray on there, otherwise you’re going to have to replace the whole thing,” she said. She smiled. She gave her advice out of real concern. Belt repairs aren’t cheap, she said. The driver of the van agreed and drove off. His belt still squealed under the hood. “I specialize in hoopties,” Ferguson said. Ferguson works the closing shifts on weekdays at Market Central — usually until 1 a.m. or later. She likes her job at Market, where students know her name and she knows theirs. She tries to memorize as many students’ names as possible, she said. “Hi Ryan,” she’ll say, making eye contact and not looking at the card in her hand. “Hi Ophelia,” the student will reply. “You’re the best!” Sitting tall in her chair, at the entrance to Pitt’s biggest dining hall, she smiles. “We all have problems, so I just like to shut that out and come here and have a good time, ‘cause I’m getting paid to do this, and I enjoy it,” she said.
When Ferguson joined Christ Temple in the 1990s, she was expecting her fifth child, Cody. The pastor, Leroy Robinson, said he used to pick her up in the church van Sunday mornings. Now, Ferguson has her own van and often drives other members of the congregation to church on Sunday. “Ophelia’s been very supportive and very faithful. She goes beyond the call of duty. She’s a blessing to have here,” Robinson said. Ferguson has always had a consciousness of God, she said, but the death of her best friend when she was 23 pushed religion to the front of her mind. When she was 23, Ferguson lost her best friend, Vicki. They had known each other since they attended Madison Elementary School in the Hill District, which is now closed, and Schenley High School in Oakland, which is also closed. Not long after, she said, she was saved and became a bornagain Christian. Vicki’s death, she said, is part of the reason why she turned to God. “That really hurt me, got me to thinking,” she said. “You just have to make things happen. For one, I don’t bring my problems here ‘cause, if I did, I wouldn’t be happy.” After Ferguson became pregnant with Chaz, her oldest child, her sister — seven years her senior — supported her. Her sister lived with her throughout the pregnancy and helped find a place to stay for her and Chaz’s father, Frank Ferguson Sr., Ferguson’s husband of more than 30 years. Ferguson and Frank Sr. have six other children: Karmin, 37; Frank Jr., 28; Chez, 24; Cody, 22; Corey, 20; and Crystal, 16. Ferguson and Frank Sr. have
raised their children in the church, but she doesn’t force them to go now that most of them are grown. Faith is a personal choice, Ophelia Ferguson said, which she has made. “It’s something you gotta do on your own. You see how dangerous it is out here. You gotta have that covering. Prayer never hurts,” she said. Two banners, one reading, “King of kings,” the other reading, “Lord of lords,” hang on the front wall of the sanctuary of Ferguson’s church and frame a large painting of Jesus praying on the Mount of Olives. Several annexes connect to the sanctuary and rows of identical wooden pews fill the big room. Three arched windows
take up most of the back wall and let in natural light. Where the hymnals might have been, on the backs of the pews, there are tambourines instead. There are a few Bibles, but the majority of the 11 attendees play the tambourines instead. The few people at the church gathered in the front of the sanctuary, in front of the pastor’s pulpit, for prayer. Ferguson asked for prayer for her family and Pitt students returning from spring break. Ferguson is religious now, she said, mostly because she’s uncertain about death. “One day we all have to go that way,” she said, “so we have to prepare for it.”