** Disclaimer: The model in this photo and any photos below are NOT the interviewees in the writing pieces **
By Naz Hussein
Hind Mubarak Majeed, 35, is a mother of two: 2-year-old Oliver and 2-month-old Vera. She holds a Master’s degree in Political Science and was previously a lecturer in the Arabic Studies department at the University of Florida. Hind paused her career to focus on raising her children. To her, deepening their connection and watching them blossom is the most wonderful and worthwhile endeavor.
Hind reflects on the challenges and harsh realities of motherhood with an open mind and globalized perspective. She grew up in Baghdad, Iraq as an adventurous adolescent during war and sanctions then moved to Poland at the age of 23 in 2008. In 2015, she married her husband Ghaith and relocated to the United States.
MOTHERLY LOVE AS A MEMORY
Hind, as a lover of melodies, recounts the special bond she created between her children and music.
“When I hear a nice melody anywhere, my body will dance. This is how I like it. This is what I do,” she said, laughing.
“When I was pregnant with Oliver and Vera, I danced to music. Now, they recognize what I put on. Oliver loves classical music.”
Hind rediscovers the subtle and mundane joys of life through her children.
“You just forget the simple things around you, like nature. When we go out and see a bird, Oliver will yell, 'Oh mama! Oh my god!'” Hind exclaims.
“Sometimes we just forget about our surroundings. We are in such a hurry: we’re too anxious about the future. So kids give you this moment to be present, live life, and feel newfound love.”
Hind also reflects on the first time Oliver tasted watermelon. “He was like, 'Oh, this is grapefruit.' He started eating the green. And I was like, 'No! Go to the red one!'" she said with a giggle.
“It’s beautiful how kids discover things. They really give you joy.”
MOTHERLY LOVE AS A FEELING
“There is nothing your children can do to make you stop loving them. I’ve accepted Oliver for the way he is, even if he is stubborn, or has different beliefs than me later on. I understand I must support him either way,” Hind said, smiling.
“One time I was having a conversation with my mom, and I insisted that we must respect the LGBT community. My mother disagreed. ‘Would you accept it if your son was gay?’ she asked me. I answered, 'Yes, of course,'" Hind said. “Unconditional love means acceptance and understanding."
“Motherly love can be painful. It’s so powerful that it sometimes hurts you, because whatever it is hurting them affects you. You don't want to see your kids struggle.”
“That’s why you carry fear and worry. When I first had Oliver, I wanted him back in my belly so I can protect him forever. It was a very weird feeling. But my kids need to discover the world, so they can survive it. Some parents live through their kids or want to control them. That’s unbalanced love.”
“They need to evolve and think for themselves. For example, if I had a bad experience with anything like love or education, that doesn’t necessarily mean they will. As a parent, it’s hard to accept that. But you have to,” Hind says.
“Ever since I was in Iraq, I didn’t like the boundaries and rules of strict society. I wanted to live my life the way that I liked. So I always prepared myself for the future, that I wouldn’t restrict my kids. I will give them freedom while still having them close to me, like a friend.”
“Of course, I want to make sure that they’re not heading towards something that can destroy them, like … drug addiction,” Hind said.
“I will discipline them: show them what’s right from wrong. But I never want to choose their paths or friends for them. Maybe they will choose how to exist based on what I teach them about human beings and our world," Hind said with a faint smile.
MOTHERLY LOVE AS AN IMAGE
“Motherly love is like molten chocolate. When Oliver gives me a hug or kisses me, I feel my heart melt like chocolate.”
“I want him to kiss me; I want him to give me that hug. I love when Oliver comes to me and says 'Mama Habibi.' I love when he reciprocates emotions; I love hearing his voice.”
“When I nurse Vera, I feel that she’s very close and attached. Sometimes, I get tired because I nurse many times a day. It’s a very exhausting thing to do. But when I put her on my chest, I want her to listen to my heartbeat. I want both of them to know that they are the most important people in my life right now.”
“After my husband,” she then said, laughing.
“Sometimes when Oliver is scared, I like to put him on my chest so he can listen to my breath and heartbeat. This calms him down: the body connection.”
“I don’t need to teach my kids about the meaning of love. I simply want to show them love. That way, they will learn how to give love back, by emulating their mother and father,” Hind said.
PINK SUNSET SKATING
By Naz Hussein
Sara Zandy, 21, is a fourth-year Psychology major at the University of Florida. Her Kurdish background is a big part of her personality: she loves teaching others about Kurdish history, learning about new cultures, making jewelry, and watching movies.
Gabby Viera, 22, is a fourth-year Nursing major at the University of South Florida. She is Cuban-American and loves fighting sports like Muay Thai, Jiu-jitsu, and boxing. Gabby also has a creative side and enjoys drawing and painting.
Paola Leon, 21, is a fourth-year Health Sciences major at the University of South Florida and plans to apply for physical therapy school. She is Mexican-American and enjoys nature walks, visiting the park, and skating.
The three girls met in Largo High School in Pinellas County, Florida but only recently grew close after a series of spontaneous plans and bonding moments.
FRIENDSHIP LOVE AS A MEMORY
Gabby, Sara, and Paola explore the first event that solidified their friendship, in their own points of view.
“I was never really close to Gabby and Paola in high school, because we were in different programs," Sara said. “We got closer around summertime. It was Paola’s 21st birthday, and she invited a small group of people.”
“I was actually afraid to go to that party. They've been friends for so long, I thought I'd be left out. But actually, I fit in perfectly with them,” Sara said.
Boats and sleepovers
“My parents had recently bought a boat,” Gabby said with a laugh.
“I invited us to go on the boat and that was the first time we all hung out together. After that, it was just consecutive days of seeing each other,” Gabby said.
“One time, they spent the night at my apartment. People haven't spent the night at my place since … literally middle school. It reminded me of good memories I haven't had in a while,” Gabby admitted.
Heroines at the springs
“A lot of our memories involve going out and doing things. We don’t only stay at home: we strive to explore,” Paola said.
“One day we went to the spring and kayaked. Sara saved a baby that fell off the paddleboard,” Paola giggled. “Where there were alligators.”
“I leaned over and just grabbed the baby,” Sara said. “The baby was shaking and crying. The mom was very pissed at the dad. She was like, 'Give me the freaking baby,'” Sara said.
FRIENDSHIP LOVE AS A FEELING
“Everyone around us seems to be growing up fast. But our friendship is a younger friendship. When I'm with these two, I don't need to be an adult. I feel very happy and playful,” Sara said.
“Being friends with [Sara and Gabby] is very refreshing. Once, we were saying our goodbyes, and I started crying, even though I had just met Sara. I was so sad that it would be a while before all of us could hang out again. My love grew for them really fast. I definitely feel like I can go to them for anything,” Paola said.
Gabby nodded her head in agreement. “Paola and I used to be in a bigger friend group. I would tiptoe around them: I couldn’t be myself. Being friends with just Sara and Paola is very validating. It’s nice to not worry about being judged,” Gabby said.
“Half of my family is Cuban, and the other half is American. Sometimes I don't like talking about being Latina because some people don't view me as that. Seeing Sara be passionate about her culture makes me proud of where I’m from. And Paola being Latina helps me feel more confident in myself,” Gabby said.
“At UF, I've had a really hard time making friends. I missed the closeness and emotional intimacy of female friendships. I missed talking to a girl and feeling like she immediately knew what you’re referring to,” Sara said.
“We share a lot of the same values and morals. I’ve had friendships where people don’t understand what you're passionate about. But all of our views align perfectly,” Paola said.
“Current issues with immigration are really important to me. I know these topics are also important to my friends, which makes me happy,” Paola said.
“If Paola talks about something that affected her, I want her to know that me and Gabby are always there to support her,” Sara said.
FRIENDSHIP LOVE THROUGH DISTANCE
Gabby and Paola live in Tampa while Sara attends UF in Gainesville. Sara recently invited her friends to Gainesville and discussed their plans.
“There’s this parking lot in my apartment complex with an empty floor on the rooftop. We really want to go skateboarding there or to Paynes Prairie during sunset. We might also have a movie night and drink wine,” she said with a grin.
They address navigating distance in their friendship.
“We have a group chat, and we talk every day,” Sara said.
“It’s effortless talking to them. When we talk, it never feels forced,” Paola concluded.
By Hope Dean
Mary Bagarra and Maggie Dong were just friends for two years before it happened.
The two met through the UF Filipino Student Association, where both were dancers who performed at shows — including the club’s biggest fall hit, the Def Talent Jam. In October 2019, the show went on as normal.
But that night, Mary saw Maggie after they had descended from the stage and realized that she thought Maggie was beautiful.
After talking it out for a few months, the two officially got together on January 16, 2020. It hasn’t always been easy, they said, but it’s been worth it. Here are some of their most important memories and feelings as a couple.
** Mary Bagarra & Maggie Dong, interviewees for "Romantic Love", are also the models in this video **
ROMANTIC LOVE AS A FEELING
Mary: Safe. Comfortable. Warm.
Maggie: I was gonna say warm!
The two laugh.
Maggie: I’ll pick other ones. Uh, I guess reliable, in the sense of that even though the ups and downs, I know she’s there in my life. And supportive. … Because I do photography and videography, it’s sort of hard to feel good about your work, and she’s always there to reassure me, lift me up. … And it’s fun. There’s never a boring moment.
ROMANTIC LOVE AS AN IMAGE
Mary: We go to the beach. A lot.
The two burst into laughter.
Maggie: Going to the beach is always special. We’ve been trying to make it for sunrise. I like to take photos, and I also do videography, so I bring my camera and tripod and we walk around.
Mary: And eating.
Maggie: Oh, yeah! And one of our other things is eating. … We come from different Asian cultures, so we’re like, ‘Oh, try this dish!’ … One I made her is called shredded potatoes. It’s like hash browns, but not fried. It’s super simple, and it’s one of my favorite dishes that my dad always makes.
Mary: For me, I cook her Filipino spaghetti. The first time I cooked for her, she ate it almost everyday. It’s kind of sweet. I put sugar in it.
ROMANTIC LOVE AS A MEMORY
Maggie: We went to — uh. What’s it called. Not Universal, the other one.
Mary: Busch Gardens!
Maggie: Not Busch Gardens. Oh, wait, it was Busch Gardens!
Mary and Maggie laugh.
Mary: That was her first time.
Maggie: And we went to the [Orlando] Eye … We walked around, seeing the sights and lights. Just vibing. This was right before this Christmas break. It was celebrating [Mary’s] graduation.
ROMANTIC LOVE AS GROWTH
Maggie: You change. Not for the other person, but for yourself, and for the relationship as a whole. But not things like, ‘Oh, I don’t like the way you dress’ … It’s your character.
Mary: This relationship showed me that I could change and grow as a person. Before her, I was in a five-year relationship with a dude, and there was no room to grow there. … [Being with Maggie] kind of forced me to think about how I think about things and how I manage things like my emotions, and communication, which is a big part. Also understanding our love languages and what we like and don’t like. … It’s definitely hard to change. We’re still figuring things out and changing and getting better. But for me, I didn’t think that I could change the way I did in this relationship. … I realized I have to tell her what I want, that the other person doesn’t know what you’re thinking.
Maggie: [Another one is] responding and not reacting.
Mary: Yeah, responding and not reacting.
Maggie: I like to read things on Twitter and I’m like, ‘This is something we can apply!’ … There’s this thing I read that was like, always give your partner the benefit of the doubt. … Don’t just be like, ‘Oh, why are you ignoring me?’ It can build up walls, and that means the other person is less likely to listen. … Instead of saying like, ‘Why are you ignoring me?’ be like, ‘Oh, I felt that this one thing you said was ignorant. Is that what you meant?’ … When we started, we had similarities in things we liked, but in terms of functioning in a relationship, we realized that we have very different approaches because of my past experiences and her past experiences. So it took a bit of work to like…
Mary: Figure each other out?
Maggie: Yeah, figure each other out. But it’s been a year now, and we’ve gotten a lot better at that.
By Hope Dean
Micah Johnson was moving to Tampa in August 2019 when he found the boxes.
They were stacked in his garage, and he had forgotten all about them, Johnson said. When he bent down to open the boxes, he remembered why — they were filled with awards he won in high school, the topics ranging from art and directing to creative writing.
It was what he used to be embarrassed of, he said. It’s what he is still embarrassed of, sometimes.
“I was like… Man, it's crazy,” Johnson sighed. “It's like, ‘What happened to this person? How could you let this piece of you just be lost?’”
These days, Johnson is an assistant professor in the Department of Mental Health Law and Policy at the University of South Florida (USF). He received his Ph.D. in sociology from UF, where he also founded the Study of Teen Opioid Misuse and Prevention, a program that trains underrepresented students in research. Johnson himself has researched health disparities, psychological trauma and social inequality, among other topics.
But he’s as much of an artist as he is a scientist — and that’s been hard to come to terms with being from a profession and culture that disregards the arts, Johnson said. After publishing a children’s book, he feels that he’s one step closer to accepting that part of himself.
“I can't let my soul hurt,” he said. “I gotta give my soul food, and at the same time give my family physical food to eat. So that’s the game I’m playing.”
“We experienced disadvantage, but we used our creativity”: Johnson’s childhood
Johnson grew up in Eatonville, the first self-governing Black city in Florida and one of the first in the country. And although he didn’t realize it at the time, Johnson also grew up very poor, he said.
Johnson’s grandfather used to joke about “wish sandwiches,” where one has two pieces of bread but nothing to put between them.
“That was a microcosm for our life,” Johnson said. “We experienced disadvantage, but we used our creativity and our imagination and our perspective to cope and get through it.”
The arts are a form of expression that Johnson has always felt compelled to let loose. He won his first creative writing award in ninth grade and in tenth grade won a district-level rap poetry award from the National Society of Arts and Letters. He performed Shakespeare and wrote urban films. Hollywood Hills High School voted him as its most talented student.
But at the same time, Johnson was in and out of homeless shelters. He slept in friends’ cars and on his cousin’s couch, so the awards were far from the first thing on his mind.
A culture clash also contributed to his shame around the arts, Johnson said.
“I was okay as long as I was in my community around my friends, but I was shut down in other spaces when I got outside my communities,” he said. “Until you have developed some degree of immunity, you can't expose your baby, that fragile piece of you, to other people. Because they can harm it.”
But Johnson wasn’t only interested in art. He was also interested in science — which is where the clash grew even louder.
“Some said stuff that was nasty”: The intersection of science, race and art
Growing up disadvantaged, Johnson was always interested in helping others who were in his position, he said. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in social science teacher education at Florida State University, he got his master’s degree and doctorate in sociology at UF.
That’s where Johnson founded the Study of Teen Opioid Misuse and Prevention from scratch, building the tables and gathering antiquated laptops with very little help. It put an emphasis on training historically underrepresented students how to research and publish their findings. So far, about 60 students have gone through the program, he said.
Similar to his creative endeavors, awards and acknowledgments for Johnson’s science flowed in. Among others, Johnson received the Lydia Donaldson Tutt-Jones Research Grant from the African American Success Foundation and UF’s Dr. J. Michael Rollo Diversity Impact Award.
But the entire time, his background as a Southern-raised Black man was clearly frowned upon, he said.
“Black low-income Southern culture is not really something that's valued or seen as dignified in academia, because of the space that it is,” Johnson said. “You better lose that Southern drawl. You better enunciate those words.”
The color of his skin also made a difference. One of Johnson’s old teachers used to walk into class pretending to be a student on the first day of class as a social experiment, so Johnson tried the same thing as a graduate instructor at UF.
“The way the students looked at me when they didn't know I was their professor… Some of them said stuff that was nasty,” Johnson said. “I literally had students apologize, say ‘I'm so sorry, I didn’t know you were the professor.’”
Johnson would later on become some of the students’ favorite professors, he said. But he will never forget that he had to reveal himself as a professor to get that same level of respect.
Johnson also found that he could never talk about his art in the scientific community without being ridiculed, whether the delivery be subtle or outright.
“One day, I was like, ‘All right, I do spoken word.’ And someone said, ‘Ha, right. You do spoken word. Another rapper,’” he said. “But if I did ballet, it would have been different. Within art, you have that stratification.”
So for years, Johnson stayed quiet about his art. He didn’t tell his coworkers, or anyone else in the field that he met, about what he writes and performs outside of scientific papers and speeches.
But that changed in August 2019 when Johnson became an assistant professor in the Department of Mental Health Law and Policy at the University of South Florida.
“It's very important to me that I tell these stories”: Johnson’s return to art
When Johnson decided to publish a book in 2020, he stayed very quiet about it at first, he said.
Johnson’s children’s book, “Never Had A Friend,” was inspired by his own experiences as a boy. Illustrated by UF student Cassandra Urbenz, it follows a young child who faces challenges of homelessness and trauma.
Once released on Dec. 20, it immediately hit the No. 1 spot in the Children's Homelessness & Poverty Books category on Amazon. Johnson has been contacted by homeless organizations in Florida who want to distribute the book to homeless children.
“I started to hear from parents that were saying, ‘We’ve never read a book like this. Me and my child had a real, serious conversation,’” Johnson said. “[We need to] encourage parents to have these difficult conversations with their children so we can invest in the moral development of our next generation.”
Johnson was terrified to tell his colleagues at USF about the book, but to his surprise, they supported him wholeheartedly. Publishing the book is now one of the most joyful experiences he’s ever had, he said.
But Johnson isn’t finished there. The book is a preview for a bigger project that Johnson is currently working on — a series of theatrical monologues that will include spoken word, rhyme, poetry, music and dance or other body movements.
The performance, which is also called “Never Had A Friend,” will explore themes of trauma, homelessness, anti-racism, resilience and friendship, Johnson said.
Once finished, Johnson wants to tour the performance at theatres, universities, churches and other venues. He had hoped to start this summer, but is unsure if that will be possible due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But no matter when it happens, Johnson is enthusiastic about spreading his message.
“It's very important to me that I tell these stories in a way that I know people will digest,” he said. “Art is that great communicator, and it goes straight to the heart, pierces the soul.”
These days, Johnson’s old art awards don’t sit in a dusty box in the garage anymore. They’re hung up on the wall next to his desk, right beside his scientific awards.
“I'm not sure if the coast is clear. I'm not sure if it's safe,” he said. “[But] it's really important that we tell some of these stories about people — the tragedies, but also the triumphs.”
Photo Executive Director: Hannah Diasti, Self-Love Photo Director, Photographer, & Photo Editor: Luis Parera, Friendship Love Photo Director, Photographer, & Photo Editor: Nicole Guillen
Video Director: Alyssa Archard, Video Executive Producer: Hannah Diasti, Videographer: Alyssa Archard, Video Editor: Caitlin Seney
Visual Web Design Executive Director: Michelle Hsia, Visual Web Design Director: Annanya Agarwal