In memory of Dorinda Ma, 1993-2018

Sienna Coleman

This past Sunday, loved ones gathered on campus to honor the loss of and celebrate the life of Dorinda Ma ’16. They dedicated a tree, planted between Olin and the Berman, in her honor. At Ursinus, Dorinda majored in English, worked in the campus safety office, was a sister of Sigma Sigma Sigma, and wrote beautiful, brave poetry. She was passionate about changing the lives of youth through education and after graduation she became an English teacher for Teach for America. Her kindness, compassion, and warm smile brought light into the lives of countless members of the Ursinus community and beyond. Some of Ma’s professors and close friends shared their thoughts and memories of her with “The Grizzly.”

From Dr. M. Nzadi Keita, Associate Professor of English, Coordinator of African American/Africana Studies:

“I met Dorinda as a first-year student in the fall of 2013 when she took my Intro to Poetry Writing course. Her bouncy, sunny, caring demeanor was a bit disorienting to me at first; soon I realized that she was just being herself. An extraordinarily kind, giving person.

Dorinda approached poetry the way she did many things: with a fearless curiosity, an energetic intellect, and a willingness to find her way. Her ability as a poet was immediately clear. She wasn’t afraid of it. She did not try to conquer poetry by limiting herself to cliched ideas, writing copycat poems, or wrestling her thoughts into stilted rhyme. Her gift came from an exuberant em- brace of language, an affinity for significant detail, attention, and a well-trained ear. I teach a lot of poetic form, which students often dislike, at least at first. But Dorinda ran with any challenge I gave and worked to bring something of herself into the poems.

I became her academic adviser in the English Dept. One of my favorite memories is our initial advising convo, which lasted about 2 hours. We talked about being from Philly, knowing how to thrift-shop, joked about Central High culture (my sons were alums, as was she), and had a long, humorous bonding over the similarities between migrant (mine) and immigrant (hers) families. After that, sometimes she’d knock on my door to give me a hug on her way to or from a class on Olin 3.

We kept in sporadic contact via long emails after she started teaching, always with the same subject line: “Long overdue update!” The following excerpt comes from one of them:

“Some of my freshmen are mothers, some have a first grade reading level, and some just love to test my patient nature, but all of my students have taught me more than I can ever teach them. Their academic deficiencies pale in comparison to their consciousness of their lives and the many contributing forces that crush down on them. I am honored to be where I am and to do the work I have done and will continue to do.”

From Chris Wilcox: “She was always smiling, She had a great outlook on life. When I think of Dorinda, the thing that I think of is her bubbly attitude. She loved life and she loved be- ing here.”

From Khalilah Baber ‘16: I met Dorinda for the first time entering the summer program called Crigler (sum- mer of 2012) going into Ursinus College. From first impressions it was evident that she was a loving, humble, educated and multitalented person. Our paths seemed to always cross on campus and her captivating smile kept someone feeling warm inside. Dorinda was so proud when I became a member of Sigma Sigma Sigma- she had joined her sophomore year and I joined our junior year. Through that time we became not only sisters but true friends. We shared meals together, tanned in the sun, enjoyed fries with ketchup & black pepper, got dressed up for nights out on campus and off, shared her love for Halloween and Valentines day, took some of the same classes, and bonded on how our Ursinus years were wrapping up but how we both were proud of each other’s accomplishments. Dorinda joined Teach for America and I joined AmeriCorp. We both loved education and had a passion to see our youth succeed.

Some of my most precious memories will forever be our night adventures out and admiring her style. Or seeing her speak out about feminism, her heritage, and the history of her family coming to America. Dorinda on many occasions curled my hair for formals and of course we decorated our caps together, taking pictures by the Ursinus gate after we walked across the stage. Dorinda was an exceptional soul.

From Dr. Stephanie Mackler, Associate Professor of Education and Assistant Dean of the College: “Dorinda was a student in two classes with me: Foundations of Education and The Liberal Arts. She was remarkably authentic and willing to be vulnerable when talking in class. I can remember at least two occasions when she came to tears during a class discussion because she felt things so deeply and was able to connect her intellectual work to her personal experience. So, when we discussed issues of race or social justice, she would always be a class leader in making sure the class didn’t just talk about the text as though it had no connection to people’s actual lives. And sometimes this would move her to tears because she understood how much was at stake and was willing to be vulnerable in the classroom. When she spoke, tears or not, her classmates would listen—not only because she was extremely bright, but because she was so authentic and alive in the classroom. You could really feel her presence in the room, and she spoke in such a way that one wanted to listen.
I can remember her coming to me to apologize after class for having cried in class. She was always a little embarrassed about it, but I remember just being so grateful that she was willing to be so real in that way.

In my liberal education class, she ended an essay on the purpose of liberal education with these words: ‘Liberal education is the dialogue in which we al- low ourselves, the people of this world, to participate. We must continue to struggle with the difficult questions left unanswered, just as we strive to wonder about our future, in order to keep up with our responsibility of cultivating our humanity.’”

From Director of Residence Life and Assistant Dean of Stu- dents Melissa Sanders Geiss: “She has a larger than life person. She had a big smile, big hair. I always said she was a light. She was always warm and compassionate towards people, and thought about people in everything… I was really proud and excited for her career in edu- cation because she was someone who brought many gifts into a classroom… I thought it was very appropriate to have her tree rooted on the campus, forever tied to this place.”

From Solana Warner, Class of 2018: “She was a really lovely per- son, the kind who would come into the room and ask everyone how they were doing like we were old friends. I loved her poetry and how it ranged from bold and whimsical to striking more serious notes in a truly poignant way – she was very brave, and I had a lot of respect for both her work and her as a person.”

A Poem by Dorinda:

Transit Tankas
finding Lombard-South, labyrinthine of shops and
soul. I am wild young
and I dare go on, dare to
eat drink smoke steal and escape

to Walnut-Locust,
straight lines and pyrrhic success.
I laugh at them all,
but eternal life in cash,
we strive for that; like straight lines

river, royalty, Susquehanna-Dauphin. I think I am ready,
but my city is callous-
and I am young still, flimsy

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