Merriam-Webster defines “poet laureate” as a poet honored for outstanding creative achievement. The laureate title dates to ancient Greek and Roman times when the accomplishments of poets, athletes, and heroes were honored with a crown of greenery from the laurel tree, which was associated with Apollo and considered sacred.
The tradition of poet laureate has continued over the centuries as countries, states, municipalities, arts organizations, and even universities confer the title on those who produce superior works. For example, Joy Harjo is the present United States Poet Laureate and the first Native American to hold that title. Amanda Gorman, who famously read her moving poem at the inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris, is our nation’s very first Youth Poet Laureate. The position of Jersey City Poet Laureate was initiated by the Municipal Council in 2018 with Rashad Wright named the City’s inaugural Poet Laureate.
HCCC President Dr. Christopher Reber said the College instituted its Student Poet Laureate program last Spring, and selected Natalie Akel as the inaugural Student Poet Laureate. “Hudson County Community College is one of few two- or four-year colleges to have such a program. It is a tribute to the talent and creativity of our students, faculty, and community,” he stated. “We are enormously proud of our Student Poet Laureate program, and especially our very first Student Poet Laureate, Natalie Akel.”
The HCCC Student Poet Laureate program was created by HCCC Assistant Professor of English, Eric Adamson, and the HCCC Poetry and Language Collective, a 16-member body that includes faculty, administrators and students from several disciplines and departments, and Jersey City’s current Poet Laureate, Susan Justiniano. Selection as an HCCC Student Poet Laureate is an honor that will be bestowed each year on a student who represents the community through their poetry. As is the custom, the HCCC Student Poet Laureate recites their works at major College events – such as Commencement, College Service Day, and the HCCC Foundation Gala – and at poetry workshops in area elementary and middle schools as a representative of the HCCC poetic voice. The HCCC Student Poet Laureates’ works will be archived in the College’s Gabert Library, displayed in the Dineen Hull Gallery, and published in the HCCCCrossroadsliterary magazine.
Natalie Akel is a first-generation American whose family emigrated here from the Dominican Republic and Lebanon. At first glance, Ms. Akel may seem an unlikely person to hold the inaugural Student Poet Laureate title. Soft-spoken and quick to flash her warm smile, she graduated from the University of Vermont with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English in 2017. After spending some time deciding between social work and nursing, she chose to continue her education at Hudson County Community College as a nursing major. She is presently a full spectrum doula and plans to become a midwife.
Writing poetry has long been a means for Ms. Akel to process, express, and/or escape her feelings. Her writing integrates themes of nature, love, and issues of social and reproductive justice, and is rich with imagery of the everyday and the imagined.
Being selected as the HCCC Student Poet Laureate is not the first time her writing has been recognized. “My love of poetry and the poetry community blossomed during high school,” she said. In 2011, as a Red Bank High School student, she won the coveted Silver Medal in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards competition, whose past recipients include such literary giants as Bernard Malamud, Sylvia Plath, Truman Capote, John Updike, and Joyce Carol Oates.
Dr. Reber said: “Audre Lorde, the American poet, feminist, and civil rights activist wrote, ‘Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.’ That summarizes the significance of our Student Poet Laureate program.”
In the newest HCCC Out of the Boxpodcast, Dr. Reber converses with Professor Adamson and Ms. Akel, who talks about her love of poetry, and recites one of her touchingly beautiful poems. The community is invited to view and enjoy the podcast at https://www.hccc.edu/news-media/outofthebox/2022/student-poet-laureate-program.html.