posted September 27, 2006

Text of 2006 Fall Convocation Address

2006 Fall Convocation AddressSunday, August 26, 2006Dimnent Memorial Chapel

THE SHORTEST DISTANCE BETWEEN THE PAST AND THE FUTURE IS NOW.

By Dr. Harvey Blankespoor
Professor Emeritus of Biology

God has made everything fit beautifully in its appropriate time." Ecclesiastes 3:11a.

 

It was 2:30 a.m. as the plane slowly started its descent. As I looked out of the window, everything was dark. I scanned the horizon for any lights, but there were none. My destination was Khartoum, Sudan to work in that country on a disease called "River Blindness". Although I had done some traveling prior to this trip, I suddenly felt very isolated. For the first time in my grown life, I was actually scared of reaching my destination - East Africa--a place that was very unfamiliar to me. Although I had traveled abroad during my first few years at Hope College, Sudan was unlike any country that I had ever visited. I heard about the penalties for Sudanese who steal (like getting their hands chopped off) and how cheap life was in that East African country. Furthermore, I was told that Sudan is controlled by military people who carry loaded guns and are not afraid to use them. Actually, I said a prayer, asking God to make sure that Jim (a colleague), would be at the airport to greet me. If not, I would be in a real predicament because I knew no other person in that country. Furthermore, I did not know Arabic and so I would not be able to speak to anyone for directions. Likely, my first trip to Sudan gave me that "separated" feeling in a way that college had not because when I went to college, I had commuted and so my home surroundings did not change. My father told me that the farm came first and that, if I could help him on the farm and go to college, concurrently, he would allow me to further my education.

For many students, though, the feeling of being isolated first occurs when they go to college. They realize that college often means the beginning of a physical separation from family, from many friends, and from a stable way of life. Far-reaching decisions will have to be made - what major to choose, making a career choice, getting a permanent job, and perhaps even finding a life's partner.

As I look back at nearly a half century of academic life as a professor (teacher, researcher, coun-selor, and friend) and as a college or university student, I have some suggestions for those of you who are embarking on a college career at Hope College. These suggestions, in part, result because I have taught and advised students for nearly four decades, but also because my wife and I lived in the Cosmo dormitory at HopeCollege for eight years so we had an opportunity to interact with students - in a setting other than in the classroom and the laboratory.

One of the most important suggestions that I can make is for you to excel in the classroom and in whatever activity is associated with that academic setting, whether it is in the laboratory, the studio, the stage, the arena or the playing field. There is no substitute for doing well, academically speaking. Unlike your high school grades, your college transcript will follow you for the remainder of your life. Just recently, for example, I was a participant in a large grant application to conduct research. It was required for me to submit my curriculum vita, including my undergraduate transcript. In the future, your academic performance at Hope College will open or close a lot of "doors" for you.

For the majority of you, it will take some serious work and concentration, but the rewards will be worth it. Individually, you must set high goals and standards for yourself as you undertake your undergraduate program. Optimally, you want to achieve at the highest academic level possible for you. To do that will take discipline and hard work as well as the need for you to establish a good balance of work and relaxation or recreation. Setting realistic goals is critical because if you set them too low, you will underachieve; if you set them too high, you may become a slave to your academic work.

A second suggestion is for you to seize the opportunities that Hope College offers students. Let me give you a couple of examples from my own experience. I had a student named Jody who, as a freshman, began working in the laboratory, helping faculty with dishes, preparing media, etcetera. She was highly motivated and had an impeccable work ethic. At the end of her first year at Hope College, she was given the Wolterink Prize in Biology. During the summer between her freshman and sophomore years, she was awarded a National Science Foundation (Research Experience for Undergraduates). Incidentally, Hope College is one of the best in the country for receiving funds for this program. In 2006, six departments were awarded grants to get students involved with research projects, working hand-in-hand with their professors. The next year she received a Barry M. Goldwater and the prestigious Arnold and Mabel Beckman Scholarships. During her senior year, she was a recipient of a Sigma Xi Award as well as the Patterson Memoral Prize in Biology. Upon acceptance into a fine Midwest graduate program she was given a National Science Pre-doctoral Fellowship.

I recall a second student who responded to an announcement in class, that I had work for any one who was interested in doing dishes and various other jobs around the lab, with the possibility of doing summer research. Ron, a first-year student taking my introductory biology class, was thinking about dropping out of college. He came to my office to talk to me about the work opportunity. As a result, he started assisting me in the lab. By the end of the year, he was really excited about biology. In fact, he majored in biology and has been an outstanding high school biology teacher in Southwest Michigan ever since. The story, however, does not end there. Ron and I began doing research on swimmer's itch in Michigan, starting in 1978. Not only have we become good friends, but this past summer we completed 28 years of working together. It all started with him responding to an announcement of an opportunity that cropped up in my class.

One academic experience that I really cherish is my involvement at the University of Michigan Biological Station (located near the Mackinac Bridge). That tenure began when I was teaching and conducting research at the University of Michigan in the early 1970s. While in Ann Arbor, I was given the chance to take students up north to their field station. This led to an opportunity to teach there until the present. I just concluded another summer of teaching and conducting research. During many of those summers, Hope College students accompanied me there, getting actively involved with hundreds of people from around the country who really like doing fieldwork.

My experience has been in the sciences, but those types of opportunities can be found campus-wide. Students work one-on-one with faculty mentors in every academic division. Creative, independent work; learning the lessons of cooperation and teamwork; challenging oneself through performance or competition; discovering and developing new interests - they're all available to you through your participation in academics, the arts, athletics, employment and the wide range of student activities offered at the college.

Students at Hope College can get involved with so many exciting experiences, many of which make a priority of helping others. For example, last fall, at least 500 students participated in the "Time to Serve" program, which is associated with the orientation of first-year students. Hundreds get involved in "Dance Marathon" each year to raise support for the DeVos Children's Hospital. In addition, many students volunteered to help the elderly and the poor in the community and for various causes involving hunger, cancer , the handicapped, the sick, the homeless, and orphans.

Furthermore, off-campus opportunities abound for Hope College students. Last year, no fewer than 225 students left campus to take credit elsewhere. Some of the opportunities in the U.S. include the Border Studies Program, the Chicago Semester, Newberry Seminar, the New York Arts Semester, the Oak Ridge Science Semester, the Oregon Extension, the Philadelphia Center and the Washington Honors Seminar. Overseas programs include Central and South America, Africa, Europe, Middle East, Asia, South Pacific, Australia, and New Zealand. If you are interested in specifics, go to the Hope College website.

Also, I want to emphasize how important it is for each of you to get to know your professors and your advisor. It will happen if you make it a priority. The benefits of getting to know them well are threefold. First, you will have a role model. Many individuals, who are having or had outstanding careers, attribute their success to a faculty or staff member who influenced them (usually by example) during their undergraduate education. Second, a close student-faculty relationship will mean that certain faculty will be able to write you an accurate and very supportive letter of recommendation because they really know you well. And finally, your mentor will be able to assist you with whatever you plan to do after leaving Hope College, whether you continue your education or apply for a job.

We have all heard the phrase, "The world is shrinking". Obviously, this means that students will be exposed more to people and cultures from other countries. In keeping with that, the theme for this year's faculty pre-college conference was "Crossing Borders". More than at any time in our history, it is important that our students (and faculty, I might add) cross over borders or barriers such as social, economic, ethnic, geographical, and disciplines other than their own. So many of our world problems have resulted because of misunderstandings and intolerance of people from other cultures. Foreigners from many countries no longer view people from the United States as their friends and colleagues because we often are much less interested in getting to know them as people than how we can exploit them for financial, political, or economic gain. It is very refreshing to see our students abroad interacting with people from other countries. It has been my experience that most foreigners are very favorably impressed with the students on our trips. Furthermore, within our own western hemisphere we must expand our concept of "American" to include all people who live between the northern and southern tips of our hemisphere.

Foreign travel was uncommon when I was a college student, but now it is almost the norm. This has been one of the reasons why students, administrators, and faculty emphasize that our students travel abroad and why they should learn foreign languages. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is for all of us to become familiar with other cultures through the learning of foreign languages, having foreign students in our classrooms and laboratories, and by traveling. HopeCollege offers a wide range of opportunities for coursework and for travel to many regions of the world.

I have been taking students to the Galapagos Islands and the Amazon Rainforest during May of odd-numbered years and to East Africa and the country of Tanzania and the island of Zanzibar during even-numbered ones for more than a decade. During our trip to the Galapagos Islands, we see the archipelagos, unchanged from when Charles Darwin visited there more than 170 years ago. The animals show little or no fear of humans. In contrast, the Amazon Rainforest is being depleted at an alarming rate even though our students still experience an incredible diversity of plants and animals. With respect to East Africa, the migration of from one- to two-million wildebeests and zebras is an unparalleled biological phenomenon. The May trips are not only biological--we visit villages and schools and donate clothes, blankets, desks, science kits, and sports equipment. Last May, we raised money as well as volunteered two days at a children's orphanage in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

For most (if not all) the students, the trips are life-changing. For example, a person who went to Tanzania and Zanzibar this last May wrote in her Senior Seminar paper, "Last May I traveled across the world to Tanzania, Africa, for two and a half weeks for a Hope College May Term. It had been my dream since second grade to go on an African safari and explore a foreign part of the world. However, I never dreamt that this trip would be as enlightening and rewarding as it turned out to be."

Another participant wrote the following in his diary, "It occurs to me that I have probably learned more in the past three weeks than in the entire 2005-2006 academic year, which numerically does not make sense. Somehow, 34 credits at Hope were inferior to four credits outside of it. And, as incredible as the wildlife was, I don't think that I am talking about the biology, exactly. Don't get me wrong. I learned plenty of biology during the past three weeks. I know that leopards are solitary, nocturnal hunters and that they kill by crushing the windpipes of their prey. I know that savannah baboons eat from sausage trees, and that the sausage is actually fruit, not chopped up chunks of rat tails, pig skin and dog kidney. I know that female giraffes have furry horns, I know that elands are cowards. I've learned a lot of biology. But that's not what I'm talking about. The things that May Term teaches, that living abroad teaches, aren't really part of the curriculum. And they're hard to describe. It's like eating food with a blindfold. I can tell there's something inside of me that wasn't there before, but I'm not sure exactly what it is. There are little clues; maybe it was sweet, or salty, or crunchy, or mushy, or something like that. But all I really know for sure is that there's something in my stomach, and it is a far better meal than I got in my classes on campus. Which is why I both appreciate the incredible opportunity I've had to study in both South Amercia and in Africa, and think that every college student should spend a semester or May Term abroad. The experiences are unparalleled. This May, I went hunting for ghost crabs at 1:00 a.m., the night before a final exam. I planted orange trees the size of garnish, knowing that by the time they bear any fruit, my own children might be in college. I made eye contact with a young lion. I ate octopus. I climbed a palm tree, scraping my forearms, stomach, and inner thighs, and coming down without any coconuts. I gave piggy-back rides to orphans that couldn't understand anything I was saying. I met a homosexual drunk Australian, a skinny Tanzanian second grader, a middle-aged guard with an AK47, a poverty-stricken acrobat, a porter with an attitude problem, and a man who killed three lions with an old spear... And each of these moments accumulated, like seasalt on sunglasses, and completely altered my worldview."

When students enroll in a college or university, many feel that their academic interests must come to the forefront and that their spiritual growth and needs should be placed on the "back burner". My suggestion to you is to continue to stay involved (or get involved if you have never been before) in the religious aspects of the college. This can be done in many ways including attending chapel and The Gathering, getting involved in a Bible study, participating in spring and summer mission trips, and being Young Life leaders.

One of our May Term students wrote the following quote in her journal: "On my latest trip to Tanzania, we were listening to the children singing at the orphanage. ...At the end of the day, after playing with the students for a long time in front of their school, we sat down and watched as the students performed for us. One performance that I will never forget is the children singing, "Shine, Jesus, Shine" to us. The kids sang wholeheartedly indicating that they did want to shine. As they were singing the beautiful words to this song, it shed more light on the importance of my faith. As excited as the children were to receive candy, jump ropes, soccer balls, bubbles, and sidewalk chalk, I truly believe that the things that they really wanted were love, security, and comfort. Even though the students who were singing the song were about six years old, they understood and meant every word that they were singing. These orphanage children inspired all of us because it was very evident that they have a strong faith in God at such a young age. That experience really strengthened my own faith."

In many ways, I am really envious of those of you who are about to begin one of the most exciting times of your life. I still cherish the memories of my college experiences. Even though my parents were not able even to attend high school, they stressed the importance of getting a formal education. They were willing to sacrifice so that we could attend a nearby college. Four of five of my siblings went on to college; in addition, my two brothers and I each spent nearly six more years attending graduate school, all in the natural sciences. When my parents were alive, we would remember to thank them for giving us the privilege of continuing our education. Take a moment, now and in the future, to thank your parents, as well as others who are sacrificing so that you can attend Hope College.

I chose the title, "The Shortest Distance Between the Past and the Future is Now" because you are about to begin a critical time in your life - college. It is a pivotal period for you. To be sure, there will be many challenges and disappointments with your life at Hope College, but you will enjoy unparalleled accomplishment if you take your education at Hope seriously. Your minds are incredibly open to new ideas, thoughts, and experiences. If you desire, you are able to learn with minimal effort. Your minds, at this stage, can comprehend and hold ideas and concepts like never before. My challenge to you is to get involved and if you have interests in other areas besides your major, stretch yourself to those areas. Rarely will you have the opportunity to do that, because once you get into graduate or professional schools, or when you begin an occupation, expanding your interests and intellect usually is much more difficult.

God has given all of you beautiful minds to search the intellectual and the physical realms. It is a time to use your gifts and opportunities to their fullest. This is my prayer and wish for each one of you as you begin your tenure at Hope. Thank you.