posted August 26, 2007

2007 Fall Convocation Address Text

Text of 2007 Fall Convocation Address

By Sheldon Wettack
Visiting Professor of Chemistry

Thank you, President Bultman, for that generous introduction. My mother would be pleased and my father would be surprised. Sound familiar, parents?

But, like my mother I am pleased and even excited about having this opportunity, on behalf of my faculty colleagues, to speak to you, the class of 2011. The 40 previous groups of new students I have encountered have all brought energy and enthusiasm to their institution, and we expect the very same thing of you. So let me begin by saying Welcome to Hope! This is a special place as you are about to discover.

My comments will be directed specifically to you, the 800-plus new students gathered here. Others are free to listen--continuing students, parents, friends and my faculty and staff colleagues--but my comments are directed to you. And while this is your first "class" at Hope, it will consist of a fairly brief lecture, notes aren't necessary and there will be no quiz on Wednesday. In fact, the final exam won't occur for several years. And it will be a take home exam that you won't have to turn in! College is pretty easy, right?? Probably a little too early to tell!! So let's move on.

I want to talk with you about three things, namely, change, passion, and liberal education. I predict that each will be important to you in the days, months and years ahead, and so I hope you will listen carefully, despite the lack of a follow-up quiz!

So let's talk first about change.

Forty years ago, I began my college teaching career at Hope. I didn't know much about being a college instructor, just as you don't know much about being a college student. But there were a number of things I did early on to explore becoming a professor, and I want to encourage you to do some similar things as you begin your Hope career.

-For example, I explored the college beyond my department - you should explore the college beyond your dorm living arrangement.

-I reached out to the community (to a church, eating establishments, the surrounding area) - you should do likewise in the Holland community

-I also interacted with and tried to learn from great faculty colleagues - you should do the same with your student peers.

-The result was that I developed a comfortable approach to facing change that served me well over the next 40 years as I moved to positions at other institutions. Each new institution became a new challenge of change, and the act of reaching out helped each change occur more easily.

Change is something that we face throughout our lives as we take on new positions or new personal relationships. Just as I faced a major change 40 years ago, you are now facing a major change in your life. When you entered high school, you probably knew many of your classmates from middle school. Not much of a change. Perhaps your family moved to a new location during your growing years and that certainly created a change for you. But that hasn't happened for most of you, and so this weekend is likely to be the beginning of your first major change challenge. Thus, you need to take advantage of this challenge and begin preparing yourself to be a "wise" person, one who deals well with the other changes that will take place throughout your life.

This summer I read a fascinating book by Juan Enriquez entitled As the Future Catches You. Enriquez, one of the world's leading authorities on the economic and political impacts of the life sciences, makes the case for even more extensive change in the next 10 years than we have had in the past 10. As he suggests, the changes brought about by the digital language code of computers, i.e., the digital revolution, will be small compared to the changes promised by our understanding of the digital code of life, i.e., the genetic revolution. The book, which is a very easy read, contains a wealth of information about how we have and will experience change because of these two revolutions.

So, be intentional about dealing with the change you are about to undergo. What I hope to do in the next few minutes is to remind you of some of the things that you can do to take advantage of this opportunity that lies before you.

Before I begin, however, I want to repeat the quote that some of us heard very recently, one that is often attributed to Bob Dylan. The quote is: "some people feel the rain, others just get wet". The quote suggests, of course, for you to be fully engaged in your life's experiences, don't just let them happen around you. Be assured, we want you to feel your Hope experience fully, and not just let it happen around you.

One of the major advantages for you during your time at Hope is the opportunity you will have to experience life, to feel the rain, and to begin exploring just what it is that, as they say, "turns you on". I'm talking, of course, about an idea or an activity or a commitment, not a substance. In short, I want you to come away from Hope with a better idea of just who you are and what you are passionate about. What is it that you enjoy doing or working on? What gives you personal satisfaction? What is it that makes you excited about expending creative thought and physical energy in order to accomplish it? In other words, what is your passion?

Believe me, when we follow our passion, we are much more likely to succeed at doing it, and to sticking with it over time. With passion, come dedication and perseverance, energy and drive, and concentration and focus, all qualities needed to succeed in life.

You may have arrived at Hope thinking that you already know what your passion is. Perhaps, for example, it is to serve others by being a medical doctor. I dare say that most of you, who think this describes you, will discover other options that may interest you more. You simply haven't yet explored other options sufficiently yet.

But what you now have before you is a sustained opportunity to determine with just what area of study you are most excited about. I want you to have passion for that area of study, and while it will only be the first passion that guides your life and career, it may well be an important one. Your passion may still be pre-medicine, but it may also be English literature, international studies, or art history. Even, perhaps, chemistry!! Whatever it is, you should enjoy the curriculum involved, that is, your "major." You should enjoy it so much that you become fully engaged and are very successful in completing it. Feel the rain of that curriculum, don't just "get wet" from it!

Your major should not be an area that your parents determine for you, or an area that a faculty member gently presses you to choose, or an area that you think provides the best job opportunities. All those factors are helpful in selecting a major, but the choice is yours, and we want you to make sure that YOU have some passion about the major that you do choose. Thus, the next two years will be important as you seek to determine what you are passionate about - what you want to study as you begin preparation for your future career and your calling in life.

Use this time to explore new ideas that you may not have been exposed to in the past, and seek experiences that you may have avoided during high school. Zero in on what disciplines excite you, and think about why they do. But also attend special lectures and programs in other areas of unknown interest. Talk with your dorm mates about what excites them the most. Take advantage of opportunities to talk with faculty and staff about what their passions are. In seeking to find your own passion, you should draw on all of these resources.

And remember that innovation and creativity typically occur when someone has learned two or more different fields and uses the knowledge of one to think afresh about the other, the so-called Medici effect, after the Roman family that encouraged the creativity of the Renaissance. As Marc Tucker of the Center on Education and the Economy puts it, and I quote: "...if you spend your whole life in one silo, you will never have either the knowledge or mental agility to do the synthesis, (and to) connect the dots, which is usually (how) the next great breakthrough is found." So, don't be afraid to pursue multiple disciplines or interdisciplinary programs or other interests that you may have. This is one of the great benefits of a liberal arts education like you are about to pursue.

As you take up this pursuit, use Hope's general education requirements to explore your interests. Choose courses that will help with that exploration, not just because they are taught at 10 am. And as you fulfill those courses, open your mind to what both excites and challenges you about them. At the same time, be honest about your abilities and ask yourself continually some questions. How do you like to interact with the world around you, especially with other persons? What do you enjoy most talking about? What do you like doing for others? Do you like to work on teams or by yourself? Do you enjoy writing, speaking, problem solving, or creative activity? Each of these questions may help you begin to identify your passion.

If you don't find your passion in these years, don't be alarmed. You will have at least begun the search process, a process that might continue for several years.

Recently, I heard an interview with the actor, David Duchovny, in which he explained why he left a Ph.D. program in English at Yale to purse his real passion in acting. He explained that during his doctoral program he came to the conclusion that he simply didn't want to become a "mediocre" college English teacher, and that is what he concluded he would be if he continued in that program. So, he went off to Los Angeles and entered the world of television acting. As the success of The X-Files implies, he has certainly proven to not be mediocre as an actor!

Hope will do her best to help you find the thing that you don't want to be mediocre at before you are in a Ph.D. program. But if you leave Hope still searching, don't be alarmed. Just make sure that you have begun the search!

And also realize that passions may evolve over time. My own for education shifted from classroom teaching to also searching for new knowledge in chemistry to helping others teach and search in their own disciplines. All are related passions, but with different manifestations.

So, have fun during your newfound independence (but not too much fun!), and use a good portion of that independence to begin the search for what you are passionate about. If you do, you will set the stage for the future, and your liberal education will pay huge dividends in that future.

The liberal education you will receive at Hope is designed to help you face future changes and to begin discovering other passions that will be an important part of your life. How can you maximize this opportunity? First, let's think together a bit on just what we mean by liberal education. We'll refer to that well-known, first-stop reference source, Wikipedia, to begin our thinking.

Incidentally, this should not be the only source you use to write that first English 113 paper. But, if you go to Wikipedia, you will find the following entry: Liberal education is "a philosophy of education that empowers individuals with broad knowledge and transferable skills, and a stronger sense of values, ethics, and civic engagement ... characterized by challenging encounters with important issues, and more a way of studying than a specific course or field of study." Wiki goes on to say that Liberal education is Usually global and pluralistic in scope, ... includes a general education curriculum which provides broad exposure to multiple disciplines and learning strategies, in addition to in-depth study in at least one academic area.

Not a bad summary. In fact, it comes from the American Association of Colleges and Universities, and I doubt that it has undergone any Wiki editing. And at Hope all of these features of a liberal education are found and, what's more, they are imbedded in the context of the historic Christian faith.

It is in this setting that we want you to be educated so that you will not only find that first job, but you will also learn how to learn. And you will become a life-long learner who is engaged in your surrounding community, with a sense of faith and calling that leads you to help society face complicated local and global issues. And after you find that first job, we want you to be both passionate about it and successful in doing the work required.

So, how can you help all this happen?

Well, the primary thing you can do is to be engaged in your own education. Yes, this means, "to study". But, it also means to be an active part of the community of learners in each of your classes. How do you do that?

First, be prepared when you come to class, think about what the professor is professing, ask questions, by all means ask questions, contribute answers, and carry your share of the load in team-based project work. All of these actions will lead you to be more engaged and will help you to become a better student, as you learn how to listen, to think, to communicate your thoughts, and to be a productive member of a team. All qualities that will be invaluable in the future, regardless of what you do in the world of work.

Secondly, an active member of a community of learners "leans" into her or his learning. Think critically about what you are learning, discuss those concepts with your peers, do some additional homework problems, and read beyond what is required. Also, take advantage of the wonderful opportunities Hope offers for undergraduate research, creative accomplishment, service learning or other intentional learning experiences. The summer undergraduate research program in the sciences is truly one of a kind amongst liberal arts colleges, but there are opportunities in all fields for similar intentional learning, and you should complete such an experience before graduating. In doing so, you will certainly lean into your learning.

Thirdly, an active member of a community of learners develops an open mind, especially regarding people or topics that may make them uncomfortable. So, move out of your comfort zone. Interact with students who come from different backgrounds--ethnically, socially, religiously, or economically. If there is an opportunity for you to study off campus, do so. There is nothing like experiencing a different culture, environment or atmosphere to help you learn about yourself, to develop confidence in your independence, and to further your search for your passions.

I was recently reminded of the role off campus study plays in undergraduate education when I saw that the international education program at one of my former institutions was recently named by Newsweek as the "hottest" international education program in the country. Twenty years ago, I helped start that program and so it was gratifying to see the progress it has made. And while Newsweek chose to recognize that institution, Hope's off-campus study program has a very long history and presents many of the same opportunities given to those students, along with some special and different possibilities. The list of such programs in the Hope Catalog is several pages long. Be on the lookout for the one that appeals to you so that your experience of feeling the rain may include some rain from elsewhere, thus expanding your intercultural understanding of our globe.

In some ways, the world certainly is flat as Thomas Friedman's best-selling book suggests. He is referring, of course, to flatness with respect to developing and utilizing technology and doing business in a global climate. This insightful book describes the many ways in which, just in your lifetime, the idea of connection and collaboration across a flattened world has emerged. This all began when you were entering elementary school when the World Wide Web became public and Web-based communication stimulated, as Friedman says, a whole "new global platform for multiple forms of collaboration". The result, as he says, was open-sourcing, outsourcing, off shoring, insourcing, supply-chaining, in-forming, social networking, and a flatter world. One of connection and collaboration, and one in which knowing how to be a flexible learner will be even more essential than it has traditionally been. One that calls for, as Friedman states, "curious, passionate kids (who) are self educators and self learners." And, I might add, who are able to function well in a flat world by being a part of that connectedness and having a global perspective on the complex problems we face. As you might expect, Friedman believes that a liberal arts education is exactly what these learners need.

But as Friedman points out, there is still a very large "unflat" world. The challenge ahead is to find new ways of collaborating so that the roughly one billion people in the undeveloped world who have been left behind by the flattening process begin to benefit from this process, especially so far as human health and welfare is concerned. While urban China and urban India are part of the flat world, there are many areas in both countries, along with large parts of Africa and South America, that are completely undeveloped. Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, have turned their attention and the resources of their Foundation to some of the problems of these people, displaying a passion for world health that is pretty impressive. Gates' first passion may have been software development, but it now is solving health problems around the globe

Your eventual passion may be to further flatten our world as you become a health practitioner, scientist, engineer or some other liberally educated person who serves people who have been left behind by the flattening of the past 10 years. And you might even do some of this while you are at Hope by getting involved in one special effort that our students and faculty in nursing and engineering have carried out with a water purification project in Cameroon.

Over the next four years, you will hear often that Hope seeks to grow world citizens and Christians in the soil of Hope, and the Cameroon project is a great example of how Hope students are exposed to different cultures during the "growing" process.

I trust that you enjoyed reading Stealing Buddha's Dinner. What a great description of how cultural differences like religion or food, are not far away - in fact, right in our midst. Ms. Nguyen's narrative provides a clear window into another kind of flattening effect that immigrants find when coming to America. Tomorrow's discussions of her writing will offer you an initial opportunity to lean into your learning as you begin to explore another culture, along with a major problem facing our nation, namely immigration. You'll have further opportunities to do some leaning when Nguyen visits Hope and speaks in the Chapel Thursday night, and when you participate in the Critical Issues Symposium in early October.

A major part of being liberally educated is to be able to listen thoughtfully to both sides of an issue like immigration, and to come to a thoughtful conclusion that one can explain. I trust you will begin to develop that ability at Hope, and thus do so in the context of the historic Christian faith.

And as you do, may Hope be the place where your faith is strengthened and the false duality of faith and reason is examined. The place where you see that the exploration of God's handiwork is part of what makes all of life meaningful, and that this exploration benefits from the qualities embedded in a liberal education. There will be many opportunities for you to explore your faith and that of others, and to grow intellectually and spiritually in the soil of Hope.

Your liberal education will go quickly. Four years may seem like a long time now, but you'll look back in 2011 and wonder where it all went. That means that you need to make the most of these years. As I've suggested, invest yourself in your studies, but also take advantage of the many co-curricular opportunities at the college. You can't do them all, but doing some will make your time here more enjoyable, and it will provide one more mechanism for that passion exploration I'm hoping you will undertake. And finally, let me say, use the full week to pursue these opportunities. There is a great temptation for those whose home is a few hours away to return home for many of the weekends. Don't succumb to that temptation. Use your weekends to do some of the things I'm suggesting right here on campus. Anchor yourself in Hope.

When Albertus VanRaalte referred to his new school as "my Anchor of Hope", he was doing so for the future generations of students to come. Let it now be your Anchor of Hope a century and a half later.

Thanks for listening and best wishes from all of us on the faculty as each of you begins your Hope experience. We look forward to helping you make exceptionally good use of that experience.