Hope College

Opening Convocation Address


Sunday, August 26, 2:00 p.m.

Richard and Helen DeVos Fieldhouse


Learning in a Life that Matters


By Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet, Ph.D., Jacobson Professor of Psychology



Here we all are!  Welcome class of 2016! You are now a significant part of the reason we get up in the morning. And, we will not rest much until you are alumni. Thank you, families and loved ones for your formative roles in the lives of these students, and for supporting them through Hope. It is good to gather together as a community today.  Let’s do this again in about 4 years!

At Hope, we have a last lecture series in which revered colleagues give books to eager attendees and share deep knowledge from their teaching and research lives.  While some of us go expecting insights from their careers, we leave with something richer—the wisdom of their lived callings, their vocations.

This isn’t a last lecture. This is a first conversation.  Think of it as an initial advising session. What I invite you to think about is your vocation of learning at Hope. . . not learning to live a life that will matter someday (as if real life begins after graduation), but learning in a life that already matters now.  Each of us lives a life that matters in relationship to others. Your lives matter deeply—to God who loved you before you loved or will love God back. Your lives matter to your families, friends, churches, communities, and teams.  Your lives matter to us.

Hope is made up of people who get up every day to create the best possible community of learning.  Together, administrators, librarians, cooks, secretaries, trustees, coaches, directors, chaplains, custodians, professors, officers, counselors, and many more, play their parts in making Hope a learning community that is concerned with your flourishing here and now… and ultimately when all things are made new.  We each matter as we play our parts in classroom communities and the chapel community, lab groups and dance troupes, sports teams and honor societies, musical groups and student organizations, in residential life and offices for advising.

Why are you here? To learn how to learn? To create habits of mind, heart, and body that will sustain endurance and depth in relationships with God, others, and the world? Is that what you signed up for?

OUR MISSION: The mission of Hope College is to educate students for lives of leadership and service in a global society through academic and co-curricular programs of recognized excellence in the liberal arts and in the context of the historic Christian faith (http://hope.edu/admin/president/mission.html).

All this is established to support the ongoing discovery of living out your vocation as an individual, in community. Learning is the vocation of students. Learning is the calling of a college community. As C.S. Lewis observed, learning is a vocation worthy of engaging even when—and perhaps especially when—the world seems to be falling apart (from a sermon—Learning in Wartime—preached in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford, Autumn, 1939).

Frederick Buechner (in Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC) says that Vocation, which derives from the Latin vocare, to call, refers to the work people are called to by God. He says that “The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work
(a) that you need most to do and
(b) that the world most needs to have done.”

When your heart, soul, mind, and strength are faithful, then as Buechner says, “...The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.”

How do you figure that out? As you seek to learn now in light of your future callings… Is there just one right choice of a career path? Is deciding a career the same thing as discerning a calling?

Hope alumnus, Professor Gerald Sittser, offers a clarifying voice.  Sittser (in The Will of God as a Way of Life) notes that each of us has a vocation that may include many different callings—in professional, volunteer, and relational roles. A career can be a way to live out a calling.  Still, some callings expand beyond a career.

~I know a UCLA-educated computer consultant whose earnings and skills enable him to pursue his calling as an agent of justice and reconciliation between generations in his Navajo community, and between the Native American community and others in the U.S.

~I know a seminary professor and pastor in Egypt.  Her callings include being a faithful reconciler who has opened church doors to serve the medical needs of Muslim neighbors during uprisings.

Discerning our callings may come step by step as we encounter new opportunities and discover strengths or concerns that burn in us or burden us. Sittser offers six signposts that are clues to our callings:

1)       What motivates you? What captures your interest or energizes you?  Music for Mozart, painting for Picasso, writing for Professor Heather Sellers, dance for Professor Linda Graham, history for Professor Fred Johnson III, neuroscience for Professor Leah Chase, career development for Dale Austin.

2)       What are your talents or gifts? … for mathematics or teaching, the capacity for  patience or perseverance, for listening or communication?

3)       What life experiences will form you? An internship in a publishing house, Bread for the World, or the Lakeshore Pregnancy Center?  A success? Hardship?  It can. Suffering the traumatic death of my father in college and my mother my first year on faculty here has given me insights and passions for research on justice and forgiveness.

4)       Opportunity, with its open doors (Yes!  I can squeeze in an extra major!) and closed doors (Oh no! I missed the deadline).

5)       Conversations with a discerning community. Wise spiritual mentors, insightful friends, faithful family members are important conversation partners in discernment.

6)       Joy (Buechner’s deep gladness.)  As Sittser says, “Hard is one thing; miserable is another” (p. 183). Anything worth doing involves some hard work. Joy is having meaning and purpose even in adversity. This happiness energizes us to overcome the real challenges in this world.

Discernment is an unfolding process. Still, we know a whole lot more than we sometimes remember:  Each moment, we are called to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (see Micah 6:8). Wherever we are, in the mundane details and daily decisions, we are called to embody integrity and faithfulness in lives that matter now.

In my vocation of learning at Hope (yes, being a professor means learning every day), I have done a lot of listening.  Hope students, colleagues, and conversation partners have taught me some ideas I would like to share with you.

One student conveyed this: I used to think in terms of getting by with only what was required. Now I see college as offering opportunities to stretch, grow, and discover. Beware, attending classes, conferences, and the Critical Issues Symposium could inspire a new love for history, political science, philosophy, poetry, statistics, piano performance, chemistry, another language, theology, or psychology. You could realize that you have gifts in areas you hadn’t explored before. You might learn about communities you didn’t know existed. And, you might see the world’s needs. You just might discover a calling you hadn’t planned on. It happens.

Another student said: In the beginning, learning for me was about figuring out the right answers to questions professors might ask, and then accumulating points toward a final grade, which would prove my worth. Now I see that my worth is uncorrelated with my grades, and that pursuing excellence grows out of gratitude for the gifts and opportunities I have.  Now, I see that deep learning is not just about giving right answers, but about asking good questions.  Learning excavates deeper layers of questions that target meaning and significance. (This can be especially important when you encounter people and experiences that tear apart the tree house of your beliefs. Remember your identity: beloved. Look for what you can learn even in difficult experiences. And, engage people who will invest in the deep collaborative work of asking vital questions for building a house on the sure foundation.)

I learned from Archbishop Desmond Tutu the concept that I am because we are.  Ubuntu is the South African concept that my humanity is inextricably bound up in your humanity. My choices are not just my own. Our individual and collective flourishing or languishing are connected.

From professors, I’ve learned that showing up matters for the learning community. And, yes, important things happen in every class—the ones attended and the ones missed. My colleague, Professor Lorna Jarvis, had a poem taped on her office door all last year (poem 13 from Poetry 180: a poem a day for American high schools ( http://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/p180-permissions.html#013 ). The poem is titled “Did I miss anything important?” Answers range from nothing to everything, but my favorite answers the question this way:

Everything. Contained in this classroom
     is a microcosm of human experience
     assembled for you to query and examine and ponder
     This is not the only place such an opportunity has been

     but it was one place

     And you weren’t here

I have learned from conversation partners that courses involve learning communities that agree and disagree, and that how we talk and not just what we say matters for our learning and formation. Hope has a statement of THE VIRTUES that mark conversation at Hope:

Humility to listen

Hospitality to welcome

Patience to understand

Courage to challenge

Honesty to speak the truth in love.


We can learn from people and ideas we disagree with.  Every era has its controversies. Christian communities of learning are not charged with the task of dodging difficult topics.  For something to qualify as a controversy, it is probably complicated.  It probably requires humility and honesty, hospitality and respect, courage and patience from everyone.  It will strike tender nerves and activate sympathetic nervous system responses of fight, flight, and freezing… often reactions we later wish would have gone differently. So, apologies and restitution matter, justice and forgiveness matter, and rebuilding trust is essential for reconciliation. We all need imaginative generosity to discover even a nugget of wisdom in the perspective and approach of another. We need courage combined with clarity. If we say we care about flourishing and truth, our processes for engagement matter as much as the content of our positions. Both how we say it and what we say matter.

I’ve also learned this: Invest deeply and hold on loosely. Our contributions and our care, our work and service are worth doing. Invest, and if it all crumbles, we retain our worth. Identity endures even when projects and some relationships can’t or shouldn’t. When considering a relationship, realize that doesn’t have to be all wrong to simply be not quite right. The tight grip of control can suffocate. Invest deeply, hold on loosely.

Embrace your worth. Anyone or any message that diminishes you, that manipulates you into something at odds with your God-given, God-loved, secure identity… is toxic. Go breathe fresh air.  Breathe in concert with a faithful, trustworthy community that knows the covenant-keeping Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of all things. This is, as theologian Ellen Charry describes more fully, the art of happiness (in God and the Art of Happiness).

And from the vantage point of a Clinical Psychology professor, I have learned that sleep is not optional.  It is not wasted time. Regular sleep matters—for immunity, for growth, for memory consolidation, and…for the capacity to absorb disappointment without being engulfed by despair or envy. Nutrition and exercise matter. Correctly taking your prescribed medications matters.  Prayer, devotions, and communal worship matter.  Creativity, laughter, and saying “please” and “thank you” matter. Genuinely loving, just, compassionate, and respectful relationships are vital. These are essentials for learning to cultivate the heart, soul, mind, and strength to love God, our neighbor, and the world with all that we are.

And for potential perfectionists among us, we need to remember—as Professor John Shaughnessy taught us in his last lecture—good is good. Statistically speaking, we can’t all rank #1 100% of the time.  Value what is good.

Students and colleagues have taught me that it is good to plan, plan, and plan ahead, while realizing that real life often requires revisions. Anticipate as much as you can, ask what you can do today that will equip you for the unexpected later. Write an initial draft of an assignment as soon as possible (rather than as close to the deadline as possible). Realize that most drafts take twice as long as you think they should. And accept that even your final paper might be too good not to be revised. (I learned that from Professor David Klooster.)

So, here we are—at the beginning of a vocation of learning.  We are engaging the years ahead of us with a view toward toward 2016, when you become alumni. We have a statement to guide us entitled Graduates anchored in Hope.  It says:

Hope graduates are educated to think about life’s most important issues with clarity, wisdom, and a deep understanding of the foundational commitments of the historic Christian faith.  They are prepared to communicate effectively, bridging boundaries that divide human communities. They are agents of hope who live faithfully into their vocations. Hope graduates make a difference in the world (http//hope.edu/admin/president/graduates.html).

Let’s all engage our vocations of learning in our lives, which already matter.


Website links provided in-text.  Book citations follow.


Buechner, F. (1973). Wishful thinking: A theological ABC. New York: Harper & Row.

Charry, E. T. (2010). God and the art of happiness. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans.

Lewis, C. S. (1949; 1980) Learning in Wartime. In The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, Revised and Expanded Edition. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

Sittser, G. L. (2000). The will of God as a way of life: Finding and following the will of God. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.