Friday, July 17, 2009

My Address to Oglethorpe University's Class of 2013

Address given on Friday, July 13 to the incoming class at my Alma Mater.
Good morning, Class of 2013.

It is a joy and an honor to be with you this morning. Parents and students, this is an exciting time. There is a presence of anticipation and expectation here as you gather and begin to see the community in which you’ll be living for the next four years.

In this room, students, you will find your best friends, your best teachers, your role models, and maybe even your spouses or partners. The people gathered here may become your attendants at your wedding or partners in your law firm. The person to your left could be your realtor one day. The person to your right could be the Godparent to your first child. The person behind you might let you stay on her couch when things don’t go as you expect, and the person in front of you might be the fraternity brother you can’t stand but somehow learn to appreciate. And most of you will be Facebook friends by the end of the weekend.

The connections you make with the people in this room will affect you for a lifetime. When I arrived at Oglethorpe for the first time, as a matriculated freshman in the spring of 1996, I knew two people in my class: my roommate, Lisa, and my friend, Kipp, both of whom I’d met at the Spring Orientation weekend, then called Springfest. I came from my high school in Knoxville, TN, as a good student with a modest resume. I received a pleasant scholarship and an invitation to serve as an accompanist for the University Singers and a job as Dr. Ray’s work study. It felt right, and I was excited. As I moved my new things into my new room with my new roommate in this new city, I had a feeling that the first 18 years of my life were something like a good book I’d read; interesting characters, good stories, and a picture of what life was like. The wonderful thing was that I could take all of those experiences that shaped me and start to feel out how I would draw upon them in this completely new environment.

I knew how to be a good student. I knew how to make friends. But, I didn’t know to be in this world on my own. Your college experience is about discovering who you are as a person in this world, and this fall you have the chance to decide that for yourself. Your parents are likely saying quiet petitions that what they have tried to teach you during the first 18 years of your life will be resonant with you. They are hoping that you know how to make the right decisions and stay focused on what’s important. They might even lecture you about the exact cost of one day’s class so that you’ll know the value of this education you’re getting – and that if you skip even one session of your Human Nature and the Social Order class, you might owe them $115.38.

My husband pointed out to me that most of our critical, life-forming decisions are made in our 20s. In this new era of your life, you will decide who you are, what you want to be, what job you’d like to do and who your friends will be.

When I began at Oglethorpe, I had a feeling of who I was – a musician, an extrovert, a kid who liked to read. But, the culture here pointed me to something more, and I started to learn how to think. I learned how to take what I’d been taught and think about it critically. I opened myself up to new experiences and areas that I’d never known to be interesting before. Like some of you, I came to Oglethorpe with a sense of what I wanted to do: counseling. Because I had a particular interest in being a counselor in a church setting, I had some options as I shaped my education. Maybe Psychology would suit me best. Maybe Sociology. So, I tried declaring a major in one, then the other. Neither was a perfect fit. But, the faculty got me and understood the direction I was going. My advisor and psych professor guided me through a rough start to my social psych class, and I finished the semester with an A-. She helped me think critically about what I was doing and what I’d come to believe about people. She suggested that I try planning my own major, and I spent a summer working on campus and doing just that. I had the support of the Dean and my faculty adviors, and I graduated with real preparedness for what came next in my Masters program.

I began my time here with a minor in music. But, my roommate was a theater geek and she got me interested. She encouraged me to come and audition with her for the fall musical, “Assassins,” by Stephen Sondheim. I had no theater experience, but had always wanted to try it, so I showed up and read for the part. The director put me in the show, and thus began my theater career. I was in every Oglethorpe Playmakers production for the next 4 years, and graduated with minors in Music and Theater, honors in Theater and received and additional scholarship in performing arts. Simply because my roommate said, “Come,” and I said “yes.”

My favorite quote is from the author Alfred Lord Tennyson, and it comes from the poem “Ulysses.” In the opening stanzas, Tennyson writes, “I am a part of all that I have met.” Students, the people in this room will shape in you in ways you cannot imagine. You may be grateful for it, or spend years trying to forgive them for it, but there is no accounting for the ways in which your lives are bound to collide and cause ripples. One of my best friends in college – another theater friend – moved to England while I was in seminary. He was studying there with his girlfriend, who later became his wife. We lost touch (Facebook hadn’t been invented yet), but when my husband and I were moving back to Atlanta, we came down to house-hunt. I made sure to stop by the Oglethorpe bookstore, so that I could buy my 7 month old son a onesie, and I ran into Gabriel. After the appropriate, enthusiastic catching-up session, we discovered that I was looking to buy a house in Atlanta, and Gabriel was a realtor. He represented us as we did our search and purchased our first home. I sang in his wedding, and his wife helped watch our second son in his infancy.

I am a part of all that I have met.

My sophomore year, Lisa (my roommate) and I got a new set of suitemates – two freshman. We were ready to accept whoever Janelle in the housing office sent our way. Friends, trust Janelle. She runs the universe here, and she is a kind and benevolent soul. Janelle arbitrarily placed two girls – Jodie and Heather – together and placed them in our suite in Traer. Lisa and I watched as these two, tentative yet brave folks moved in with the same sort of anticipation and anxiety we’d shared a year before. We took them under our wing, and we became good friends. I lived with those women for the next three years, and they are still two of my best friends. The four of us had a Traer reunion on New Year ’s Day this year, and we gathered with our collective 9 children for a day of reminiscing and fellowship. It was, in some ways, as if no time had passed. We traded stories and parenting tips, recalled crazy things we’d done and late nights we’d kept. We shared the things that each of us had taught the other and confessed how much we admired and appreciated one another.

I am a part of all that I have met.

But, the best story is that when I got to Oglethorpe, I was an average student. But, somehow, in those four years, I transitioned to being a person who never said no to an opportunity. I did everything I could possibly do while here. I worked as a copy editor for the newspaper for a semester, I did everything the music and theater programs offered, I ran for student government (again, with my roommate Lisa) and held an elected office for four years. I became a Resident Assistant and joined a sorority. But, I didn’t do it all at once. I started first with the things I knew I could do: music, classes, making some friends, taking on a new task of learning how to act. I got good at those things and then opened myself up to more: being serious about this new love of acting, solidifying these new relationships, and thinking about joining a sorority. It never seemed like it would fit me, but I went through recruitment, and found that this activity, like all the others, could be what I made of it. If I chose to make any of these areas my life while I was here, then I could have done it. There are plenty of successful, happy college students who pick one thing and do it well. But, at Oglethorpe, when you’re pushed to think about more than just your niche, it’s possible to branch out a bit. This is the beauty of a liberal arts education.

When I graduated, I marched with the Platform Party to a blistering stage in the late May sun, where I had the honor of addressing my classmates for the last time. Those people, gathered on the Quad, had been with me as our little class navigated through our college experience. We, a group of strangers, now shared a common story. We had slapped our heads in the same classes, wrestled with many of the same papers, were drawn to or from the same professors, complained equally about the food, and had the same language to speak of these experiences. No one else could could truly appreciate the bizarreness of our mascot, the length of the Titles of the core classes, the beauty of the quad during a pick-up ultimate Frisbee game, or the strange fondness you may hold for a roasted boar’s head during the Christmas season.

Because you have said yes to this experience, you will be shaped into thinking people, who take the world and all it has to offer seriously. You’ll learn how to engage with a variety of people in a variety of settings with a variety of passions and interests, and you’ll also be equipped with the details that are important to you and your passions.

You are a part of all that you have met. And today, you will meet those people – friends, roommates, great loves, professors and mentors – who will shape you and stand by you.

Welcome, Class of 2013. Nescit Cedere.*

*He does not know how to give up.


Betty said...

Excellent. I have said that OU and Atlanta is where you found yourself!

Rebekah said...

Great speech, Mandy! Kipp came out for my birthday on Saturday - such a fun, small world, and great to relive some OU stories.