On Wednesday, the college celebrated Opening Academic Convocation. We had the privilege of welcoming attorney Helena Bala, founder of the blog Craigslist Confessional, as our guest speaker. The following are excerpts from my remarks to students on the occasion:
We gather at the beginning of each academic year, like many other institutions, as a community of scholars to participate in a formal academic ceremony with traditions that date back centuries. We do so purposefully, to remind ourselves that we are the standard bearers of a rich scholarly legacy.
Our theme this year is solidarity. Students have read the book “Walking to Listen” by Andrew Forsthoefel, a young man in search of himself. He discovered in the process that we find out much more about ourselves if we are prepared to stop focusing inward, and if instead we are determined to expose ourselves to the world of others, to listen without prejudice with the purpose of learning.
Our Convocation speaker, attorney Helena Bala, exemplifies what it means to listen in solidarity. In introducing Ms. Bala’s Craigslist Confessional, CBS News asked: ”If a woman you didn’t know offered to JUST LISTEN to whatever you had to say, would you do it? You might if you felt you had no one else to confide in.” Ms. Bala recounts meeting a homeless man, whom she felt it would be an injustice to ignore and who showed her unexpected kindness in return. That experience launched the journey that she has been on for four years now. She obtains satisfaction from giving total strangers “an outlet where they could speak honestly and … where they could truly be seen as themselves,” a privilege many have never had.
As you embark on this academic year, determined to seek academic excellence, it is helpful to remind yourselves why you are in college in the first place. What is at the heart of your academic adventure?
Pursuing your God-given talents, learning to speak and listen with civility, and preparing for lives of meaning and purpose are the experiences that you should expect from your college career.
College should also be about learning to speak and listen with civility. Based on what we see and read on a daily basis in our media, we all long for more civility in our current sociopolitical context. In the midst of this chaotic world, Elms College should be a laboratory for unity, collaboration, and, yes, solidarity — rather than the divisiveness, mistrust, and hostility that our current culture promotes.
There is a story that in an African village where there is deep poverty, one villager who is slightly better off, from time to time, puts a bag of food at the front door of a neighbor — always after dark. That way, the neighbor does not know who the benefactor is and therefore is grateful toward the entire village, because anyone could be the potential donor.
We can learn a lot of from such simple stories of solidarity and goodness towards others.