Given on Friday, September 2, 2011
Greetings to the class of 2015!
I am so happy to welcome you into the Loyola community of people, and ideas.
I have been asked to come and share a few thoughts with you today because Loyola students last year voted me Teacher of the Year. I am really humbled that Loyola students would think of me in this way, especially in my twenty-second year at Loyola. There are many faculty members closer to your age, your generation, the kinds of technology you use, and what music you like. But I once was a student and I have all kinds of contact with students in the classroom, in service-learning placements, as core advisees, as Spanish major advisees, and in the Latin American and Latino Studies program.
So now I am the teacher of the year and you are the class of 2015 and we are here together, and I am supposed to offer you some advice. First let me present a problem to you and then a challenge.
Sometimes we don’t take what we are doing seriously, or sometimes we tend to take the easy way. Or other times we are just whimsical about things like, our education. This is probably not a very good approach at this time when the United States is at such a low point. There are so many people out of work, the economy just can’t seem to burst out of the rut which inhibits it, and not one person has been charged for a crime in the mortgage crisis, or in the derivative scandals that fuelled it. The government is involved with three expensive wars and a policy of building new military bases or operation centers in all the Central American republics as well as Colombia and Mexico.
Illiteracy always seems to be on the rise. Just to give an example, thirty-eight percent of adults in Baltimore City can not read well enough to understand the directions on a medical prescription. A third of Baltimore city residents over the age of 16 are “unable to fully comprehend a front-page news story,” the city government recognizes. This is not a happy fact when we claim to have a government by the people. The public-transportation system in the nation is underfunded; bridges and concert stages are just waiting for their day to collapse. Hard science tells us that global warming continues every year. Yet we are all driving bigger vehicles consuming even larger (and more expensive) sources of unrenewable energy. And at such a difficult time the government is broke. You may have followed the debt-ceiling crisis this past July. The President and the Republican leadership spent a month arguing solely about if it can spend even more money or not, or raise taxes or not, while the three wars continued. It seems like no one is interested in looking for ways to fix the social and environmental problems we all face. Some say that students of the millennial generation could be the first generation, at least in the United States, that will not have a better standard of living then their parents, perhaps, some say, they will have a worse standard of living.
I put it to you that you don’t have to accept this grim reality or forecast, because nothing is fixed in stone. So what can you do?
This brings us back to education.
I have tried to think back to my student years in the context of being a university professor and I would now like to offer five points of advice. This advice is to suggest ways to achieve a better quality of life for yourself and perhaps help a nation that has lost its way, get back on track. There is an old Latino saying that goes something like this, “El que nació pa’tamal, del cielo le cayen hojas,” that is to say, “every dog has his day.”
This is your day!
And this is your time.
The first piece of advice that I would like to offer is that you should study what you feel like you want to study, not what you think you should study. If you are studying what interests you, it will be more like fun and less like a chore. You will do better at it; there will be the side effect of getting better grades, and you will be happier, at Loyola, and later in life. I don’t know if any of you have come across Loyola Magazine. In the latest edition of Loyola Magazine Loyola history professor Kelly Devries quotes dramaturge George Bernard Shaw who had one of his theatrical characters say, “Happy is the man who can make a living by his hobby.” You, men and women alike, are now about to embark upon a great learning experience called Loyola’s core curriculum. GIVE each of those classes your all. The core curriculum is not so much about history, literature, or a second language, it is about how you engage with your world. You will, I know, like some core courses more than others. TAKE them all seriously, but figure out which ones can be your hobby. Two of them will lead you toward your major and your minor, or perhaps your double major. Don’t think about making money in the future; think about being happy with this life you are undertaking. It goes by so fast, believe me. Happiness is worth more than money, but if you are happy with what you do, you will probably make good money too.
The second piece of advice is not to be afraid. It is kind of scary coming to a new place. But this is not Twilight and there are no vampires here, except on Halloween, when I have seen a few walking across the quad. At Loyola we are in a grounded reality that is explicable rationally. In high school you were at the top of your class. Here all of those tops of different high school senior classes are blended together and you are just part of the mix. So yes, it can be kind of scary, I know. So many brainy types can be intimidating. But it doesn’t have to be. When you see someone doing better than you, ask them questions. When they show you, they are teaching you and learning how to formulate their ideas even better. When you see someone doing worse then you, ask if you can help. You will then have the opportunity to teach, and thus formulate your own ideas better. You will form a bond with the other person, and two people can overcome fear together, better than one. To give of yourself is to get outside of yourself, and to get outside of yourself is to free yourself from your fear. President Franklyn Roosevelt in his first inaugural address, drawing on the British philosopher Francis Bacon, offered advice for hard times, now a cliché phrase which you may have already heard: “The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself!”
The third piece of advice has to do with peer pressure.
Some students might suggest it would be cool to take a ride up York road and have a secret frothy drink on a Thursday night. After a long day of classes, this might seem like an appealing way to relax, blow off some steam. But alas after two or three or more of those secret frothy drinks, you will not be able to prepare properly for Friday morning class. You will feel dull in class which hurts you, and it also hurts your class mates, as it will your professors. Other students may try to turn you on to some kind of smoke or a pill. My advice to you is the same, be bright and be a light.
The most insidious kind of peer pressure, I think, is to just hang out and talk, but not about what is being learned in class. It might be interesting to find out if there is an Abercrombie and Fitch in Paramus, New Jersey, but that kind of information is not knowledge and will not help you survive at the university, or in life, unless you are only interested in buying shirts or blouses. Remember, each semester of university work is about the same as A YEAR of High School. It takes a lot of hours of study to do well. That’s the Loyola model, and that is the way to get an “A.” Right now you are probably meeting a lot of new and cool people; PICK the ones for friends who will lift you up, push you forward, not the ones who don’t take their studies seriously. You already know this; I’m just confirming what you already know.
The forth suggestion I have for you, is to turn off your cell phones and email for some time each the day. I dare say that there are more students addicted to cell phones than there are students addicted to drugs or alcohol. If you are studying, but always checking to see if the next text message has arrived, you are distracting yourself from your studies. Go to the library, get away from it all, and make a commitment to turn off your cell phone when ever you can, so you can concentrate on your academic work, so you can think deeply about the issues and materials you are studying. You will do better. You will be happier. You will eventually get a better job, having fun with your hobby, after graduation.
The fifth has to do with your language core class. It was only inevitable that I would bring this up. I am a Spanish professor, after all, and I must tell you what I think in this regard. All of you should be matriculated into a Spanish, French, German, Italian, Latin, Greek, Chinese, or Japanese class. Make sure you have placed into the highest level class you can. If you are in a lower level class that repeats what you already know from high school, perhaps to get an easy “A,” you will be bored. Oh how boring and how mediocre to study the past tense yet again! Bored students are not inspired to open their texbooks, nor to try to form a better future. But if you take the language class that most accurately reflects your knowledge and skills, you will be challenged. You will have to work harder, but it will be more interesting, and you will probably get just as good a grade, if not a better one. And accordingly, you will move closer to fluency and to cultural awareness, making you a better citizen of this globalized world. Talking to people of other cultures is so much more interesting and constructive than simply talking about them, or even worse, talking at them. By taking a level of language that challenges you, you will use up fewer electives that tend to eat away at course slots that would be better applied toward a major or a minor. But, certainly, after a good week in class, if you feel you are truly in the wrong level, talk to your instructor about moving up or down. You might be a plebe, but there is no need to be a dweeb!
We can overcome anxiety by competing not with the person in the next seat over, but with ourselves. To make ourselves just a little bit better.
Bertrand Russell, the twentieth-century British philosopher tells us that, “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.”
It is ok to doubt.
It is the doubting that makes us integral people. Ascertain what we know and also what we don’t, and embark upon a mission to know what it is possible to know. Just as I have learned to be a better teacher and a better student in the process since my first year at Loyola, you too can learn to be a better student, even better than the student you were in high school. Ultimately you will be a superior citizen of our country, and the world; perhaps even talking to other people in the language you will studying this semester.
One of our Jesuit ideals is to strive for the “greater good,” the “better thing.” We can strive to make ourselves better and we can give back to the society that forms us to make it better too. The Incas, a great civilization in South America, called this reciprocity. You help me harvest my corn and I will help you harvest your potatoes.
As my childhood hero, president John F. Kennedy said in an address in Frankfurt, Germany on June 25, 1963, “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.”
How can we achieve the greater good for ourselves and our nation?
Study hard, think deeply, don’t be afraid, and, most of all, be happy.