Remarks to the Class of 2021 - First Year Experience Seminar

Hello, class of 2021.

It is a pleasure to address you as part of the First-Year Experience program.  The goals of this year-long seminar are “explore core aspects of community formation and self-identity.”

In other words, this seminar is preparing you for an epic, heroic journey.

You are a well-educated group.  You likely know the tropes of the hero’s journey. But even if you haven’t studied mythology or read Joseph Campbell, you have seen your brothers Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter, and your older cousin Odysseus, and your BFF Katniss, traverse those steps. Luke and Harry and Odysseus and Katniss were each called to an adventure, underwent significant trials, had the help of wise and magical mentors, and then returned to the ordinary world as heroes carrying the gifts of restoration, healing, and peace.   Or, as we say in the Rhodes mission statement, they brought back from their journeys “a life-long passion for learning, a compassion for others, and the ability to translate academic study and personal concern into effective leadership and action in their communities and the world.”

So here you stand on the threshold of your own heroic journey. You have been called away from your home. You have been brought to, well, Hogwarts.  You are surrounded by those magical wisdom wielders we call “faculty.”  And now you are about to face many trials.

Some of the trials have already begun.  You have been asked to build a diverse but engaged community. You have been handed a syllabus that will require intellectual effort to fulfill. You have had to make decisions about your values around alcohol, drugs, and sex.  You have had to share a dorm room. How you face these situations—and many more—will determine whether you emerge from Rhodes as a hero or as the side “bad example” character.

Being a hero in real life is harder than it is in fiction. In a book or a movie, we know how it ends. The hero returns –changed but unbroken—from the dark place she has been.  And we know that the worst part of the adventure will occur three quarters of the way through the story and that once we get past that chapter or scene, things will start to look up.  But in real life, we can’t tell where we are in the arc. 

In the moment, you won’t know if the half-baked, last minute paper, or the ruptured relationship, or the bad decision is the turning point that leads you towards the light or just one more step on the road to ruin and despair. You won’t know if standing up to a racist comment, or helping someone out of a jam, or having a revelation in class, is the act that sets off renewed sense of purpose and direction. It is only in retrospect that you will see your most heroic moments.

Another difficulty for many of us is that it can be hard to see ourselves reflected in our most prominent hero stories. Luke and Harry are orphans—they aren’t responsible for aging parents, or an immigrant aunt, or a younger sister.  And they are boys and they are white and they know the customs and language of the dominant culture. And even though they are outsiders in the magical worlds they enter, they can pretty much pass for insiders most of the time. Very few of us share all of these features.  So our heroism might look different than theirs.  We might take longer to get started or we might be pushed by necessity to start earlier.  Our most heroic acts might happen while we are nursing a baby or translating for our grandma, or refusing to pass for upper middle class, or fighting to make ourselves visible.

But heroism is possible for each one of us.  And we wouldn’t have invited you to be part of Rhodes College if we didn’t think you had it in you--if we didn’t think that you could claim an education here that will leave you ready to engage in a lifetime of learning, compassion, and leadership.

But we also invited you here because “you are not a Jedi yet.”  We expect you to recognize that you have work to do and much to learn before you are in a positon to lead effectively. We expect some humility on your part and a willingness to reflect on even your most cherished beliefs.

We expect patience and commitment and respect for those who have come before you.

In many hero stories, the call to adventure is given by a wise and magical elder.  So today I am going to play the part of Athena—the grey-eyed, Zeus-born, clear sighted, goddess of wisdom—and give you both a charge and a protective amulet.

My charge to you is to head forth on your own heroic journey.  The world around you is broken. Your people are suffering. There is evil and illness and pain in the land. There are monsters at the gates.  And you have been chosen.  Go forth and learn.  Let your untested opinions be tested against fact and theory.  Face your unspoken biases and your known and unknown fears. Recognize how much, and yet how little, you know.  Do the work that will make you—someday—a solver of the world’s problems.

The protection I give you is a reminder of your own sacred power. This power travels under different names: your soul, your spirit, your character, your integrity.  Integrity is different than just following the rules.  You have already pledged that you will not lie, cheat, or steal.  And that form of honor is no small potatoes.  But integrity is even more than that. Living with integrity means leaning into your wholeness, your capacity to face yourself and to let others see you in your entirety.

Before you even arrived at Rhodes College, I placed an amulet—I call it “the mirror of integrity”—over the sinks in your residence to protect you in your heroic journey.  These mirrors are there to remind you to live with wholeness and to face up to yourself when you do not.  Use these mirrors in the morning and at night—face yourself and your choices—and you will be protected from much harm.

Remember the world—the real world—is counting on you.

Athena out.