Regardless of our thoughts and opinions about our recent presidential election, all of us can take away lessons from this historic event. In the aftermath of the election, there were various reactions in towns, cities, communities, and college/university campuses (including Penn State Altoona) across the U.S. and the world. These reactions ranged across the political spectrum, and while many sentiments were displayed with dignity and respect, sadly, some behaviors were disrespectful and hurtful to others. After listening to students, staff, and faculty in the days following the election, I posted the following message to our campus community:
“Now that the election is behind us, I write to you today to reaffirm our shared core values of integrity, respect, responsibility, discovery, excellence, and community. As members of our Penn State community, we are bound by this core set of values. These values call on each of us to accept and celebrate our similarities and differences and to learn from each other. As we live, learn, and work together, it is imperative that we engage in civil discourse while recognizing the uniqueness and importance of each individual. We must demonstrate respect for one another. Together, we will continue to foster a community that embodies our core values. We must strive to be better active listeners, learn from one another, and work together to find common ground. When we do this we are upholding and living our core values as Penn Staters. We Are … and must continue to be … inclusive, tolerant, caring, and supportive of each other.”
Mariko Silver, president of Bennington College, wrote the following in his November 17, 2016, article in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Learning How to Be Together”:
“The need for discourse and critical analysis has never been greater, the need to know and understand never more crucial. And so we make space, we make art, we ask questions, we examine the evidence, and we generate solutions. We listen to our fellow human beings. We get to work.”
I was moved by his comments as they capture the fundamental purpose and work of faculty at academic institutions and the work that we do every day. His words reminded me that each of us and each institution of higher education is part of shaping our students, our communities and the world around us in order to improve the human condition. This thought buoyed me and renewed my conviction to be part of creating a better community and world. Silver reminded us that:
“Being in a community does not mean we must agree—in fact, being able to live with disagreement, give it space, and analyze it is crucial. Seeing the people around us as fully human doesn’t require consensus, but it does require listening, empathy, and rigorous thinking.”
“We listen to our fellow human beings. We get to work.”
Last week our college hosted its Student Showcase event that provides our seniors in the Division of Business, Engineering, and Information Sciences and Technology an opportunity to present their research, senior capstone projects, internship experiences, and startup business ideas. As one of our students proudly introduced me to his mother, she thanked me for the great education that her son received at Penn State Altoona. She looked familiar to me and as she spoke, my mind was racing as I attempted to place her, trying to connect the 20-some-year-old dots in my memory. She mentioned to her son that I had a powerful impact on her life many years ago when she was a young teen mother and that I helped her navigate college. And then I recognized her and my eyes filled with tears of joy and my heart burst with happiness. I realized that she was a student who I had met a few decades ago when I was working with a group of teenage mothers in our community. I had encouraged her to go to college, and through the beneficence of a local donor, a few years later her dream to go to college came true. She enrolled at Penn State Altoona in the late 1990s as a young teen mother in our newly minted Nursing program, which was offered in the division for which I had administrative responsibility. A capable and driven student who worked extremely hard, she did well in the program despite her other responsibilities. She came to my office in tears the week before commencement as she had just learned she could not graduate due to barely missing the cutoff for passing one of her clinical courses. Overwrought with disappointment and thinking that her future was ruined, she pleaded with me to allow her to graduate. I calmly explained that due to academic policy that it was not possible for me to do so, and I laid out a plan: wait a year to re-enroll in the course, do well, and graduate. I told her that I had faith in her abilities, believed in her, and that she would be successful. I remember being overwhelmed with joy on her graduation day. Over the years I have often thought of her, but I never saw her again, until last Friday when her soon-to-be-graduating son introduced her to me. Once again I cried with joy when I realized who she was and we celebrated her successful life and her son’s success in graduating from Penn State.
As I address our students at our commencement ceremony on December 17, I will be reminding them of their responsibility to live by our core values of integrity, respect, responsibility, discovery, excellence, and community throughout their lives. I will remind them to “listen,” have “empathy,” and to practice “rigorous thinking.” And I will ask them to “listen to their fellow human beings” and “get to work.” Witnessing our students’ success and the positive differences that they are already making in our community, I have great faith in their future, and the future of our community, country, and indeed, our world.
Lori J. Bechtel-Wherry, Chancellor and Dean