We call the graduation ceremony Commencement because it marks a new chapter in the lives of seniors. Nonetheless, it also remains a time for looking back in gratitude. This year’s speaker was Sam Keen, who delivered his address on the 60th anniversary of his own Ursinus graduation. The philosopher and author remarked, with some hyperbole, “I remember some great teachers, but I don’t think I remember any facts whatsoever.”
He probably does remember a thing or two from his undergraduate classes, but his fond memories of teachers who inspired him no doubt resonate with similar figures in our own educations.
The faculty-student relationships that we foster at Ursinus are the cornerstone of the educational experience. Our College Chaplain, the Rev. Charles Rice, thanked in his invocation the “teachers who have given of themselves in ways that will only be understood with the passage of time.”
The faculty role in transforming students is distinctive to a liberal arts education, and it is done especially well at Ursinus. Kristin Cichowski, selected by seniors to speak on behalf of the graduating class, offered her take on this special connection: “The Ursinus way: meeting your professor for coffee and talking more like colleagues than anything else, having a side of lasagna at their house to go along with a main course of paper revisions, being valued as a student with a keen mind, an individual with passionate dreams, but most importantly a human with a gentle and benevolent heart.”
That our teachers value students is evident in how students describe them. A senior who nominated Associate Professor of Education John Spencer for the Jones Award for Distinguished Advising and Mentoring noted that Dr. Spencer’s advice was based on truly knowing her passions, pointing her to courses that would meet her interests, not merely fulfill requirements. She wrote, “I am forever thankful that a faculty member invested so much in me, and I will always remember what a positive effect this mentorship had on my success, both in the classroom and as a member of the campus community here.”
It is clear that Associate Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science April Kontostathis, who received the Laughlin Professional Achievement Award, is far more than a scholarly model for her students. She obtained a grant establishing the Ursinus College Research Experiences for Undergraduates site in mathematical sciences. Her work in developing software to detect online cyber-bullying and predation has involved students who gained experience working on potentially patentable applications that give them an advantage in pursuing post-baccalaureate opportunities.
The Lindback Distinguished Teaching Award given to Associate Professor of English Rebecca Jaroff, Ursinus Class of 1981, was especially meaningful because her own faculty mentor, the late Joyce E. Henry, Professor of English and Theater and Communication Studies, received the same award 27 years ago.
“Every moment is a teaching moment,” said a student of Dr. Jaroff. “She does not end a single class without connecting the topic to the daily lives of her students, which has taught me that every moment of my life, in and outside of class, offers an opportunity for growth. . . . By praising my accomplishments and forcing me to critically analyze them, she empowered me to think about my own education and pushed me to discover strength in myself.” Dr. Jaroff could have said the same about Dr. Henry.
Commencement speaker Sam Keen was similarly empowered during his last semester at Ursinus when he took a course with Professor of History Maurice W. Armstrong. Dr. Armstrong, he said, inspired him to take “a leap of faith into his future,” and to learn, as we teach students today in the Common Intellectual Experience, “that questioning is acceptable.”
Most Ursinus alumni fondly recall a faculty member who buoyed their confidence or opened their eyes to a new path. Many alumni, in providing internships to our students and offering to mentor them in careers, are paying that forward. One doesn’t have to be a faculty member to continue the chain.
My hope for the 2013 graduating class is that they too will in some way be able to impart caring and wisdom to people in their lives who need guidance and encouragement. They might inspire someone else to take, as Dr. Keen urged, “a leap of faith into the life that is calling you.”
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Pictured above from left to right: Baccalaureate speaker Msgr. Michael Doyle, President Bobby Fong and Commencement speaker Samuel Keen 1953.