“Westminster Matters,” 2017 Commencement Address by Dr. Carolyn Perry

Commencement address by Dr. Carolyn Perry, Senior Vice President and Dean of Faculty

May 13, 2017, Champ Auditorium, Westminster College

Good afternoon!  I can’t begin to tell you how honored I am to give this commencement address, as someone who has spent her entire professional career at Westminster; and today, I will speak as a faculty member, as an administrator, in many ways as a “student,” and proudly, as well, as a parent.

As I thought about what to say, I wished to talk to my literature colleagues about things we love:  postcolonial novels or environmental poetry. And I wanted to talk to parents about the future of our country and their children’s place in it. But this message is for you, graduates—what I would want to talk with you about if we were sitting in my office together, the stories I would like to tell you. So when I considered what the graduating class of 2017 needed to hear as you walk through the Columns today, I arrived at one simple message, one that lacks the eloquence you might expect from someone who values good writing, but here you have it:  Westminster matters.  Our little college has mattered for 166 years, it matters now, and it will matter far into the future.

First and foremost, Westminster matters because it has proudly upheld its liberal arts tradition for all these years, and I can say without hesitation that the future of our country and our world depends on keeping liberal arts education strong. I know Westminster is far from perfect, but it is our mission to open students’ minds so that you can think innovatively, embrace diverse perspectives, reason well, problem-solve creatively, develop deep and abiding values, and articulate ideas with confidence and authority. The purpose of the liberal arts is to liberate–to free our minds and hearts from all that holds us back, and to allow us to pursue that to which we are called with passion and conviction—but not for our own good, but for the good of all.  If you ever wonder why we have so many phenomenal Westminster graduates, it is because we have held fast to this mission throughout our days. Your liberal arts education is at the core of who you are and who you are becoming.

But despite our lofty goals, Westminster has also had its challenges; not all our days have been sunny ones. But I rest in knowing that this institution is strong, it is solid, and when challenging times come, we hold fast to our traditions, face challenges together head-on, and allow our challenges not only to make us stronger, but to draw us closer to one another. That’s one of the many reasons Westminster matters.

When I need a bit of inspiration, I often turn to Dr. Bill Parrish’s History of Westminster—which is filled with fascinating stories throughout the ages. But this time, instead of rereading the book, I just went straight to the source—Dr. Parrish himself.  I asked him what stands out most when he thinks of the importance of our college, fully expecting him to mention our symbolic buildings and the strength they represent:  Westminster Hall burning down in 1909, giving us our historic and time-honored columns; the Church of St. Mary, Aldermanbury, which was destroyed twice before rebuilt on our campus. The strength and beauty that these buildings represent attest to our strength as a college.

Much to my surprise, Dr. Parrish didn’t mention one building.  Instead, he began listing name after name of people who had dedicated their lives to Westminster and who have infused our college with its love of learning, with its enduring values, and with a deep sense of caring for one another. He spoke not of walls and bricks and mortar, but of the “living spirit” that is at the heart of who we are. It has been the people of Westminster who have shaped the lives of students, and the legacy of developing strong minds and hearts holds far greater permanence than our historic columns.  It is the people of Westminster who, in the face of adversity, have pulled together to make this college work. It is Westminster’s people who, for 166 years, have made it matter.

And it matters to each of us, individually. I want take a few minutes to tell you why Westminster matters to me, just to give you one perspective among thousands.  But to do so, I need to take you back a few years, to show you how I, too, have been a “student” of Westminster.

As many of you may know, thirteen can be a rather awkward age—okay, perhaps you had it all together then, but I can assure you that I did not.  Tall, gawky, and painfully shy, I did everything I could to keep my nose in a book, far from the public eye. The youngest of four, I watched my sister Paula, who was both brilliant and exceedingly kind, and I didn’t know how I could ever live up to her. My sisters Judy and Beth were smart, outgoing, vivacious—so not me.  I remember at one point overhearing one of my sisters—who, by the way, are amazing people and my three best friends—say to our mother: “you have to do something about her—she’s so awkward.

And then into my life came a friend who will never know what her kindness meant to me.  Her name was Kathy—a cool, popular seventh-grader who took the time to be my friend, even in all my awkwardness. Kathy encouraged me to get involved in sports, run for student government, get out and have fun. And we did. By the time we were in high school together, I maybe hadn’t lost all of that awkwardness, but I had gained the confidence I needed to find some measure of success. And I’m very proud that today, Kathy Bade’s daughter is among our graduates, bringing my dear friend into the Westminster family forever.

In college I quickly gravitated toward an English major so that I could spend my life in the library, surrounded by piles of books, reading and writing.  And it was there that I discovered an amazing secret. If you just keep reading and writing and loving learning, they keep giving you these degrees, and at some point, you get the greatest prize of all: the opportunity to live on a college campus for the rest of your life.  And that’s how I arrived at Westminster College—ready to enjoy talking about literature with my students and spending the rest of my time hiding in my office or in the library, safely surrounded by books.

But Westminster, like my friend Kathy, has this funny way of bringing academic introverts out of their shell.  So many things happened that tested my strength and pushed me to grow in ways I had no intention of growing.  And once again, it was the kindness of those around me that paved the way. Service on committees, working with student groups, and then eventually taking my turn as department chair forced me to learn to speak up, to organize projects, and to lead others. And after consistent prodding from my colleagues, I went on to lead the Humanities division and learn about the business of running a small college.

Westminster also pushed me to get out, first to national conferences, but then overseas, as well. In 2000, thanks to my dean Bob Seelinger, our entire family had the good fortune of spending a semester in northern England with 17 Westminster students—an experience that transformed all of our lives and opened our minds to the power of seeing the world. When, a few years later, a group of teachers from our church needed someone to help them get to Hungary—where they would teach in a summer English camp for Hungarian children for two weeks—I readily stepped up. Imagine my surprise when we arrived in Budapest and I was introduced as the “Director” of the English portion of the camp; something clearly got lost in translation. But at that moment, I thought “Thank goodness for Westminster College” and simply took charge. At Westminster, I had learned well that jumping up and leading has to be second-nature. So I just did it.

Clearly, Westminster has taught me not only to love liberal arts education but to love the natural outgrowth of that education, which is the ability to lead others. So when Dean Barney Forsythe, stepping into the President’s role in the fall of 2007, called on me serve as Dean of Faculty, even though I never imagined I was capable of such a role, I was willing to learn the job. President Forsythe proved to be an excellent mentor, and he taught me about small college leadership in countless ways. But above all, he taught me the importance of recruiting and holding tight to outstanding faculty—and I am so proud that I got to be a part of bringing to Westminster more than half the faculty sitting on the stage today. As you well know, they are exceptional people, and I know just how profoundly they have impacted your lives. Getting to be a part of building this great faculty has been the greatest reward of all.

And indeed, Westminster has transformed my life and has made me who I am today.  But it wasn’t just in the good days that Westminster made the difference for me.  It was when I struggled most that I learned that what our community is really all about. Why Westminster matters to me.

As a brand-new faculty member in the early 1990’s who was creating our Writing-Across-the-Curriculum program, I worked closely with the Dean of Faculty, Richard Mattingly.  In those days, faculty spent their days on campus throughout the summer, because computers weren’t something you threw in a backpack. If we needed to work on a computer, most of us had to work at school.  Also in those days, there weren’t many female faculty—and there were next to none at the point of starting a family, with all the complications that come with small children. I loved my job, but I just didn’t know if I could fit in.

When I realized how much I needed to work from home in the summers for the good of my family, I had to go to the Dean with a question that was unheard of—could I pack up that huge machine in my office and set it up at home for the summer?  I was petrified, because in so many ways, being a young mother and a Westminster professor just didn’t seem to go together. When I looked to my male colleagues and how they managed their lives, I just wasn’t convinced that I belonged here. But Dean Mattingly listened, thought for a minute, and responded very deliberately: “We’ll make it work.” And he did.

And although that may sound like a very simple act of kindness, it was the start of my efforts—along with colleagues like Dr. David Jones—to create college policies that give faculty flexibility as they carve out academic lives that work best for them. Because of Dean Mattingly’s kindness, I knew I was in it for the long-haul.  Since then, I have wanted every faculty member at Westminster to know that, as they put down their roots at our little college, we’re going to make it work for them. And I think it has: in case you hadn’t noticed, there are a lot of Baby Blue Jays running around campus these days—and more on the way.

And that’s why I stand here today proudly wearing the robe passed down to me by Dean Richard Mattingly—well-worn and a bit faded, but a symbol of what it means to lead and care for the heart and soul of Westminster:  our faculty.

Similarly, it was just about eighteen months ago that I was once again reminded of why Westminster matters. At that point, we were breaking in an exuberant and energetic new President. I was completely on-board with his many new initiatives, and I knew he was counting on me to help lead the way.  On that day, we were in Dallas, Texas, at the home of trustee Bill Felder, as I had gone with the President to an alumni and recruiting event. I received a call from my husband, Greg, who had just that morning received a diagnosis of acute leukemia.  It was discovered during a routine check-up, and so was completely out of the blue. But it was so serious, he had to go to Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis that very day.

President Akande and his wife Bola not only made sure I got on a plane that evening, but they drove me to the hospital themselves.  A few days later, when I finally had a grasp on how our world had been turned upside down, I went to the President to determine what to do.  Without missing a beat he told me “we’ll make it work.” And even though Greg and I have had to live in St. Louis much of the past year and a half, it has worked. I know far too many of my colleagues picked up the slack for me, and I could not be more thankful for each one. But that’s the way Westminster is. We find a way to carry our struggles together. We make it work.

So that’s why Westminster matters to me, but it also matters to you.  Looking to the future, I suspect someday that you will be surprised by the number of times you “get it” – suddenly remembering something a professor said that now makes so much sense, or realizing that the leadership skills you possess can be traced back to some challenge you faced with your sorority or fraternity.  You will remember being pushed to try things you never thought you could do, perhaps remember what it felt like to fail, and, I sincerely hope, remember that through it all, people here cared about you, wanted nothing more than to pick you up again or to applaud your great success. I hope you have learned from Westminster just how much you matter.

So this is the time in the commencement speech when the speaker says, “I will now give you just three pieces of advice.”  Or sometimes five; once a speaker on this very stage gave ten.  Wow. But for you, I have just two.

To frame this advice, however, I need to present you with an image—that of the “signpost.”  If you’re a hiker, you know exactly how important signposts are—without them, we all can get pretty lost.  And although Greg and I do a lot more walking than hiking these days, we try to get to the Highlands of Scotland every few years to do a bit of both.  Now the signposts along the “Great Highland Way,” a trail that runs up the western side of Scotland, can sometimes be downright hard to spot, as they are often nothing more than a small square nailed to a tree, or a small post sticking out of the ground. You have to be watching if you want to see them. But the rewards of watching closely are certainly great—particularly since getting lost in Scotland, with its frequent downpours, can be more than a bit unpleasant.  But you have to love the Scots—who see nothing at all unusual about lengthy hikes or walks, despite the rain. A favorite sign-post of mine, out in the middle of nowhere, reads “Inverness 62 miles.”  Really? I love the audacity of such a silly little sign, that says—if you’re in it for the long-haul, with plenty of rain as well as sunny days, we’ll be here to point the way.

So what is the point of a signpost, and what does it have to do with these two bits of advice I’d like to pass along?  First, just as the living spirit of Westminster is more important than the hallowed halls, so are your personal signposts far more important than ones you’ll find on the trail.  If you haven’t already spotted your signposts, it’s time to start watching.  Find those people in your life who will point the way for you.  And start with the faculty and staff who have so masterfully cared for you over the past several years.  Watch not just for success, but for how others demonstrate what it means to live well in this world. It is my hope that Westminster has helped open and expand your mind and your heart; let yourself be challenged to explore, to grow, and to live a deeply authentic life, following in the footsteps of people here who live well—not for themselves, but for the good of many.

If I could, I would list all my signposts at Westminster, but then we would be here all day. My professional career has been built on the wisdom and kindness of my colleagues. But instead, I would like to point the person who has, above all, shown me the way to live in this world with courage, humility, and grace.

As you might guess, particularly over the last 18 months, that has been my husband, Greg, who has been the greatest signpost in my life. A man of deep faith, he has faced his illness with resounding courage. He refuses to deny the reality of his situation, and yet is always so eager to live – deeply enjoying the small things, like his standard Saturday-morning cup of coffee at Coffee Zone, laughing out-loud at his own jokes, picking out the theme song for our Sunday-evening google-chats with our three daughters. At the same time, he humbly and willingly accepts the help and the prayers of others, both of which have been an incredible source of strength for us. Working through this time together has profoundly impacted my life, and as strange is it might be to say this, I am thankful for this challenge because I learned so much from him about how to slow down, take deep breaths, make every day count, and enjoy. I’m so thankful to be on life’s journey with such a great person by my side.

So please be watching closely for those people who will show you the way, and make the most of those relationships.  Take time to learn from them, as they will change your life. Let those you admire teach you how to live life well—with passion for your work, generosity of spirit, and kindness for those around you.  And let your signposts teach you how to live well not just through sunshine but also when the rains come.

But at the same time, you must realize that there are already those for whom you are the signpost—those who are watching you already.  Watching how you respond to stress, how you treat those in need, how you spend your time, your money, your energy.  What you give yourself to, and why. Your generation sees the world in such different ways than mine, and you challenge me with your values, your choices, and your insistence on justice.  I’m so thankful for the signposts that my three daughters have already become, as part of your generation. And I look forward to the rest of my life, because my daughters have already challenged me to be a much better person that I knew I could be.

And indeed, it is now your time to take the reins and chart the course for our future. These days, many people like to make predictions about what that world to come will look like, and it is both exciting and terrifying. Some predict that in ten years, over half of our students will receive their entire undergraduate education on their iPhones.  Another predicts that in 20 years, 70% of the jobs we now know will be gone, and replaced with ones we haven’t yet imagined. According to the Smithsonian, 3-D printers will soon be spitting out not only the shoes on your feet, but potentially the kidney you need transplanted.  Self-driving, electric cars will replace cars as we know them. Software will be king, disrupting every industry as we now know it.

But best of all–you will be the ones to sort it all out, make it all work. And as you do so, I’m certain that, like me, you will find yourself saying “Thank goodness for Westminster College,” which taught you to think and innovate, problem-solve and lead.  And you will do well.

But the other troubling aspect of the world to come is how it encourages us to separate ourselves from one another.  Major business deals around the world can be done through video-conferencing, without a single handshake.  More and more of your work will be possible remotely, without the need for sitting down, face to face, to reason together, to encourage each other, to find solutions, together. The future was made for my 13-year-old self, even my 30-year-old self, who wanted nothing more than to hide out in a library, alone. But the truth is:  we will always need each other, up-close, wrestling through problems together. Always. And so, the world will desperately need leaders of intelligence, character, and integrity, with critical leadership abilities that are already becoming all too rare. You have these precious tools; be prepared to use them. That’s what a liberal arts education is all about, and that’s why your education matters.

One of the greatest songwriters of our time, Mary Chapin Carpenter—who, by the way, calls herself a “liberal arts junkie”—once wrote, “we have two lives, one we’re given and the other we create.” From now on, you will be actively engaged in creating your life—and at the same time, you will be helping to create the future.

So as you make your life choices, realize that you are carrying Westminster with you, and the values of our great college—and hold tight to those values, allowing them to guide you. Choose paths that make you proud, knowing that you are leading others, as well, even now. Never underestimate the influence you have on others, especially in trying times. It is now your turn to lead, and we are counting on you to show us the way forward. Be successful, but choose service and significance over success. Find your joy in showing others what it means to live with authenticity, integrity, and generosity of spirit.  And never forget just how much you matter.

As silly as it sounds, together, we are Westminster. We are that loving, nurturing, challenging, sometimes maddening, exhausting, determined community of learners that understands the great value of a little college in America’s heartland, where students—and faculty and staff—come to be transformed. It is now time for you to take your place among those Westminster graduates who will lead the way to a better future. As you go from here to create your lives, I hope what you take with you is not only an ability and commitment to think well, but also a commitment to live well, grounded in the values you have learned at Westminster. Stay true to yourself, because you matter so very much. Thank you for giving us hope; thank you for making us proud.  Thank you.

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