Baccalaureate Reflections of Remembrance and Gratitude

Nicolas Kauffman ' 09

May 24, 2009


 
 

What did you find at Manchester College?

It's a question many of us have been asked over the last few years. Some of us have our answers scrawled in our own handwriting next to pictures of us on publicity posters, recruitment materials, the school website or the student handbook. Many more of us have answered the question on Manchester's “My Place at MC” web page.

The answers to that question are varied and encouraging. Kacie Gauby found open doors. Utsav Hanspal found ambition. Nyssa Gore found her voice. Mary Cox found empowerment. Dan Jones found comfort. Jamie Zon found belonging. Shawn Baker found his faith. Brittany Goodpaster found balance. Jeff Grabowski found adventure and success. Tricia Thacker found her future.  Stephanie Rion found herself.

It's also worth noting what people didn't mention. Nobody said they found a diploma. Nobody said they found a job. Nobody said they found how to find the derivative of a function, Jackson Pollock's early artwork, the year the Anabaptist movement emerged or the mating behavior of the American woodcock. Don't get me wrong – classes are a vital part of college. And while I can't really say I attended them with as much frequency as I maybe should have, I'm grateful to the truly amazing set of professors here at Manchester, who in many cases have been not only my teachers, but my mentors and friends.

But there is so much more than academics wrapped up in the diploma we get today. That slip of paper says that we met the course requirements for graduation, but unspoken is all the serendipitous life experience that went on outside the classroom. If we assume we spent a full 16 hours a week in class, and the recommended three additional hours studying for each of those hours, that's 81 percent of our time here that had nothing to do with academics: Staggering into breakfast after an all-nighter that was 4/5 Lance's, Hardee's and Facebook, and 1/5 writing a paper. Playing Frisbee on the mall. Coffee and cookies at chapel. Free pizza at floor programs.  Playing sports in the dorms until the RA put a stop to it. Waiting for the RA to leave so we could play sports. Staying up late talking … you know, we're the last class that remembers what it was like to be written up for a visitation violation at 12:15 in the morning. Actually, after four years, I think it's time my accomplices and I accept that it was really more like 12:30.

 

But despite all that fun-filled non-studying, and partly because of it, I found something incredibly valuable here at Manchester: the world.

I spent my junior year in Mexico through Brethren Colleges Abroad. When I came home, everybody wanted to know, “How was Mexico?” How was Mexico? How was the United States?  What was the last year of your life like? Can you answer that? After 11 months, Mexico was no longer a trip, or an experience, or really anything I could parse and explain. It was a slice of my life. It had its ups and downs just like any other year.

Lately, I've come to realize that in that way, Mexico was a microcosm for college. How was Manchester? What did you find at Manchester? There's too much there. Great things: In addition to BCA, I traveled abroad twice while at Manchester. I went on at least five trips out of state. I was hired as an RA. I met amazing people. I did some awesome internships.

And there are the not-so-happy memories, too. My beloved academic advisor moved to Arkansas.  One of my best friends freshman year suffered from severe depression. My best friend sophomore year was expelled. Some of the very best and very worst moments of my life happened at Manchester. College is like a whole lifetime jammed into a four- or five-year box.

I've grown fast and far from the person I was when I first walked in these doors, in ways I can reflect on and in ways I can't quite understand, but that I still recognize. The most important lesson, though, was just how much bigger than me the world is. For my first week or so in Mexico, I was very aware of the fact that everybody around me looked different from me. Having grown up in Goshen, a city where one in five residents is Hispanic, I'm used to seeing Mexicans and other people of Latin American descent in school, on the street and in the store. But I'm also used to most people around me having the same skin color as I do – I had the privilege of not noticing race. Now, I noticed.

But being conscious of the skin color of those around me was only the first step. It took a few months for me to truly internalize that I was the minority: It wasn't that everyone else looked different from me; it was that I looked different from everyone else. They were normal; I was not.  I even felt, irrationally, as if something were wrong with me. My skin was the wrong color. Was I defective?  Though my Spanish, cultural knowledge and street smarts were better than ever, suddenly I felt more out of place than when I'd arrived. I speak Spanish! I'm not a tourist! I belong here! I would mentally broadcast to the people surrounding me on public transportation, panicked that they would go home assuming I couldn't carry a conversation past the polite “buenos dias” I'd given them as I'd stepped onto the bus.

And that's what college is all about. Not the frenetic panicking of a neurotic white guy on a bus in Mexico, but the realization that the world does not exist through the lens of our own experience, nor does it conform to our expectations—be they racial, moral, religious or political. The fact that I grew up in a predominantly white community does not make white the norm. The fact that I grew up Christian does not make Christianity accurate. The fact that I am pro-choice does not make abortion right. And the fact that I strongly – ­okay, vehemently – supported Barack Obama does not make him the best man for the job. And yes, that last one really pains me to say.

Each of us, in our own way, has adapted to the new diversity that confronted us in college. I would dare to say we all came here strongly socialized by our parents, schools, friends, churches, communities – by our pre-college lives – only to find that socialization challenged. We found that we had to soften our expectations and bend our world views because our old ways of thinking were no longer adequate in this great new community. I went to praise services with evangelicals, talked politics with Libertarians, swapped travel stories with Africans and kindled a wonderful bromance with a gay roommate. I also just broke my resolve to never, ever, ever use the word “bromance.”

But while we've discovered a world of great diversity, we've also discovered a world of great problems. Global climate change will be the defining issue of the 21st century. Poverty is as critical an issue now as it's ever been. Water, that great resource we all take for granted, is being depleted in our rivers and aquifers. The world economy is in shambles. War threatens the lives and livelihood of millions of people worldwide. We may have read newspapers and had lunch discussions in high school, but in college we really got the opportunity to look at these problems in-depth, and to examine their possible solutions.

Of course we don't always agree on what the best solutions are.  Sometimes we don't even agree on which problems need solving. But we can all be united in that need we feel to do something, to fix things, to make the world a better place. And I would hope that we follow that call – even the people who see it in a way that might seem opposed to my beliefs. The important thing is that we always be willing to stop and listen, to work towards understanding opposing viewpoints, and to explore our own and be willing to change them when they don't hold up.

One of the quotes that has most stuck with me is something I saw printed on a pen I borrowed from a friend:  “Attitudes create karma. Release the need to be right. Honor one another's path.”  I think we've all had experiences at Manchester that made us realize we might not be right. That the things we took for granted as the truth might not, in fact, be true. If we cling to the need to be right, we distance ourselves from a reality that doesn't particularly care how we think things are.  And if we spend our energy trying to alter the paths of other people, we find ourselves alienated from the community.

We live in a truly amazing world. A world that is way bigger than me – that's bigger than any of us. A world of diversity. A world that needs both speaking and listening. A world that needs both diligence and humility. A world that demands both activism and respect.

What did I find at Manchester College? I found the world. I think we all did. And now it's time to step out into it.