MU Opening Convocation
Learning from Differences
August 25, 2015

Well. Look at all of you. I can’t tell you how good it is to see you here. That goes for students, staff and faculty – we aren’t the same when you aren’t on campus.

I want to especially welcome those of you who are new. If you are new at Manchester this year – faculty, staff or student – please stand up so that we can welcome you.  

We are glad you are here.

I want to thank Brandy Crouse, Allison Rowe, and Bridget Rowe and the women’s soccer team for leading the fight song. We started that tradition last year with the football team. I want you to know the song so that you can jump up and sing whenever it’s played – when the football team scores (we’re going to be singing a lot this year), during basketball games and so on. At the end of convo we’re going to sing our alma mater, “By the Kenapocomoco.” You’ll want to know it because we sing it at commencement and alumni meetings after you’ve graduated. Sing loud and sing proud. We are Manchester University.


Those of you here last year will recall that I challenged all of us to be our best selves.  I said we can do that by sharing ourselves with others, contributing to our community, and discovering things that we are passionate about. We can also do that by learning from our differences — and that’s what I want to talk about today.

One of the things that makes Manchester distinctive is that we welcome people as they are. We embrace differences. We celebrate them. We even begin our mission statement with it because it is so foundational to who we are as an institution: “Manchester University respects the infinite worth of every individual.” Think about that for a moment: The infinite worth of every individual. The infinite worth of you.

Each of you has come to a place where you are free to be who you are, and the person you choose to be. And in wanting that for yourself, you are called to allow and encourage others to be themselves, too.

Learning at Manchester is a process. The value of what you will take from this place when you graduate reveals itself over time. It unfolds. Many of you who are juniors and seniors know what I mean. I talked with Logan Haston last week. He’s a senior on the football team and he told me that when he came to Manchester he was “closed minded” – those were his words. “Closed minded.” Then he told me about the semester he just spent studying in Spain and how much he enjoyed learning about that culture. From closed minded to being immersed in another culture. Learning unfolds.

At Manchester we define differences in all kinds of ways. We are different in our ethnicities, our cultures, our gender identities, our religious backgrounds and our politics.  We are different in our economic circumstances. We are different because we come from different places: Ethiopia; California; New York; Clarksville, Indiana, by the Ohio River; and Fort Wayne. Even right here in North Manchester.

Renee and I saw it when our new students came through Tall Oaks on Sunday. I was struck by how different you all are. It’s all good. We didn’t get a chance to meet you, really, to get to know you, but we did get a glimpse of who you are.

By the way, one of the best parts of our work at Manchester is connecting with students, and we’ll be looking for opportunities to get to know you this year. And when we do meet, call us Dave and Renee. Despite the regalia and this really heavy presidential medal, we’re not very stuffy at Manchester.

So, back to the speech – Why does learning from our differences matter?
Take a look at this video:

VIDEO: Did You Know? Shift Happens, 2014 remix

That last question is powerful: “So what does it all mean?” Put another way, why does it matter to you?

  • As the video said, we’re preparing you for jobs that don’t exist using technologies that haven’t been invented to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet. That’s a lot of being open to new ideas and applying the fundamental skills of critical thinking and problem solving you’re learning at Manchester.

  • Think about it: if you have 10-14 jobs by the time you’re 38, that’s a lot of new co-workers, a lot of new learning.

The world is changing and becoming more diverse all the time. It’s the world in which you will live, work, travel and raise your families. Embracing diversity and change will create opportunities for you to learn. It will make your lives richer as you meet people along the way. 
Change is constant. It’s inevitable. And it can be surprisingly good. If you leave Manchester with an appreciation of different ideas and different kinds of people, you will be better prepared to live in a changing world.  You will get more out of life, and I’m pretty sure that you will have more opportunities and more meaningful friendships.

So today I want to talk about some opportunities you’ll have at Manchester to learn about differences and, in turn, to learn about yourselves. They’ll be around you every day. But those days will be richer if you recognize the opportunities when you see them.  

One of the opportunities that you’ll have — over and over again — is to stretch. And I don’t mean Yoga Club, though that’s actually a great thing to try. I’m talking about stretching your comfort zone and your understanding of people.

You might find yourself sharing a table in Haist Commons with someone you don’t know. That can feel uncomfortable, even for me when I drop in on you during a meal. But it’s also a chance to learn about that person’s home, what they’ve experienced, and what matters to them. 

Michael Dixon, director of Intercultural Services, is the son of a Filipino mother and a Jamaican father. He has been learning from differences since the day he was born. Learning from differences, Michael says, calls us to build relationships with people. And that takes time, care, and a willingness to expand familiar boundaries. For him, that means having a wide circle of friends. You may have friends in your major, from intramurals, a friend who’s a lab partner, and a friend who just likes the same pizza toppings. It’s all good. When we cast a wide net, we’re much more likely to have someone to do things with, someone to talk to, someone to learn from.

Another opportunity you’ll have to stretch is through the courses you choose. Manchester offers this huge buffet of courses. Renee and I like to ask students and alumni to tell us about their favorite course outside their major. Their faces light up and they talk about a history, literature, econ or psychology course they took. Invariably, they talk about how the faculty member drew them into a subject they weren’t sure they’d like.

What may unfold for some of you is that you find your passion in one of these courses. A recent graduate — and she was an excellent student — actually changed her major 10 times. … Ten. She kept discovering new fields that excited her. She eventually settled on a triple major because she could see how those different disciplines all related to the big picture of her life. How many of you have changed your major at least once? Even if you don’t change your major ten times, or at all, Manchester will help you connect the dots between the different courses you take.

If you want to stretch in a really dramatic way at Manchester, you can study abroad. Thelma Rohrer is dean of the College of Arts and Humanities, teaches art history and directs the International Studies program, and “stretch” is one of her favorite words.  About 40 percent of our students travel outside the country while they’re at here. How many of you have traveled abroad during January or through BCA? Study abroad teaches you all kinds of life skills: independence, self-confidence and flexibility, to name a few. Talk about stretching! The first time Thelma ever rode on a plane she was a teenager going to spend a year in a different country. Forty countries later, she’s still traveling. Her bottom line: “Once you do this, you can do anything.” … Stretching empowers us.

You’ll have opportunities at Manchester to serve others. Most of our students do some kind of service while they’re here. And it’s a win-win. Students learn about differences while they’re making a difference.  If you’re interested, Carole Miller-Patrick directs the Center for Service Opportunities and she can connect you with a whole range of volunteer experiences:

  • Writing letters to prisoners on death row.
  • Building Habitat for Humanity homes.
  • Working with children in after-school programs.  

Many of our students serve people who live with economic hardships.
Twice a month, Manchester students serve a free meal to people from the local community. Some of the guests are trying to stretch their grocery budgets. Others are just lonely. Some come to be with people they consider extended family. Everyone who shows up at a Community Dinner is welcome.  Many of the student volunteers are “regulars” at the dinners. And, likewise, many of the guests are “regulars” too. The students and the guests forge unlikely friendships that bridge ethnic, religious and economic differences. When they do, they learn to recognize their common humanity. It’s such an affirming thing that I’m told there’s a waiting list of students and others to participate.

Another powerful experience happens over Skype. MU students use the video connection to mentor teenagers in Kentucky. These teenagers are from the area around Owsley (rhymes with owl) County. It is a desperately difficult place to live, with the second-highest level of child poverty in the country.

Each week, our students Skype with these kids. The conversations help the kids in Kentucky see their own potential and start to think about what is possible. Our students – some of you – are role models. In turn, our students learn about growing up poor in Appalachia. They learn about people they would probably never have known otherwise.

How many of you have volunteered while you’ve been here?

Finally, at Manchester you’ll also have the opportunity to explore many viewpoints.  That’s a really deep kind of learning that happens here. Deep, because it gets to the core, the essence, of who we are. And, honestly, it can be a messy process. You’ll be exposed to a lot of different perspectives and a lot of different values here. Who here knows someone at Manchester that you disagree with about something important?

One of the things that makes Manchester distinct from some other schools is that we don’t tell you what your values should be. Some places do. And some schools don’t care one way or the other whether you even think about what you value.

At Manchester, we give you room to be who you are. But we also know that values matter. And by the time you put on your cap and gown and get your diploma, you will have clarified and pulled close what you believe most deeply. And you’ll do that with the help of the people around you today.
Leonard Williams, dean of the College of Education and Social Sciences, has taught political science here since 1982. Every presidential election year, in January, Leonard and a group of students follow presidential candidates campaigning in Iowa. It might not sound like fun to ride through Iowa in a van in January, but Leonard makes it fun. His class includes students of various political stripes — from liberal Democrat to conservative Republican. He says the personal friendships forged on those many miles of Iowa highways help smooth over differences and conflicts.

His students learn to listen to others respectfully and openly. They learn to listen for the truth in what others say, even if they don’t agree with everything they hear.

As our Campus Pastor Walt Wiltschek says: This is a community where we can have those heavy conversations about our differences because we build relationships that are strong enough to hold them.

Whatever your background, whatever your story, Manchester welcomes you as you are. And because of that, we are free to celebrate others as they are. When we celebrate our differences — and learn from them — it frees us to become our best selves.

I’m a voracious reader and recently came across this quote: “Learning is the only thing the mind never exhausts, never fears, and never regrets.” It’s attributed to Leonardo da Vinci … and, yes, I read it in Toilet Talk.

But it is an important truth. What you learn at Manchester will be with you for a lifetime. And it will prepare you for a lifetime of learning and change.

May this year be filled with all kinds of wonderful discoveries about the people you have met and the people you haven’t met … yet. You will learn a lot about others from those relationships. And you will learn a lot about yourselves, too. 

Did I already tell you we’re glad you’re here? We are.

Thanks for choosing Manchester and have a great fall.