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Convocation 2005 Address
Donal O'Shea, Dean of Faculty

Donal O'Shea, Dean of Faculty
(photo by Fred LeBlanc)

September 7, 2005

President Creighton, colleagues, both faculty and staff, and most of all, you—first-years, sophomores, juniors, and seniors. Good morning, and welcome to the new school year.

Convocation speeches are supposed to be upbeat. But I’m having a hard time getting past the images of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. The urgency and the horror make it hard to think of anything else. One wants to do something.

Does it mean that we should cancel the opening of the school year and race down there to help?


But I think it should give us an occasion to reflect on being here. We may be having a hard time leaving home, or with the end of summer, or with our roommate. But we are also tremendously fortunate.

We may think we deserve our good fortune. That we got where we are by hard work, by our own merit. But the images of those folks stranded in New Orleans, many of them women of your own age, give the lie to that belief.

Let me not pick on you. What entitled me to a college education?

Absolutely nothing.

An accident of birth. Right place, right time, right parents. Less than one percent of the world’s population has a college education. Most of the folks left behind in New Orleans have no chance of ever getting to college.

Most of you are here by a combination of luck and accident and serendipity and, yes, some effort, but effort that now looks tiny in the face of events. Nothing entitles us to the coming year: a year relatively free from the need to make a living, with time to read and learn and explore.

Does our good fortune mean that we should go around feeling guilty?

Does it mean that the seniors should quieten down a bit, cover up the bright red decorations, and stop trying to shock the first-years? Does it mean we should skip the picnic?

No, it does not.

At least, I’m not going to skip the picnic.

But we should not forget how lucky we are. Our good fortune, the privilege we take so much for granted, imposes an obligation on us.

What obligation?

It is the obligation to use the time you have in college well.

What does it mean to use our time well?

Given that we talk so much about leadership, given that virtually every news commentary about the Gulf laments the lack of leadership, you would be forgiven for thinking that you need to become a leader.

Perhaps you should sign up for lots activities and start filling out your résumé? Maybe you should start aggressively trying to make your voice heard above the crowd—whether or not you have anything to say.

No, I don’t think so.

What failed in the Gulf was simpler and more profound than what this society calls leadership. It was a failure of care, a failure of knowledge, a failure of love more than a failure of words.

We have no shortage of conventional leadership. No shortage of loud talk coupled with a slick, heavily professionalized PR machine geared to push whatever message, no matter how fatuous, how false, how meaningless. One of the commentators on the Jim Lehrer News Hour the night before last stated that what New Orleans needed was a variant of New York’s Rudy Giuliani—someone to stand on the roof of a flooded house and to pull everyone together. That would not have made much of a difference.

It has been known for years that those levees would not withstand a hurricane that was more than category three. No one fixed them. The money that had been authorized to repair them was cut. It did not occur to planners that at least 100,000 people were too poor to obey the evacuation order. It takes money to keep a car on the road, to buy gas, or to take a bus. There was a military boat with water and hospital beds in the Gulf of Mexico not far from affected area. No one seemed to have the authority or common sense to deploy it. Medical workers that have finally got in report an enormous number of preexisting chronic health conditions. These are failures of care, of love, of service.

So, I encourage you today to think less about leadership and more, to use an old-fashioned term, about vocations. Vocations are about care, about passion and excellence, and about service. You may have many vocations in the course of your life: some you will have already acquired and others await you. Vocations are not the same as careers. Some of you will be blessed, others who love you might say cursed, to have careers that fulfill compelling vocations. Vocations are not the same as leadership. They are deeper, simpler, and more liberating. They tap the same root. For leadership should be about service, and service is about care. But vocations make us more human, and are what our world needs.

College is about trying on vocations. Figuring out what you are good at, what you care about, and whether and how it serves others.

That is what this coming year should be about.

About any potential vocation, you need to ask yourself three things. Does it give you joy? Are you good at it? Does it serve others?

Let’s look at these three.

Does it give you joy? There is no human activity, no work that will not be frustrating at times. Even mathematics can be a royal pain. But at the end of the day, or end of the month, is what you are doing fun? Do you take pleasure from it? Is it something you care about? If not, stay away.

The second thing to ask yourself is whether you are good at it. I would love to pilot planes. But you would not want to get on a plane that I was flying. I can’t see well enough. And my kids—actually they are not kids anymore: two are your age and the other two are older than most of you—tell me I can’t even drive a car. I would love to sing or to cook. If I had the type of voice I wish I had, I could inspire and bring peace. But, you don’t want to hear me sing. Ever. Likewise, I don’t have enough talent to cook for a living.

Service. Will what you do ultimately give others pleasure? Does it help the young, the old, the infirm? Does it contribute to others’ livelihood? Or to others’ understanding?

In asking this question, you need to take a broad view and be alert to how what you love to do, and do well, helps others. Languages help communicate and bridge the gulf between people. Art brings joy and inspiration. English and the concomitant skills of careful reading and graceful expression can allow you to understand and help others understand human experience. Many of you know that I am a mathematician. Some of the greatest riddles in mathematics concern the Navier-Stokes equations—these are the century-old equations for fluid flow that govern hurricanes. The slightest advances allow better prediction and may ultimately make it possible to divert or weaken them. I have never been skillful enough to make any contribution here, but perhaps I can teach or influence one of you who can. Some of you will have a knack for understanding the past, for finding your way through human social organizations. Finding something you love and that you do well, and pushing for excellence, creates deep opportunities for service to others.

All of us benefit from the vocations of those who went before us. This College is a product of others’ vocations, others’ leadership. The grounds —someone cared enough to plant different trees up the hill; to mark out paths around the lakes. You can’t walk into Clapp or Kendade without sensing the care, the curiosity and love of science, nor the determination on the part of women shut out of the mainstream to involve their students in scientific work. Taking a slightly longer view, and looking back a hundred or so generations—and that may seem a long time ago, but it isn’t—we owe everything to those men and women who collected seeds and plants, who patiently crossbred them and selected for the best traits. They were our first genetic engineers. We owe much to those who domesticated animals, to the shepherds and farmers. To the storytellers, and the people who taught the young. To the first builders and teachers of the past. It wasn’t thousands of years ago, but we also owe the folks who painstakingly compiled the logarithm and sine tables that were used for ten generations before calculators.

Three hundred generations ago, Lake Hitchcock, the great glacial lake which covered where we are now, and whose shoreline was at Mary Lyon’s grave, would have been just drying up; a little earlier, this spot would have been under a kilometer of ice. But the people then would not have been different from you. What is different is that each of you is a beneficiary of their vocations.

In a very real sense, this College is a legacy to you from women with vocations who lived before you. Your time here is their gift to you. It is a gift that was freely given. Take that time for yourself. Think of it as an investment to be ultimately repaid to those who need you most. Don’t fill it up with a mad whirl of activity.

On Sunday, I tried to talk the first-years into trying things that they were uncomfortable with. (Trying a writing course, if your writing is a bit sketchy, taking a course that engages racial or religious differences if you have trouble talking across difference, taking a math or science course if you fear those subjects.)

And that was pretty good advice.

You can’t grow without trying things that make you uncomfortable and without confronting deficits that hinder your ability to be all that you can be.

But today I ask you to find the things that you love, and that you are good at. Make time and space for them, and be alert for how they can serve others. I think that is how you can best use the gift of time and education, and I think that it is the best response to the sad events of this past week.

See you at the picnic. See you in class. Have a great year. And, seniors, you have 4,409 hours left. Be good.


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Copyright © 2006 Mount Holyoke College. This page created and maintained by Office of Communications. Last modified on June 13, 2006.