Profile Day address by Courtney Lehmann, Phd.
April 9, 2016
When I think back to when I was in your shoes I remember how excited I was to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The school was just my size—22,000 students—and I couldn’t wait to swim in this big pond. And while it’s true that our personal names were soon replaced by id numbers and there were long lines to register for classes (classes of 500 students and a professor far away on a stage with a microphone), I nevertheless had a truly exceptional experience at UNC. One reason was because I had the opportunity to play soccer with legends like Mia Hamm and Kristine Lily on four NCAA Division One National Championship Women’s Soccer teams. In this clip from the 1990 National Championship on ESPN, Kristine Lily heads the ball into the box and I happen to be in the mix there and I wind up scoring the final goal. If you look closely you’ll see that I totally shanked the ball.
The other reason that I had a truly exceptional undergraduate experience was because I was an Honors student, and so my life at this large university was rather different from the general student population. I was in classes that had anywhere from 5-15 students in them. We had lunch on the lawn with our professors and discussed topics that I had never dreamt of; I met authors and social activists and mingled with other honors students who were talented musicians, chemists, philosophers, artists and engineers. In short, I discovered the life of the mind in all its glory, and I knew what an honor it was to have an experience that was reserved for 1% of Carolina’s entire student body.
I’m here to tell you that at Pacific, every student is an Honors student.
Now you might have heard our official slogan, “professors who know your name.” But I would put it a little differently—because our professors know more than your names: we know your initials. Now what do I mean by that, when initials seem to be far less personal than one’s own name? I’m actually referring to something else—to your initial: the singular thing that makes you who you are; the personal name that you wear on the inside.
By way of illustration, I’d like to share with you very short poem called “Initial,” by the early 20th-century German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke.
Out of infinite desires rise
finite deeds like weak fountains
that fall back in early trembling arcs.
But those, which otherwise in us
keep hidden—our happy strengths—
they come forth in these dancing tears.
Rilke reminds us that life presents us with a bounty of options in the form of “infinite desires.” And then, through trial and error—through those “early, trembling arcs” of effort and emotion—we come to identify with what we know we’re good at. But the all important turn in this brief poem is concerned with what we don’t know—with those happy, hidden strengths that most of us aren’t even aware of, but that somehow survive in the corners of our conscience and the tiny homes in our hearts that we build for them, waiting for that rainy day which may, in fact, never come.
Let me illustrate this process with a few glimpses into the lives of our students.
One of our most famous alums, the legendary jazz musician Dave Brubek, was a veterinary medicine major at Pacific until he found himself putting together riffs as he was taking apart frogs. Knowing more than his student’s name, Dave’s Biology professor pulled him aside and encouraged him to head straight out the door, across campus, and into our distinguished Conservatory of Music. We know that Dave Brubeck changed the world of jazz forever, but he also changed the world around him while serving in the Army during World War Two. Brubek received orders to lift the morale of the troops by playing jazz for them; but when he was instructed to replace the black musicians he’d been jamming with in the segregated barracks with white players, he refused to do so. The upshot was that his band, “The Wolfpack,” became one of the first integrated units in the entire US Army. That Biology professor helped Dave to discover his initial—his passion linked to purpose—and Dave Brubeck, in turn, knew what he stood for, and what he could not stand.
Now I imagine that many of you are exploratory students—meaning you haven’t declared a major. At many universities, especially larger schools, you have to choose a major and stick with it because the sheer number of students they enroll makes it challenging to change direction along the way. But at Pacific, you can even design your own major.
Take for example junior Kelly Manlaibayar who came to us from Mongolia as a Pacific Humanities Scholar and an exploratory student. She immediately became involved in theatre productions and, in her very first semester, she was recognized for her acting talent by the Kennedy Center College Theatre Festival. But Kelly had only just begun to discover her happy, hidden strengths, and before long, she expressed a desire to pursue two other subjects. At most universities that would be the end of the story, but at Pacific, Kelly has designed her own major in Theatre Arts, International Affairs and Commerce, and Robotics. Last summer, Kelly’s humanities background, global mindset, and scientific expertise earned her an internship sponsored by NASA.
Soon you’ll hear from our students about Pacific’s “one word” project, but as you can see from Kelly’s word, at Pacific, she feels loved.
Now many of you are in an entirely different position than Dave Brubeck and Kelly were: you have come here knowing exactly what you want to do and have entered one of our elite pre-professional programs. But you and I both know that this is not where your intellectual journey ends. Pacific is a comprehensive university that has a Law School, a Dental School, a School of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, a Business School, a School of Engineering and Computer Science, a School of Education, and the oldest Conservatory of Music in the West. At the very center is the College of the Pacific, where all of you—regardless of your major—will take courses in subjects ranging from Chemistry to Creative Writing, Film Production to Food History, and Environmental Science to Economics. At Pacific, we integrate professional practice with a rich liberal arts tradition, and we strive to cultivate intellectual curiosity in an impatient world.
We also provide our undergraduates with opportunities for research and creative activity that typically only advanced graduate students enjoy.
Four years ago today, Louis Johnson came to Profile Day. The Chair of the Physics department—my lucky husband Dr. Jim Hetrick (he’s out there somewhere)—said that he never met a student who had such a laser-beam focus on becoming a research scientist. In order to harness Louis’s passion for the cosmos, Dr. Hetrick set him to work as a Freshman with the department’s radio telescope, which had been built by Physics majors a few years earlier.
Then Professor Helene Flohic connected Louis with a visiting scholar from Italy who is the head of the Quasar Research Group at the National Center for Astrophysics; she was impressed by Louis and invited him to conduct research at the Center if he could pay his way. Now college students typically lack the resources to chase such a dream, and Louis was no exception. And here’s where the story takes a distinctly “Pacific” turn.
The faculty in the physics department rallied and gathered funds from various grants, but they still came up short. At that point, Professor Flohic decided to donate a portion of her personal start-up funds—money typically used for new faculty to set up their own research labs—to make up the difference, sending Louis on his way to study quasars in Trieste, Italy. As a result of that research experience, Louis spent last summer and will spend this summer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, paid for entirely by the National Science Foundation.
At Pacific, we connect you with our colleagues around the world to take you to the next level of educational and professional attainment, setting you on a course for fascinating and fulfilling careers.
Here’s a picture of Louis and other Pacific students enjoying a star-gazing party in our backyard; that night they photographed a supernova that is 11.5 million light years away.
We also have students like 29 year-old business major Jamie Xiong, who received a Pacific Promise Scholarship, intended for students who have been through the foster care system or who come from non-traditional backgrounds. One of Jamie’s most formative childhood memories was standing in line in the cold waiting for a bundle of Christmas presents from the Salvation Army; she grew up wishing she could return that favor. She also remembers wandering around flea markets looking for scraps of pretty fabrics that her mother used to make dresses for Jamie and her five sisters; and at 14, Jamie went to work as a seamstress herself. Who would have thought that she would discover her initial—her inner calling—in a product innovation class in our Business school? Jamie created a company called Rejuva-Trends, which recycles and repurposes thrift store clothing to produce affordable, attractive, and sustainable fashions for low-income communities. At Pacific, we pay it forward.
En route to my conclusion, I want to share with you the story of a recent graduate, English major Victor Inzunza, who came to Pacific on the yellow ribbon program after two tours of duty in Iraq.
Suffering from PTSD, Victor struggled to reintegrate into civilian life. His salvation came in a rather unlikely form: poetry. He founded the Veteran’s Writing Circle at Pacific in hopes of helping other vets reclaim their sense of purpose through creative writing. “Poetry,” Victor will be the first to tell you, saved his life. A Marine, a poet, and an inspiration, Victor received one of the most prestigious scholarships in the nation—the Lawrence Ferlinghetti Fellowship in Poetry—and with it, a full ride to the storied MFA program in creative writing at the University of San Francisco.
I want to close with a personal story about how my students saved my life. Many years ago I suffered a series of miscarriages, and although I never revealed to my students the depth of my sorrow that year, they seemed to sense how much I relied upon them. I needed them to keep me focused on the absolute present—and they were there for me with their questions, their curiosity, and their compassion in ways that enabled me to discover hidden strengths of my own. My students lifted me out of a depression that threatened to consume me—and when, against the odds, I eventually had a baby girl, we shed those dancing tears of joy that Rilke speaks of in his poem “Initial.”
Just as they did for me, we will do for you. At Pacific, professors are your mentors, at times your therapists, and surprisingly often, your life-long friends.
Now dig deep, find your initial, make your mark and welcome home to Pacific.