‘Discover a life-long-passion’
September 4, 2001 Bates College Matriculation Dinner for First Year Students
Remarks by Assistant Professor of Chemistry Rachel Narehood Austin
Good evening. Thank you Dean Reich for the introduction. Thank you too to the students who nominated me for the Kroepsch award. It is a lovely honor at an institution with many excellent teachers.
It is a pleasure to share this evening with you. I look out across the room with excitement as I know that this class, like every other class that I have known, will give me the opportunity to meet students, people, who touch my life in important ways. I’ve already met one student, Irene, whom I like a lot. I just came back from attending a conference in Florence Italy with a former student, which was a lot of fun. A few days earlier, another former student who has just finished his first year of graduate school at Princeton came by to see me. I can’t describe how much I value the interactions with students here and I look forward to getting to know you.
As Dean Reich mentioned, I am an assistant professor of both chemistry and environmental studies at Bates College. I am starting my seventh year on the faculty here. I want to welcome you to Bates, congratulate you on the accomplishments that got you here, and invite you to make the most of the next four years.
Make the most of the next four years. How do you do it?
Take responsibility for your own education. That may sound a little paradoxical. You have, presumably, selected Bates because you wanted to go where the faculty really care about teaching and where the institution has organized itself to make teaching its focus – but it is, I think, the key to getting your money’s worth from your Bates experience. Take responsibility for your own education. Let me put it another way. If your professor isn’t very good, or doesn’t seem to care about you–that won’t happen much here, but it might happen every once in a while–it doesn’t matter. That’s a lousy reason not to learn. It’s your future, not his or hers, that’s in play. So don’t let yourself become a victim of a less than perfect class or textbook.
It is not necessarily an easy thing to learn how to take responsibility for your own education. So how do you do it? Lesson number one: try to be interested. Work hard to become immersed in your work. It isn’t enough to try dispassionately, even if you try hard. What you ought to be trying for is to love what you’re doing, whatever it is.
Think of it this way: you are here to discover a life-long passion. Nobody knows what it will be. Whatever it ends up being, it probably won’t come naturally. You may think you know what you love, what you want to do with the rest of your life, but if you’re right about that then you’re very rare.
So how do you find out what you do love? You try different things. I mean REALLY TRY. Try to love different things. Work hard at it. Try to get involved in your work.
This is what is probably new, and this is what is hard. Most of you are probably used to thinking that you either love something or you don’t. That’s not true–not when it comes to work, at any rate. If you want to figure out what you’re capable of loving, you have to try to love it. Try hard.
Are you really into math? Take a poetry course, and try hard to love it. Love Dickens? Study Chemistry. Always wanted to be a doctor? Try philosophy. And try really hard to see what it’s all about. Remember that somebody–lots of people, in fact–love those subjects, and at least some of those people aren’t idiots. At least some of those people aren’t so different from you. There’s probably something to it, something in there to love. It’s a puzzle: try to figure out what’s so special about it.
You might fail–not your classes, hopefully–I mean you might try really hard and fail to get immersed in a subject. That’s fine. Try another, and try just as hard as you did the first time. And don’t forget about your first love. Love Dickens? Take a course in Dickens, by all means. You might end up in the same place you started. But you also might not. And even if you do, your life will be richer–better–because of all the new things you’ve come in contact with, all the new things you know. And your relationship with your first love (be it Dickens, Math, poetry, or whatever) will probably be enriched by the broadening of your knowledge and experiences.
Lesson 2: Pay attention. We have to pay attention to what happens around us, and what happens inside us. We have to make a study of the world and of ourselves–our particular, idiosyncratic selves—to figure out what excites us and how to use it to build a life that works for us–a real life in the real world, consistent with our circumstances. A life that makes us want to get out of bed in the morning. That’s what you’re here for: to discover how to have a rich and exciting life.
You will soon find that some of your peers–your classmates, older students–don’t approve of your enthusiasm for your classes or for ideas. That’s too bad, but it’s a fact of life, at Bates and elsewhere. Just as I encourage you not to allow an uninspired professor or a bad text to serve as an excuse for not enjoying a particular subject, so too I encourage you not to allow a subculture that values cynicism, indifference, alcohol abuse, and laziness to stand between you and the ability to view your work as an integral part of a well-loved life.
I keep an image in my mind of a college education as rock climbing training. At first you start off at a low level with lots of ropes and pulleys and assistance. Over time, you, the apprentice rock climber, learn how to use your muscles and your mind in such a way that you can climb increasingly more difficult rocks with less and less assistance. Eventually you can select rocks to climb and climb them on your own. Hopefully four years from now, when we come together again for the senior banquet in this space, you will be able to find and engage in intellectual challenges without a homework assignment. In the intervening time, we the faculty will be here to help you climb, but the more you challenge yourself, the more you dig in, the stronger and more capable you will become.
I’m almost done. But before I end I’ll give you a few more pointers on how to make the most of your education here.
Attend every class, and come prepared. If you’re going to learn what you love, you have to give it a good try. You have to try to immerse yourself. That means doing the reading and going to class.
Work hard to find something interesting in every class you take. Try your best to make it personal. Find a connection. Even if it requires you to do some extra reading or to meet with the professor outside of class, seek to make a connection between yourself and the course material in every class you take.
Write. I don’t mean write papers, or short stories. Keep an informal journal. Write about what you are learning in your classes and try to pinpoint the areas that don’t make sense to you. This is just another way of getting immersed in your work–a way to connect your work to your soul.
Take comfort in the fact that native ability or inclination towards a particular subject plays, in my experience, a very small role in whether you will ultimately succeed in a particular subject. When I started college I put a great deal of importance on whether something “came naturally” to me or not. I was quickly turned off by subjects where other people seemed to just “get it” faster than I did. I ended up dropping out of college after my first year and taking a few years off before returning to college. When I returned to school, a bit wiser, I gravitated towards subjects that didn’t come easily to me – subjects where I would really have to work to do well. Chemistry was one of those subjects.
Finally, get comfortable with discomfort. Accept not knowing. It’s okay not to be finished. Don’t try to force the issue, to pretend–to yourself and others–that you know all the answers. The main thing is to be trying hard. Real transformations take time. You are near the beginning. It’s a long road. You can’t expect to see the end from where you are, and if you think you see it, or you think you already know what it looks like, you’re fooling yourself. Accept not knowing.
If you remember nothing else from my remarks, remember this: cynicism is boring. Boredom is boring. Not caring is boring. Loving what you do isn’t boring. If you learn how to love your work, your life will be much richer.
That’s what you’re here for. Take responsibility, and take advantage of your opportunities.
(Editor’s Note: Established by Robert H. Kroepsch, a 1933 graduate of Bates who received an honorary doctor of laws degree from the college in 1971, the Kroepsch Award is given annually to a member of the faculty nominated by peers and students for outstanding teaching.)