By Kathleen Harrell Storm
Vice President for Student Life; Dean of Students
One of the most gratifying moments of each school year is commencement -- and the opportunity to watch at close range as every graduating student walks across the stage to shake the hand of the president and receive his or her diploma. It is thrilling to see every senior achieve this meaningful milestone and to know many of their stories, their individual journeys, the hurdles that they've overcome. That is one thing that has made my work in Whitworth Student Life an enormous privilege and a great joy.
For 20 years it has been one of my life's great opportunities to serve in the student life division in the company of wise, skilled and deeply committed colleagues. As partners in Whitworth's educational mission, student life daily encourages personal growth and rich community. It serves as a laboratory for living out institutional commitments to student responsibility, an ethos of service and the development of faith.
There are special challenges for a Christian university in trying to live out commitments thoughtfully in applied areas of life. On the one hand, students are exposed during college to a rich world of ideas, and these ideas matter; they should make a difference in all of our lives. On the other hand, there is not a direct correlation between every idea that is important to know and its impact: It's more nuanced than that. We can entertain a range of perspectives in the classroom that is far more consequential when we live it. We can and should speak in the academy of ideas directly challenging to faith (like Freud's perspectives), and we can engage them with appreciation and thoughtfulness. Living these challenges personally is a different matter, however -- one with significant implications. In other words, we talk freely about Freud's ideas as we engage them, but we live by campus guidelines informed by a Christian worldview rather than a Freudian perspective (and we can all be grateful for that). This disparity between the academic and the personal is just one reason why, in the realm of life outside the classroom, the integration of faith and learning is complex.
Second, in Christian higher education we walk a delicate path, affirming the individual choices of students; we teach the importance of doing what one loves (and rightly so). We want people to follow their hearts when charting a vocational path, rather than to be co-opted by someone else's vision for their life. At the same time, we are committed to living out an institutional mission that affirms core values, that assumes divinely defined human purpose, that prizes some life paths above others. For example, we value community and service and the common good; if someone's life runs directly opposite to those commitments, we are concerned. So this is the complex path we walk: affirming without imposing, remaining true to transcendent values while being respectful of the individual's conscience and independence of choice.
Finally, given the complexity of living out our mission in human community, staff and faculty are fortunate that we're not in this alone! We are privileged to have student leaders deeply committed to the university's mission who are involved each day in the front-line work of building community. When challenging ideas present real-life dilemmas, students in leadership offer a safe, wise presence. In the delicate task of finding one's way in a world of transcendent values, rich conversations with leaders committed to the best interests of those around them are vitally important. Every fall, meeting with students who are preparing for leadership is among the most inspiring moments of the year; one of the joys of working in student life is getting to know many of these leaders.
So commencement is thrilling because students have completed years of challenge to consider important ideas and to think about how those ideas should make a difference in their lives. They have considered their calling and the role that individual passions and transcendent values play in their vocational choices. Their journeys have been enriched by the mentoring of staff and faculty and by the influence of bright and dedicated peers. It has been exciting to recognize commencement as a moment of their personal accomplishment, as well as recognition of this common experience. I will miss this close-range view. At the same time, after 20 years in student life, I look forward to being part of this education I believe in from a different vantage point -- focusing on scholarship and faculty development, and on faith-learning initiatives so central to our work in discernment and vocation. It's great to look forward to furthering the same goals in new ways at the institution I love.