Editor’s Note: Rita Gow, the 2010-11 Professor of the Year, delivered the following remarks at academic convocation.
Thank you for such a nice introduction. It is a great honor to stand before you today as the 2010-11 Professor of the Year. I join a distinguished group of faculty, some of which are here today.
I want to thank President Díaz-Herrera, Dr. Weed, Dr. Sellers, my fellow faculty members, the staff, and other members of the administration and the Board of Trustees for giving me this opportunity to speak to you. I also would like to acknowledge the continued support of my husband Mike, children Steve and Jennifer, and daughter-in-law Rachel. They continue to encourage me to do my best as I try new things and explore new opportunities in life.
I am so pleased to welcome our returning students, our transfer students, our new international students and the incoming freshman class of 2015. Today we are here to celebrate you. We welcome you not just to our campus, but to the Keuka community. We hope that the years you spend here will forever change you for the better.
What I want to talk about to you today is “change.” Things are moving very fast around you—social, economic and political issues are causing major changes in the world today. Advancements in global communications are making the world a smaller place and reaction to events much quicker. The one thing you can rely on is that things will change.
“Change begets change, nothing propagates so fast” (Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit, 1844).
But let’s personalize this discussion— coming to Keuka College is a big change for you. You are now an independent adult, responsible for your own actions. How you deal with this and other changes will shape your life.
Most people don’t like change. We are creatures of habit, we like our routines, and we don’t like to deal with uncertainty. Change pushes us outside our comfort zone. But it’s good to step outside of that box. You are excited to be here at Keuka and you are wondering how this new experience is going to work out. We all feel a bit of anxiety at some point—this is not necessarily a bad thing. It can motivate you. If you care enough about something, you will try to do your best. We hope that this decision you have made (to join the Keuka community) will motivate you to try new things, join in new activities, and make new life-long friends.
You are here in college today to make changes in your life. You hope to gain knowledge that will serve you well in whatever choice of major and career you contemplate. Some of you came here with definite ideas in mind and others have no clue. College is a journey. You may take many different turns in the road to find out what satisfies you and what makes you happy.
That’s why college is so great— you can try anything and everything, and I encourage you to do just that. But as my mother warned me, and I am sure your parents have warned you, that some things should definitely be tried in moderation!
This liberal arts-based college will provide you with the opportunity to take different courses and find out what excites you. It’s OK to change your mind; I did. I started college as a science major who wanted to be a veterinarian. I soon switched to economics and then added accounting. I should also mention that I never had a pet until about three years ago.
We resist change because of fear of the unknown, uncertainty about the future, but it’s really a fear of failure, isn’t it? Students often don’t talk in class because they have a fear of failure; not getting things right. You can’t fail if you don’t try, but you can’t succeed either. Failure is really the only way to learn how to succeed.
Most successful business owners have had a series of failed attempts under their belt. Economic downturns have forced many displaced workers to start small businesses. Losing a job has motivated entrepreneurs to turn creative ideas into thriving businesses. They all would tell you that it is not easy, the success rate is low, and they work extremely hard. But most would also tell you that they did not regret the decision. They seized an opportunity brought about by a change, over which they had no control.
At Keuka, in addition to your academic courses, you will have four opportunities or what we call “Field Periods” to try new things. A Field Period (internship) focused on your chosen major is a creative way to make sure you are heading in the right direction. Sometimes the Field Period helps redirect you, because you found out that you did not like the experience. It then creates an opportunity to make one of those changes I keep talking about.
John C Maxwell wrote a book called Failing Forward – turning mistakes into stepping stones for success, (Maxwell Motivation Inc., 2000). He tells us to “confidently look the prospect of failure in the eye and move forward anyway. Because, in life, the question is not if you will have problems, but how you are going to deal with the problems.”
“Failing forward” is really a great phrase. It implies positive momentum rather than negative. You can make the best of a bad situation and turn it around to your advantage. It’s really OK to fail. But I caution you that I am talking about those little everyday failures—it is not OK to fail your courses!
We all know the first step is to start or try something. The more frequently you take that first step, the easier it will become. We all face stumbling blocks, but soon figure a way around them. Learning how to move beyond problems is what is most important. That is what “failing forward” is all about.
I urge you to not let your fear of change hold you hostage. Rather, embrace change! Think of something you’d like to change about yourself. What would it take to do it? Small steps make it easier to do.
Make a friend, get involved in an activity or join a club, talk to a professor, ask a question in class, put a little more effort into your assignments or outside jobs. What does it take? It takes that first step forward we discussed, and then practice. You will become good at it and you will be happier for it.
Give someone an opportunity to get to know you. Be the first to reach out to another person and tell them something about you. I can start you on this right now by setting an example. I am the youngest of nine children. I have seven brothers and one sister. As you can imagine, dealing with seven older brothers has served me well in the classroom!
But another fact most people don’t know is that all of our names began with “R:” Robert, Richard, Ronald, Ralph, Roger, Rosemary, Raymond, Russell, and Rita. More embarrassingly, my mother used to put numbers on our lunch bags. Being the ninth child, instead of my name, I had the number 9 on my lunch bag. At an awkward age, it was really embarrassing to have to explain why there was a””9” on my lunch bag. What I discovered was that most people thought it was funny and I was really OK. Hopefully, these “odd” facts that I have shared will make me seem more human, and make you a little more comfortable in my classroom. Now take it forward and share some fact with someone else this week. If it fails, move forward to the next person. Sharing a part of yourself is a great first step.
I have noticed that some students aspire to a “C” as a goal. Aim higher! Whatever your perception of your abilities in high school, wipe the slate clean and change it now. Yes, perceptions can be changed, too. When a student thinks something is hard in my class, I tell them they have the ability and they can do it. They just need to try, by taking it step by step. Effort and practice will help you to be successful in anything you do.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit” (Aristotle).
You are responsible for your own actions from this day forward. In “failing forward,” Maxwell tells us to say goodbye to yesterday (Maxwell). I certainly don’t want you to say goodbye to family and to friends, but to “would have,” “could have,” and “should have.” Don’t blame others and don’t blame what’s happened in the past. Move forward and make the present and the future your own. Thank you.