Interim President Rob Vischer sent the following note to faculty and staff on Sunday, Sept. 4.
When I was in kindergarten, my mom moved us to another state for several months during a difficult time. I was joining a class midyear in a town where I didn’t know anyone. The teacher poured herself into me for those months, making me feel welcomed and valued. At the end of the year, we were moving back home, and the teacher knew that she wouldn’t see me again. She said, “Don’t worry, we’ll see each other in heaven.” That was a pretty jolting end-of-year farewell for a kindergartener to hear, but she did not sugarcoat the reality that her window for connecting with me had closed. And thanks be to God, she had made the most of it.
I’ve thought of that kindergarten teacher repeatedly during my years in higher education. Do I show through my words and actions that I understand I only have a limited window of time with the student sitting in front of me? Or do my words and actions suggest that I’m taking this student’s presence for granted, as though I’ll have lots of opportunities in the future to make a connection, to learn their story, to have an influence? We don’t know if any particular student will take another class from us, play on the team next season, visit the reference desk with another question, return to our food service line needing a word of encouragement, or stop by our office again for advice. Moments when genuine encounter is possible do not last forever.
On Tuesday, our new undergraduate students will march through the Arches and into our community. We know that we have a large and diverse incoming class. We know lots of aggregate data about them. That’s important information, but aggregate data will not be marching through the Arches. Hundreds of beautifully unique lives will be – lives that have been shaped by times of triumph and loss, joy and despair, belonging and loneliness. As they come through the Arches, they will carry the hopes and fears of parents who long for our St. Thomas community to see and know their sons and daughters as they have seen and known them. They are lives that are ready to learn and grow, but they are lives that must first be encountered.
We know from research that alumni are three times more likely to report that their college experience was “very rewarding” if, as a student, they formed significant relationships with at least seven faculty or staff members. As we begin a new academic year, will you look for an opportunity this week to become one of those seven for at least one student?
Our window is about to open. Let’s make the most of it.