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In Service of the Vision: The Inaugural Address of Sister Mary Persico, IHM, Ed.D.

October 28, 2016

For me to stand here at this moment is a humbling experience. To look out upon the students for whom this university exists brings joy to my heart; a shout out to you and thank you for your presence, even on a Friday when classes are not in session.

To see Sisters, especially my IHM Sisters, family, friends, alumni, mentors, and co-workers gather together here on this fall day is heartwarming and encouraging, and I warmly welcome you.

To recognize community leaders from government, city, and county agencies who work tirelessly for the citizens of our region, I greet you and thank you for your support of this university.

To acknowledge our esteemed Bishop Bambera; our emcee, Msgr. Quinn; and our brother priests is my privilegewe are blessed by your presence.

To recognize and applaud my two immediate predecessors and my Sisters, Sister Mary Reap and Sister Anne Munley, is a pleasure, and I take this opportunity to welcome you home.

To join distinguished colleagues from Sister Institutions, Faculty, Trustees, and members of the Marywood University Corporation in academic procession is an honor I don’t take lightly, and I am proud to walk by your side. To one and all, without exception, I am happy you are here.

I thank you, Frank and Dr. Palmiter, Maria and Yerodin, Sister Ellen, Sister John Michele, Mrs. McDonough, Mr. Ide, and Mrs. Olivetti, for your greetings, readings, and kind words. I commit myself to the constituencies you represent so well and know we will work together for the common good of Marywood and those we serve. And, finally, I thank you, Atty. Lori (Lisa), for your introduction, and for your competent leadership as Chair of the Board of Trustees.

Today, we come to celebrate – not the past, not the present, not even the future. We come to celebrate a vision, a vision that floats in and out of our psyches, that every once in a while moves us to tears, that touches our souls when we least expect it to do so. The common denominator that brings us to this moment is a place that has found a home in our hearts, a place we all call Marywood. What has brought us here? What has kept us here? What has called us back? Each one of us, like the prophet Habakkuk in the Hebrew Scriptures, waits for the answers to those questions, and, on days like today, the answer comes: “The vision still has its time.”

We are an interesting lot, this Marywood community. We are faculty and staff, students and alumni, management and governance. We are friends and neighbors, mentors and newcomers, civic and spiritual leaders. And our disparate lives converge on an elusive yet real, enigmatic yet pragmatic, 101-year-old vision that still has its time.

Humans like us try to put words on the vision of those wise ones who have gone before us. We call those words “our mission statement,” and, in difficult times or memorable moments and everything in between, we call upon our mission, our true north, to guide us on our way.

Marywood’s mission purports to draw its strength from the rich history of the Catholic intellectual tradition, a set of constructs that allows for broad thinking about how to view the world of the 21st Century. Catholic universities sometimes grapple in their attempts to understand the meaning behind the words Catholic intellectual tradition. At Marywood we don’t grapple with the reality that at all times we seek to illumine the minds of our students with truth, to imbue them with a sacred sense of purpose, and to inspire them to treat all people with the dignity bestowed upon them by a loving Creator.

In concrete terms, this happens when all the disciplines taught at this university are integrated into the larger educational experience that is designed intentionally toward the building of a just society. Coupled with the integration of our mission, Marywood faculty understand the global trends in higher education and make choices that combine those trends with their dedication to our students.

Whether it’s online programs that are exponentially on the uptick, or a later concept of blended learning, or the use of ever-evolving digital devices (each student carries an average of three), or many of the other latest intellectual ideas that keep them up at night, the faculty holds uppermost in their minds the needs of our students to keep pace with the professions they have chosen.

That is why when our students leave us, they are well-prepared to be architects, physician assistants, nurses, teachers, therapists, media specialists, and members of many other professions, both in this country and across the globe.

And whereas examples of faculty dedication abound, the same can be said for the many coaches and mentors, counselors and campus ministers, who spend endless hours nurturing the healthy development of our students in body, mind, and spirit. Also, our dedicated staff members support our students and our faculty. They are the ones who perform the vital functions of the University’s day-to-day operations. In fact, some of them are not here with us this afternoon, because they are faithfully tending to these matters. We appreciate and value their hard work and dedication to the Marywood community. In truth, the friendships formed and the impact of positive role-modeling leave imprints on the heart that speak mightily of mission and endure from generation to generation.  

It’s clear that academic pursuit and participation in conversations about the development of the whole person are important. Yet we cannot forget the immense role that service plays in the life of a Catholic university. (We all know that) The concept of service is hard-wired in the culture of American society. In fact, the generosity of Americans is well-documented and admired throughout the world. And, although service is for us, as Americans, a humanitarian requirement, it is more than that for the Marywood community. Serving others is an imperative given to us by the Gospels, and one which, I am happy to say, we accept with grace and magnanimity. Through service, our hearts are touched and we are transformed by the people we serve.

Upon my arrival at Marywood, I eagerly read the report prepared for the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (well, maybe I wasn’t that eager). However, through this document, I learned the facts that I had only intuited before.

The number of hours given in service each year, well into the tens of thousands, while impressive, is not important. The breadth and depth of the outreach of our students, faculty, staff, and alumni speak to the reality that service is inter-woven into our lives. It is inextricably a part of who we are. In the service we render, we demonstrate that we arein yet another aspecta university for the world.

From African, Asian, and Central or South American countries, to far-flung regions of our own country, to our neighborhoods, and in our classrooms, service is second-nature to a Marywoodian. It is reinforced in service-learning and service-directed student programs. Through service, we drive home the concept that we are one human family, longing for the justice that respects the dignity of every person.

Our mission also speaks of empowerment. In the past 100-plus days, I have had the distinctive experience of connecting with a considerable number of Marywood alumni – alumni who, time and time again, have distinguished themselves as leaders among leaders. Their notable careers have taken them literally all over the world and in forums where their voices influence lives and where our Marywood values inform their decisions. Often, I am in awe of the vocations they have chosen to follow – in government, science, law, education, social services, and health care, among many othersbut more than that, I am inspired by the consistency of a common message.

Our alumni have never forgotten the principles upon which this university was founded. While they can easily recall the history of Marywood’s early years, they also realize that the world, one century hence, is living into a new history. 

This new time requires the same commitment to educate a diverse student population, who will not only be prepared to live competitively in society, but will bring strong values to bear on their family lives and in their places of work. Our faithful graduates are prepared to support that commitment, and they do so in concrete ways every day.

Many of them are gathered for this celebration. Look around you. They are trustees, members of the faculty and staff, Sisters, family members, neighbors, and benefactors. Their successful and faithful lives testify to the inestimable worth of a Marywood education, an education which empowered them to pay it forward in countless other lives. They do it effortlessly and selflessly. Our alumni have been empowered and inspired to live the mission every day and to keep it alive wherever they go.

Earlier in this message, I offered greetings to members of the community of Northeast Pennsylvania. Whether you represent state or local government, charitable agencies or municipal offices, whether you are neighbors, our pastors, or our Bishop, it is my dream that Marywood will be home to our regional neighborhoods and a broader society. I dream it will be a place that will continue to be a resource for you, where you can seek cultural enrichment through music, theater, and the arts, perhaps in the amphitheater that will enhance the beauty of our campus, hopefully one year from now.

I dream, that as an engaged university, our neighbors, in the broadest sense of that word, will come here for spiritual and educational development. I dream that, through our programs and partnerships in active collaboration with local agencies, Marywood will contribute to the improvement of public health in our region and in our local families, especially those who have the greatest need.

I dream that young people from area schools can join our own students in service learning and outdoor recreational opportunities. I dream that, as neighbors and friends, you can enjoy the resources and benefits of the state-of-the art Learning Commons that is appropriately located in the center of campus.

In a word, and to borrow a phrase from our original Alma Mater, I dream that Marywood, the University, will be a place that satisfies a thirsty world and spreads God’s glory wide.

I have read that the name of the prophet Habakkuk means “strong embrace.” Perhaps that was urban myth in the cities of Israel in the pre-Christian era, but for my purposes today, I choose to believe it. Habakkuk struggled with questions within himself. He looked askance at the world seemingly crumbling around him. He stood in fear of the external forces that were literally poised to attack his people. Yet something inside him pushed him to persist in challenging the status quo, to persist in asking the questions about how to alleviate the complexities of society that appeared overpowering.

I wonder now about the founders of Marywood. Mother Germaine O’Neill, IHM, was the first President of Marywood College when the doors opened in 1915. The history of Marywood tells us that the actual administration of the college was the responsibility of Sister Immaculata Gillespie (I should figure out how she did that). Anyway, that history from our Archives reads: “She (Sister Immaculata) responded with openness to the challenges of life that gave Marywood its dynamism and confidence throughout many difficult years.

Like Habakkuk, Mother Germaine, Sister Immaculata, and those who joined them in the early years of Marywood’s history – and you will recall these were years that immediately preceded World War I, years when the poverty of this region threatened family life and security – during those moments in history, they struggled with the realities of hard times, yet persisted with the questions, and listened for the answers.

In a time when it was unheard of to educate women, especially the daughters of first generation immigrants, that vision to do so came to them, and in the spirit of the name Habakkuk, they embraced itstrongly. How can we, the extended Marywood community one century later, do less? Rather, we hold fast to that vision, and we will never let it go.

Today, we are still called upon to facilitate the education of immigrants. They are American digital immigrants, who either came of age before the widespread use of digital technology or who lack access to this technology. They are a new first generation of immigrants, who have migrated to this country to flee persecution and to embrace opportunity. They are international students, who seek a way to improve their lives and the lives of their families with a Marywood education.

Notice the banners attractively hung all around campus. They represent our students hailing from 40 countries around the globe. It goes without saying that we all learn from the rich cultural diversity they bring to campus.

Students, look around you. The truth of the matter is that this gathering today is all about you. We are here, carrying on this ritual, because of you. Students, I believe that in her second century Marywood has already become a university for the world, a world in need of healing through the education you receive in professional studies and the Liberal Arts. And, students, Marywood is a university whose mission and values disrupt the status quo of a global societya society driven by greed, crippled by the need for power, grappling with untruths and indignities wherever we turn. That mission will stay with you throughout your lifetime and you will make a difference wherever you go.

Students, Marywood is a university which supports and improves the economy of northeast Pennsylvania and beyond by bringing your fresh ideas and innovative techniques to our health care arenas, to business and industry, to schools and social service agencies. And students, the blessing is - we believe in you. The risk is – we count on you. We see in you hope for a stronger, brighter, better world. We look to you to inspire and support future generations of Marywood students. Finallyand this is important—don’t forget to follow me on Twitter@SisPrez!

I am often asked my vision for Marywood, and I have a consistent response. It is not about my vision. It is about our collective re-imagining of a vision that brought Marywood into existence more than 100 years ago. And on those days when we catch glimpses of it, when it floats in and out of our psyches, and even moves us to tears for the depth of its impression on our spirits – then, we say AHA!

The commitment to empower others by educating the whole person compels us. The desire to serve in pursuit of a just society transforms a job into a vocation. The development of true leaders is a mandate we take very seriously. Working for the common good in an interdependent world is what we do every day.

On days like today, we remember our true north, the vision of our founders, and we re-imagine itnot just for our small corner of Northeast Pennsylvania, but for the world! As we live and we work in service of that vision, we embrace itstronglyand we will never let it go.