Fall Convocation Address on Service

Oct 16, 2014

Greetings…I want to express my deepest gratitude to our honored guest, Dr. Richard Gosser, and recognize him once more for the tremendous service he has given and the meaningful difference he has made in the lives of the people of Haiti, as well as for the great impact he has made on his students throughout his career as an educator. We thank him for being with us today and for continuing to be an outstanding role model for all of us. Let’s show him our appreciation with another round of applause.

 In defining service, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright observed, “Service is transformative. At its best, it makes people aware of needs around them. It bridges races and classes, diminishes differences in the pursuit of common goals. It demonstrates that difficult national problems can be addressed and overcome by citizen action. It is an antidote to both selfishness and a feeling of social helplessness.” [1]

At Marywood, the value of service is of our very essence—it is in our spiritual genes. The IHM Sisters who began this institution did so knowing that they wanted to both serve and educate those who, at the time, had the greatest need for higher education: young women—some of them, the daughters of coal miners—who otherwise might not have had the opportunity to pursue and attain a college degree. In 1915, just about one hundred years ago, this was a reality for the women of this region and this country. The Sisters saw—and we still see today—that education is for the greater good of the world. Education equals liberation.

As 19th-century education reformer Horace Mann asserted, “Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer…the balance-wheel of the social machinery.” [2]

The IHM Sisters who founded Marywood as the first Catholic college for women in Pennsylvania in 1915 advanced this transformative thinking. Yet, today, in 2014, challenges to educational access persist in the world. Thankfully, there are courageous, bold-hearted souls who still press forward, as servants of humanity, to see that education is a dream realized for all.

Last week, an extraordinary Pakistani teenager, Malala Yousafzai, at the age of 17, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, exactly two years and a day after Taliban gunmen shot her in the head for daring to speak up for the rights of a girl to get an education. She shared the award with India’s Kailash Satyarthi. Both were recognized for their struggles against the suppression of children and for young people’s rights, including the right to education. Malala is the youngest person to ever receive this prestigious award. The Nobel Peace Prize committee said it was important that a Muslim and a Hindu, a Pakistani and an Indian, had joined in what it called “a common struggle for education and against extremism.” [3]

Madeleine Albright spoke of common goals, and Malala demonstrates what can be achieved through common struggles—I believe it is both common goals and common struggles that bring together people, communities, and nations. Shared goals and struggles push us to serve others, to realize potential, to heal wounds, to mend relationships, and to make this world a better place.

As you learned from Dr. Gosser’s work in Haiti, this world is not without its struggles—some very deep and very painful—but it also is not without purpose. It is not without compassion. It is not without faith. It is not without hope. It is not without love. All of these things: purpose… compassion…faith…hope…and, the greatest of all—love—shape the core value of service.

It is when we turn to one another that we best serve one another and the life of the world. Whatever struggles we face or common goals that we seek to attain, when we turn to one another, we can turn things around!

Through our core value of service, we demonstrate our commitment to promote social responsibility and foster community engagement to meet real needs. Notice—we cannot promote responsibility, foster engagement, or meet real needs without the social and community aspects. In short, we need one another. This is what interdependence is all about. We were not created for isolation. In our struggles and in our triumphs, in our sorrows and in our joys…we need one another. So, service, then, is not merely a task to be done—it is of our very essence; it is who we are and who we must be to live full, abundant, meaningful lives.

Marywood is among four colleges and universities who began looking at the educational needs of African sisters in the mid-1990s. In Africa, there is an acute need for expanded educational opportunities for women religious so that they can acquire higher education credentials to effectively run their ministries and address the needs of their people. The African Sisters Education Collaborative (ASEC) was formally initiated in 1999, beginning with the education of a handful of African sisters.

Since that time, we have expanded ASEC through programs, such as the Sisters Leadership Development Initiative (SLDI) and the Higher Education for Sisters in Africa (HESA) project, generously funded by grants from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. All of these initiatives are helping to “turn around” limited access to educational programs for Catholic sisters in nine sub-Saharan countries who touch millions of lives through their ministries. By 2017, we expect that 756 Sisters will have been educated; and they are passing on what they have learned to others. Do you know how many have been mentored and served by the sisters in the first SLDI cohorts?  Two years ago, we estimated the total number served to be 1,436,422 [4] …now, it is surely close to or even more than two million…millions of lives changed, served, transformed, and turned around for good by something that began as a hopeful dream and a desire to meet a very real need on an international level.

The tragedy that occurred at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, nearly two years ago, when 20 school children and six adult staff members were fatally shot by a gunman, gave us all solemn pause. In the aftermath of this horrific tragedy, however, some people decided there had to be something beyond the tears, so they acted by turning to one another, and, in turn, serving others.

Michael and Sarah Baroody, two young physicians with two small daughters, looked at the pain in their community, and wanted to do something to promote healing. Together with a few others, they created the 12.14 Foundation, whose mission is to build a landmark Performing Arts Centre in Newtown, Connecticut, to create a memorial that expresses the respect, passion, and resilience of the Newtown community and focuses on hope for the future—healing others through the arts. [5]  

Working with Richard Pilbrow, one of the world’s leading theatre consultants, and volunteer Broadway directors and performers, the Foundation has already staged sell-out performances of Suessical the Musical and 101 Dalmatians incorporating more than 100 Newtown-area children as members of the casts. This is a powerful example of turning toward one another to help turn around an unspeakable horror into a life-giving and empowering celebration of the arts.

William Lavin, a veteran New Jersey firefighter, was literally knee-deep as he helped victims of Hurricane Sandy to recover in 2012. He could not imagine that any greater tragedy could strike…and then Sandy Hook happened. Mr. Lavin and his fellow firefighters formed the Where Angels Play Foundation [6] and made it their goal to create 26 playgrounds—each one named in memory of those precious souls who lost their lives.

As of this date, all 26 playgrounds have been constructed. Toni Giordano, the contractor who helped to design and build the playgrounds, recalled that firefighters and police officers from New Jersey and New York, corporate executives, several foundation executives, and volunteers were ready to go from the very first meeting. She said, “We all shared our stories, we all openly cried, then we hugged and shook hands, making a commitment to build the 26 playgrounds.” [7]

Any of these people could have just shrugged and said, “Isn’t that a shame? What can we do in the face of such tragedy?” Instead, they turned to one another; they turned to their communities; they turned to the nation and to the rest of the world and said, through their actions, “Let’s serve one another; let’s heal together; let’s transform our sorrow; let’s move forward with purpose; let’s work together to turn things around!”

Many of you who are here today will recall that I issued a Centennial Service Challenge at this year’s Opening Liturgy. I asked you to open your minds and hearts to see the real needs that surround us—locally, nationally, and internationally—and then act to meet them. I invited you to identify those causes that speak to your heart or those issues which cry out for justice…then act.

It is up to each individual how to respond, but you have some great role models today from whom you can draw inspiration…Dr. Gosser, our esteemed speaker; the IHM Sisters, who founded this institution and continue to serve it today; Malala Yousafzai, the most recent and youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner; the entities that work collaboratively to help ASEC achieve its potential; and inspiring people such as Michael and Sarah Baroody, William Lavin and Toni Giordano. All of these began their mission to turn things around through service by seeing and responding to real needs…real tragedies…real people.

Service is at the heart of Marywood University. We have been named to the President’s Community Service Honor Roll—a national recognition—for five consecutive years. It has been about a month and half since the Centennial Service Challenge was first issued, and we are at nearly 15,000 volunteer service hours already! For those of you who are serving in countless ways on behalf of Marywood, I thank you! We are well on our way to achieving or surpassing the service goal we’ve set for our Centennial year, and we are sending a clear message to all that the bold heart of Marywood University beats with joyful, loving service!

Today, I ask you to think about how, where, and who you are serving; in what other ways you could serve; and, also, why you are serving. When we take the time to be aware, we deepen our experience of life. Service isn’t showy; it’s about meeting people where they are—whether they are in Haiti…in Pakistan…in Africa…in Newtown, Connecticut…in Scranton, Pennsylvania…or sitting right next to you today.

In her book, titled, quite appropriately, Turning to One Another, [8] Margaret J. Wheatly writes:

There is no power greater than a community discovering what it cares about.

Ask “What’s possible?” not “What’s wrong?” Keep asking.

Notice what you care about.

Assume that many others share your dreams.

Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.

          Talk to people you know.

          Talk to people you don’t know.

          Talk to people you never talk to.

Be intrigued by the differences you hear.

          Expect to be surprised.

          Treasure curiosity more than certainty.

Invite everybody who cares to work on what’s possible.

          Acknowledge that everyone is an expert about something.

          Know that creative solutions come from new connections.

Remember, you don’t fear people whose story you know.

Real listening always brings people closer together.

Trust that meaningful conversations can change your world.

Rely on human goodness. Stay together.

That is indeed excellent advice for our entire Marywood University community in a year in which we are focusing on our core value of service. Thank you for the countless ways in which you are living this core value and for the more that is yet to come.          

 

Sources: 

[1] Albright, M. (2014, June 5). D-Day About National Service. USA Today, online. http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2014/06/05/dday-us-military-wwii-public-service-column/10030423/

[2] Twelfth annual report to the Massachusetts State Board of Education, 1848; also published in Life and Works of Horace Mann Vol. III, (1868) edited by Mary Mann, p. 669.

[3] Malala wins Nobel Peace Prize. (2014, October 10). http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-29564935

[4] ASEC Handout for the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (2012), http://www.asec-sldi.org/dotAsset/0bb5b14e-c784-4cd6-870c-ffd193a1dcd1.pdf

[5] The 12.14 Foundation: http://www.1214foundation.org/

[6] Where Angels Play Foundation: http://whereangelsplayfoundation.org/ 

[7] Griffin, A. & Kovner, J. (2013, December 13). Reclaiming Joy, In Honor Of Newtown Victims. Hartford Courant, online. http://articles.courant.com/2013-12-13/news/hc-sandy-hook-playgrounds-20131212_1_newtown-victims-playground-hurricane-sandy

[8] Wheatley, M. J. (2002). Turning to One Another. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.