You made it to college, now what?

More stories from Todd Giles

What does it mean to get a degree from a small, public, liberal arts university like MSU? What are you going to make of your time here? What’s your legacy going to be both here and in the larger world? Are you simply here to get a piece of paper to help you land your first job? Or are you here to learn about yourself and your place in the world? Can you do both?

Occasionally in life, we are afforded the rare opportunity of seeking and embracing transformative experiences for ourselves and our communities. College is one of those all-too-rare opportunities. Snatch it up while you can because, believe me, they don’t come around often and they certainly don’t last long.

I graduated from two large schools—Texas Tech and the University of Kansas. One thing I learned at Tech as an undergrad was that you can get an intimate and engaging world-class education wherever you go to college if you willfully seek it out.

What is a world-class education? It’s an education grounded in the diversity of the liberal arts. And what are the liberal arts? They’re disciplines like the humanities, philosophy, history, the sciences, mathematics, literature and the fine arts. A true education is one that enlightens minds, changes lives and inspires greatness in oneself and others. The liberal arts move us beyond simple job training; they enrich the whole person—heart, mind and soul.

I encourage you to seek out these classes. Embrace them. Don’t go through your brief time here with major-only blinders on. Take classes that sound interesting and challenging to you, ones that open you up to new ideas, and, yes, even those that expose you to some intellectual and/or emotional discomfort. Push yourself by taking classes that ask the big questions: Who am I? Why am I here? What are my obligations to humanity and the natural world?

Becoming an educated person is about developing into a more sophisticated, empathetic and engaged citizen. In fact, becoming an educated person is about learning to exist in a state of perpetual becoming—of being a lifelong learner who never settles into the rank bog of preconceived notions and handed-down beliefs. It’s about learning to think critically for and about yourself, making conscientious decisions for the environment and your community, developing a cultural literacy that moves beyond your own surroundings and upbringing, and experiencing and understanding the world as it truly is—diverse, alive, interconnected, and finite. In short, the liberal arts is about what it means to be human in a radically pluralistic and constantly changing world.

As much as I hate to say it, your generation has been saddled with cleaning up the mess left behind by my generation and those who came before me. Now more than ever, we need business leaders steeped in the economics of sustainability, health professionals grounded in the empathy of cultural diversity, ecologically ethical engineers and teachers who can root their students’ learning in the concepts of compassion, interconnectivity and sense of place. It’s a critical time, my friends; how will you be poised for the ecological, economic and spiritual challenges that must be faced head-on during your lifetimes?

I share these heady thoughts with you as we begin another academic year because I not only want to welcome you into the community, I also want to encourage you to spread your wings while here, to soar as high and as unfettered as you can, so when you look down from above, you see the broader map of wisdom. Find the connections. Create new ones. Thrive amongst them. Open your mind—and the minds of your professors—to new possibilities, to new ways of knowing and being. We’re here, just like you, to learn to approach the world in new and exciting ways. Onward and upward!