Hello from Panera Bread,
While I am usually writing from home, I am banned from my home and the Acre for a bit because the house is being shown. There has been some genuine interest this week, or so it seems. I am to an expert at these things, so I am depending on my realtor to help me navigate this world. It is always interesting how we depend on others around us. One of the things I tell my students is not a single person gets to where they are without some help along the way. I think of times when I was first starting out my life, whether it was my first time in college, my first time as a married person, my first time as a graduate student, my first time as a tenure-track professor, there was someone who helped me along the way. I think of when my mother passed away and we had to get back to Iowa from Minnesota, and we needed to fly . . . we did not have the extra money as I was a married seminary student and someone helped us financially. I remember when Susan, at the last minute, decided she wanted to go to Europe with my seminary class and my Great Aunt and Uncle helped us financially or again when they purchased my first computer for me as a senior seminary student.
But not all help is financial . . . Cristina Matthews, a former talented colleague here at Bloomsburg, did so much to make my navigating paperwork or finding the correct place to answer questions much easier my first year. Some of my professors/mentors at Michigan Tech are friends to this day because they helped this older non-traditional doctoral student manage the rigors and expectations of a doctoral program. Drs. Patty Sotirin, Elizabeth Flynn, or Victoria Bergvall have all continued to support me as a colleague in the academy and their care and support means more to me than they could ever know. Just this morning, I have the opportunity to speak with an incredible undergraduate colleague I met my first fall at Dana College. As I told her, I was frightened and unsure I had the ability to be a college student. I had already failed and dropped out once. Fortunately, Peter Bonde, a junior, was my roommate. He introduced to me a wonderful group of upper level students and they were my social support as much as my same year classmates were support in my classes. Earlier today I was inducted into a First Generation College Student Honor Society. That is still astounding to me that when I started college I had little support from my home. I know my father was proud of my path, but I remember him asking me what I could do with the 164 credits, two majors, and two minors I had earned as I walked to my commencement. I remember the look of shock on his face when I answered nothing, but go on to graduate school, which is what I did. I remember my mother telling me I lied when I told her what it cost me to attend college and I had to show the catalog to her to prove the veracity of my statement.
It is not uncommon for me to be questioned by my students about being a professor and they ask if I always knew this is what I would do. My answer is honest and simple. I tell them I had no idea this would be where I might be or what I might do. In fact, there are still times I must ask myself, “How did I get here?” As some of you know, I have a 2.8 as a GPA out of high school. What I know now is I was capable of much more, but I had little discipline or understanding of why doing better mattered. I grew up with the blue collar understanding the I neither had the brains nor the money to go to college. As I noted in a recent blog. People from Riverside, my section of Sioux City, seldom went to college. A few years ago, when back in town for a benefit for my best and closest childhood friend, I found myself at a table with my high school classmates. It was the first time I was with most of them in 40 years. After we figured out who each other was, one asked me what I did. I answered honestly, “I am a college professor.” His response took me back a bit, but knowing our backgrounds, there was some appropriate surprise. He said, “No fuckin’ shit?” I looked at him calmly, and answered, offering his terminology right back to him, “Yes; no fuckin’ shit.” He smiled and said, “Cool.” End of conversation.
This past year and a half, post-shutdown, has been a trial for most. Regardless your position in higher education, administrator, staff, faculty, or student, working through managing, supporting, teaching, or learning, little prepared us for the demands COVID has placed on all of us. What is profoundly apparent to me is we have all floundered at times. We have all risen to the occasion and did amazing work at times. However, the most important thing realized is this: we are so dependent on each other if we are to succeed in these times. That is always the case, as noted above, but for me the intentionality of that support and the importance of seeing others before myself has never been more apparent. This semester, I struggled in ways I do not generally struggle. To put it simply and honestly, I have been hanging on by my fingernails most of the semester. I have noted numerous times, they are not long, but they are strong. I am not sure that was even enough this spring. Fortunately, with some conversations and some retooling, with listening to my students and my chair, we are in a place I can feel better about things. Students are struggling because they have been placed in circumstances they do not always expect. Faculty are struggling because in spite of best intentions and plans, sometimes we fail. Staff keep plugging along and doing the best they can as the terrain shifts around them. And while we might like to point fingers at administrators, I do believe they are trying to manage the changing terrain, world, and demands from all of us and more the best they can. It moves us back to the place I began. We are dependent on each other. There is no way around that. We are trying to do the best we can with what we have and what we believe. I certainly do not mean that in some polyannish kumbyah sing and it will all be good way. This year as been a struggle. What happens on the other side is still uncertain. When do we actual get to the other side? What will that look like? What will be forever changed? None of these questions have answers at the moment, but I have to believe we are in it together.
As I noted with my chair last night, it was only a few days over 12 years ago that I interviewed at Bloomsburg. Little did I know what Bloomsburg as a professional stop would do for me, but I knew I wanted to do it well. Little did I know there would be so many profound changes in my life, but there should be no surprise in that. I did know this would hopefully be my last professional position. Of course, I have picked up a second one along the way, as an Adjunct Associate Professor of Medical Education. What I know is I could have not come to a better place than Bloomsburg. It was exactly what I needed, though I did not know that when I rode my Harley from Wisconsin to Pennsylvania by way of Tennessee and up through the Shenandoah Valley. My colleague, and now chair, Dr. Mark Decker gave me a simple statement of advice. He said, “Michael, be the plumber.” At the time, I stared blankly at him, mystified. He explained, “Plumbers are needed. Make yourself needed.” He would elucidate a bit more, but it was the best advice he could have offered. It is about being helpful. It is about being unselfish. From the beginning of my collegiate career, I have been blessed by selfless mentors: Drs. Nielsen (all of them), Jorgensen, Stone, or Bansen. In seminary, Drs. Tiede, Fretheim, Juel, Koester, Debner . . . and I have noted others earlier. Seldom do we realize their importance at the time. Someone once told me if you profoundly affect five people in your life, you can consider your life successful. Certainly there are two elements and questions to ponder about this statement. What does it mean to be successful, and, as importantly, how does one measure profundity? I do not believe either term is easily defined, for a variety of reasons. Too often we equate success materially; too often we understand the profound nature of something by its uniqueness or perhaps by the understanding it is unparalleled in our daily existence. If that is correct, we seldom realize such a person in our life until after they or we have moved beyond that time or space.
Perhaps I should note five people I believe profoundly affected my life, and I will focus on those outside my family. I should note this is not in any particular order. Dr. John W. Nielsen, one of my two undergraduate advisors. He might be one the most intelligent, mystical, and incredible people I have ever met. He is the truest example of a Renaissance person. Brilliant, principled, and influential beyond anything he would ever imagine because of his humility. Dr. Donald Juel, my New Testament professor at LNTS. He taught me as much about being a scholar and reaching for my potential as anyone. He pushed me and influenced my theology as much as anyone. I wish he would have lived longer. Sheldon (Bud) Reese, a church member and surrogate father to a young man afraid to grow up and take accountability. He had no idea how important he was at the time, but perhaps later, as I would stop to visit and check in with him every time I came home to Sioux City there was some inkling. He was, and would be, there at a moment’s notice – like when he bailed me out of jail one night at 3:00 a.m. The Reverend Fred Peters, my parish pastor, the father of one of my best friends as well as the father of the first girl I liked after coming home from the Marines. He is the person I chose to preach at my ordination. He was the man who taught me accountability like no other. He was an incredible pastor, the person who most influenced me to attend seminary and the man who was an amazing preacher, parish pastor, and surrogate father to me, even when I wasn’t ready for him. Lee and Judy Swenson, and yes, I realize there are two, but they are a couple, and my first host family during my year travels for Lutheran Youth Encounter. They are not old enough to be my parents, so they are the most like older siblings. They have been part of me for two-thirds of my life, and I am still blessed by them. They are simply the kindest, most supportive, and sort of perfect people you will ever meet. I could write a book about how important they have been in their support and love toward me for over four decades. None of these people might be aware of their incredible influence and the ways they influenced me to improve and strive to be better. There are more people who could be here and certainly should be here, but I promised to only do five (and even then I snuck in six). I could probably do different areas or groups.
Simply put, as I began, we do not get where we are without help. We do not accomplish much individually when it comes to who we become in the long term. I am continually humbled by the people around me. Their work, their brilliance, their dedication inspire me. Life is really an astounding opportunity if we will avail ourselves to it. Even in the midst of the crazy pandemic, in the divisiveness and mistrust, there is so much to be grateful for. As you go about your days, remember the people who have influenced your life. Give thanks for them. If they are still in your life, reach out to them and let them now how much they matter and how blessed you are for knowing them. You will make their day as well as your own. It is not rocket science as my friend has a habit of saying. It is simple gratitude. It is selflessness, and it makes us all better. To all who have reached out to me in various ways as I write these posts, thank you. To all of my students who make me a better person, thank you. There are so many songs that remind me of some of these times in my life, but remember when I first learned to play this song. I was so excited to share it. Amazing those times in Rasmussen Hall my senior year at Dana.
Thanks as always for reading . . . remember to thank those who made a difference.