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Stay open, don’t miss right now

| Tuesday, August 26, 2014

This last weekend I had the privilege of saying hello to and welcoming the parents of the entering class of 2018. It was an honor to reflect back not only on what it was like to be a parent during my son’s college orientation, but on what it was like to be entering college myself. By welcoming the new students, I had a chance to recall those first few weeks of college were like for me and what I was thinking as faculty and administrators tried to reassure us and provide helpful insights as to what we might expect and how we might take on what amounts to four of the most exciting and transformative years of our lives.   

In my case, there we were, an intimate 5,000 of us nervous freshman nestled together in the Greek Theater, a beautiful open edifice perched dead center up in the Berkeley Hills. I remember the view of the San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, as well as the beautiful California campus below. Prehistory or not, I was to be a member the class of 1970, at the University of California, Berkeley (Cal), in the fall of 1966. Little did we know that we were on the precipice of the most tumultuous-social and political period in the history of the university. Further, little did we know we would witness and participate in one of the most dramatic four-year period of cultural change in U.S. history. 

The Vietnam War and the compulsory military draft provided the foundation for third-world strikes, women’s liberation, gay liberation, the rise of the black panthers, Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver controversies, ROTC protests and the Peoples Park riot, just to name but a few. During our last semester, senior year, the Cambodian invasion occurred, an expansion of the war ordered by President Nixon. Met by fierce nation-wide protests on college campuses it culminated with the tragedy at Kent State where four students were shot to death by the National Guard. The killings led to many universities closing down, including my own, alongside the formal cancellation of our graduation ceremony due to the threats of violence. It left my class with the dubious historical distinction of the first class in Cal’s history to have its formal graduation postponed indefinitely until (as it turned out) twenty years later. Our graduation day finally came when we were invited to walk down an aisle to bring closure to a most remarkable and transformative university education.

Certainly, that period of time was intense, but each historical period defines and makes clear without any doubt where the big problems lie. 

In that sense, now is no different. Many new and yet familiar problems plague our world and conflicts make these problems clear to us. 

It goes without saying as the first year students begin and the rest of you resume your Notre Dame involvement that the great privilege of attending Our Lady’s University requires us to responsibly work towards solutions, big and small, to the problems central in our times. 

Before we can move forward with solutions, however, we must be open to discovering them.

Try to remember when thinking about a major or a career to always remain open to what universities do best — surprise you with an interest and passion you could never have anticipated. Always let your heart do the choosing, because if you choose what excites you (I promise you) that not only will you never be wrong, but when the next “biggest” decision you need to make arrives, you will be exactly where you need to be.  

In other words, in choosing a major keep in mind that you will flourish in the field you love! You cannot know how you will feel one, two or three years from now, but you certainly know what you feel and think right now. Trust it, believe in yourself. At first it may be scary, but your years ahead will only validate the choices made by the heart. 

My second point of advice makes me reflect on John Lennon’s most spectacular observation expressed in a lyric. He said, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” 

Today — right now — and the next year are as important and valuable as any days that you experience. Never ignore or dismiss the joy and happiness that come from the people filling your present life, nor under estimate that, for the most part, it will never get better than how wonderful it is now. 

Please students, don’t miss it! 

Love and best wishes to you all. 

James McKenna

Edmund P. Joyce C.S.C. Chair, Anthropology

director, Mother-Baby Behavioral Sleep Laboratory

Aug. 25

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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