“Dare to Be Different”
Presidential Convocation Address
Huntingdon College, Montgomery, Alabama
August 28, 2013
Well, first year students, entering class: This one’s for you. This speech is for you. Everyone else is here to listen in while I talk with you.
Huntingdon, as you are learning, is defined by many traditions. Some traditions are new and just getting off the ground, like the Block Party at the President’s House with 300 of my best friends a couple of nights ago. (Stay tuned for news about Trick or Treating at the President’s House.) Some traditions are old, like the Oracle Hunt you’ll have a chance to join just before you graduate. The Oracle Hunt goes back 75 years. Some traditions are informal, like the arrival of Saint Nicholas on a fire truck just before we light the Christmas trees on the front porch of Flowers Hall the Thursday night before exams. Some traditions are formal, like this occasion today. This tradition — the Presidential Convocation (“convocation” means “a coming together”) — is a time we set aside every year during the first week of class to remind ourselves of what college is all about.
As I look out at you:
“I note the obvious differences Between each sort and type,
But we are more alike, my friends, Than we are unalike.”
I did not write that poem, entitled, “Human Family.” It was written by the great American poet Maya Angelou; who is Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University. But it does, indeed, express what I see this morning as I look out at you. I see tall people and short people. I see big people and small people. I see black hair and brown hair, and red hair, and blonde hair, and orange hair. I see noses and ears unadorned by rings; and I see noses…and ears…and other body parts pierced, and studded, and who knows what else. I see Chi O’s and AO Pi’s, and Phi Mu’s, and those elusive, mysterious creatures the Gamma Chi’s. I see Sig Ep’s, and Sigma Nu’s, and Kappa Alpha Psi’s, and Lambda Chi wannabe’s. I see Kappa Kappa Psi’s and Tau Beta Sigma’s. I see students who wouldn’t be caught dead speaking Greek. I see Methodists, and Baptists, and Episcopalians, and Presbyterians, and Catholics, and Jews, and None-of-the-Above. Fall athletes, winter athletes, spring athletes, band, choir, cheerleaders, dancers, color guard. Alabamians, Floridians, Texans, North and South Carolinians, Buckeyes, Marylanders, New Englanders, students from west of the Mississippi, students from other nations. Black, white. And, oh yes, lest we forget why we are really here in the first place: I see Humanities majors, Natural Science majors, Mathematics majors, Business and Accounting majors, Sport Science and Physical Education majors, Music and Art majors, Communication and Education and Psychology majors, and Undecideds. It’s fine to be an Undecided and really think about, for awhile, just what your major should be. I was an Undecided until my third semester, and I appear to have turned out OK.
I note the obvious differences Between each sort and type…
The poem does not end there, of course. But let’s pause for a moment and own up to the reality that — in one way or another — we ARE all different from each other. We are individuals. So celebrate yourself! You are each unique; each of you is endowed wondrously with a configuration of gifts different than the gifts which configure the person on either side of you, the person in front of you, the person behind you. I know, for example, that — although we are all three Methodist ministers — Bishop Debbie is a far better basketball player than I have ever been or ever will be. (After all, she’s from Kentucky, and she played basketball in college: she’s tough!) And I know from watching him the past five years that Bishop Paul is a far more patient man than I have ever been or ever will be. (I had a hard enough time when I supervised one church, much less 600 as he does.) And there are many other, much more subtle, much less noticeable differences among the three of us, which anyone who knows the three of us well could spell out to you.
But…we are more alike, my friends Than we are unalike.
Today I want to challenge you, each of my first year friends, to dare to be different. But I want you to dare to be different in a particular way as you go through your years here: not by highlighting and dwelling on what separates you from each other but by using your individual gifts and identities to build bridges to each other. Find those things you have in common; make yourself stronger by grasping the hand of someone who…though she, though he…may not look or think exactly like you or belong to the same group as you, nevertheless shares a commitment to something which can be made stronger by the two of you working together.
College is about daring to be different, daring to be different by discovering what unites you and then acting with that united front to make the world, or maybe even just your team, your Greek organization, your residence hall suite a better place. If you open the new Huntingdon Admissions viewbook, which you can find in the kiosk just outside the President’s Office, you will see pictures of your fellow students daring to be different…in spite of their differences.
You will see a picture of students from various social fraternities and sororities united in a Greek system which dares to be different by upholding the true and original Greek fraternal ideals: scholarship, service and honor. Dare to be different! Huntingdon Different!
You will see a picture of a black man and a white woman from very different places and backgrounds who came together to serve as Huntingdon
Ambassadors, who came together to major in Psychology — members of the Class of 2013 who have gone on to graduate study in counseling because they have the same compassionate heart to serve and guide people who will need their help. Dare to be different! Huntingdon Different!
You will see a picture of 20 women and their coaches in lacrosse gear, who came to Alabama from different places all over the United States as individuals and who showed this College last year how a diverse group of women from everywhere can bond in the Deep South as a unit of not only teammates but also friends. Dare to be different! Huntingdon Different!
You will see pictures of students, many if not most who had never truly traveled anyplace far from their various homes, united in their resolve to become citizens of the globe, journeying on The Huntingdon Plan to Paris, to Germany, to Scotland, to Costa Rica — stretching, extending themselves far beyond their own backyards. Dare to be different! Huntingdon Different!
You will even see a picture of Dr. Erastus Dudley — he of the four Yale degrees, academic gown askew, necktie as always nowhere in sight, decidedly of heritage that’s not from around here, and of no athletic ability to speak of — standing with the decidedly different physical specimen Austin Worley — Huntingdon football star; attired nattily in gray suit, white button down shirt, striped business tie. Different as they can be just to look at them, but different — Huntingdon Different! — in the scholarly and humane commitment they share together to make science the servant of preventing disease and relieving human suffering. Dare to be different! Huntingdon Different!
Fifty years ago today, on August 28, 1963, a young black preacher who began his ministry in Montgomery, Alabama, stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and spoke to 200,000 of his fellow citizens, black and white, gathered there to march for freedom and jobs. Millions more watched on TV, myself included, a 13 year old boy about to begin 8th grade. This preacher told his listeners that he had a dream. A dream that looked beyond the conflicts tearing America apart that summer to a future envisioned in the Declaration of Independence — that all people are created equal.
Martin Luther King, Jr. could have let the divisions in America, the hatred he had suffered, drive him to hatred and violence. You can tour the parsonage where he and his family lived in Montgomery, the one that was bombed in the middle of the night. But he dared to be different, this son of Alabama, this son of Georgia. “We cannot walk alone,” he thundered as President Lincoln looked down on him from that big chair. “We must forever conduct [ourselves] on the high plane of dignity and discipline….Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force [with non-violence]…we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.”
Dare to be different!
My young friends, as you march ahead in your college years, dare to be different. Celebrate who you are as an individual, yes; but do not walk alone. Remember, as Dr. King told his audience 50 years ago, remember that your destiny is tied up with the destiny of everyone around you, of each sort and type.
Together, over the next several years, you can make yourselves stronger, and wiser, and a force for good. Together. Always remember this: You Are Huntingdon. You Are Family.