“Beyond Mountains There Are Mountains”

2014 Presidential Convocation
Huntingdon College, Montgomery, Alabama
September 3, 2014

Two boys sitting in front of a vista of mountains“How do you decide what to talk about”?

So goes the question put to me by someone at the College, at least twice a year, around the time of the year’s first speech — at Presidential Convocation — and the time of the year’s last speech
— at the Baccalaureate Service on Graduation Weekend. “How do you decide what to talk about”?
The answer, plain and simple, is that I look around. I look around to see what is happening in the world at that particular time — far away and nearby. I try to connect what is happening in the world — far away and nearby — with what is happening in the lives of our students. In your lives.

Two years ago, in August, 2012, I was watching the Summer Olympic Games televised from London. I was amazed at the exploits of the world’s fastest human, Usain Bolt of Jamaica. Mr. Bolt had just won a gold medal and was being interviewed, when all of a sudden he stopped the reporter in mid-sentence, turned toward the podium where medals were being awarded for a different event, and stood respectfully while the Star Spangled Banner played. The television reporter was left holding her microphone, speechless. When the Star Spangled Banner finished playing, Mr. Bolt turned back around and resumed the interview.

It was an incredible moment in which an athlete known for his self-confidence (some would say cockiness), and known for his love of country, reminded us all of the Olympic spirit. It’s a spirit, as you know, that unites both individual athletes from different nations and the various nations themselves in a time of peace and goodwill through athletic competition, however brief that moment may be. How fitting, I thought in summer 2012, to connect Usain Bolt’s expression of respect for another athlete and another nation with the spirit of Division III athletics at Huntingdon. The Olympic spirit… the Division III spirit. And how fitting it was two years ago at Convocation to lift up Usain Bolt as an example for all students. You bring your own individual strengths and identities to campus, to be sure, whether you are an athlete or someone who spends all his/all her time in the library and never sees the sun. Whoever you are — you are here, at this college, to form a community of respect for each other and to learn how to live with people different than you.

That’s what I talked about two years ago, connecting the Olympics and Usain Bolt with life at Huntingdon.

Nine years ago, as the semester began, I looked around the world I was living in — nearby -­ and I saw something that really bugged me. Really bugged me. Everywhere I went on campus, I saw running shorts, T-shirts, hats and visors emblazoned in orange and blue, crimson and white, with “A’s” and the “A Words.” Almost no scarlet and grey and white, almost no “H’s” and the “H Word,” to be found anywhere. That really bugged me. And I asked myself: “How can we ever build up this College and help our students become loyal alumni of the school that is giving them their start in the world if they are walking billboards for other schools? What can we do to help our students take pride in their own identity? How to get our students excited about being Huntingdon students? How to get our students fired up about living into a motto that is distinctive among all the colleges and universities in Alabama: ‘Enter to Grow in Wisdom; Go Forth to Apply Wisdom in Service’ ? How to do all that?”

So I gave a Presidential Convocation speech in 2005 that featured a Top Ten List about what makes Huntingdon a great college. #1 on The List: Our students, you, are special; our students, you, are like almost none of your friends who had to settle for going to college where almost everyone else was going. Those other schools are great, each in their own way, and many of their graduates have achieved greatness, each in their own way. We can, and do, respect that greatness. But our students, you, can stand out, be noticed, develop a unique life of your own. You don’t have to wear an “A” hat. Or another “A” hat. You get to wear the “H” hat!

And you know what? That speech worked. Huntingdon, your alma mater, is the fastest growing four-year college in the Deep South and the12th fastest growing four-year college in the country. Can I get a “Hawk ‘Em!”? Can I get a louder “Hawk ‘Em!”? How would we have ever achieved this distinction if we had kept on walking around every day as billboards for someone else’s school? You are benefitting from a unique education, a unique college experience. So today, when you are walking around campus, take a look. No “A’s”…or other “A’s.” And for that matter, Dean Stubbs is never seen in a Sewanee hat. Vice President Leigh is never seen in a Wofford hat. Professor McMichael is never seen in a Duke hat. We wear the “H” hat! WE ARE HUNTINGDON! WE ARE FAMILY!

Now we come to September, 2014. What to say today, in this Presidential Convocation speech? I looked around this summer, and what did I see? War between Russia and Ukraine. Attacks by the radical Islamic state against people of other faiths, in an attempt to exterminate them. The sad historic shame of America, division between white and black, continuing to play itself out -­ this time in Ferguson, Missouri. How to connect all of that reality with what is going on in your lives — and give you an encouraging message of hope at the same time — as you begin your college year?

I decided to look around again at a more nearby world — this time, the world of my own family, where my son William graduated high school in May and went off to begin life at a small four­ year college out-of-state last week. A college much like Huntingdon. In fact, my son will sit in an auditorium much like this chapel tomorrow at 11:00, listening to his president. Maybe, I thought to myself, I can find a hopeful message if I stop and look at what is going on in my 18 year old son’s life…and in the lives of all you 18 year olds who have just graduated high school and started college.

I spent weeks trying to figure out how to connect all those dots. Then one night, sitting upstairs in my house letting my mind wander, I looked up and found myself staring straight at a picture I

had stared at 100 times. This picture of my son, William, and my wife, Elizabeth (who is here today), sitting on top of a mountain they had just climbed on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Western North Carolina. And I knew in a flash what to talk about with you today in the rest of this speech.

I’m going to talk with you about what I want you to get out of college. I’m going to talk about what I want your college years here at Huntingdon to be for you, what I want you to take away from here when you graduate. The rest of my speech takes its inspiration from this picture, which could just as well be you with one of your parents, or one of your grandparents, or any important older adult in your life. Take a look at this picture, and see yourself in it.

When I look at this picture, I imagine my wife saying to my son: “Your job is to find out what the world is trying to be.” “Your job is to find out what the world is trying to be.” That’s a line from a poem by William Stafford (“Vocation”). You may study William Stafford one day in English class; he was one of the great American poets of the 20th Century. This line from his poem — “Your job is to find out what the world is trying to be” — is a good way to describe what is supposed to happen here at Huntingdon during your college years. Not all, really not many, colleges and universities have this philosophy of education. But since you are distinctive and are wearing the “H” hat, you will be focused while you are in college on “find(ing) out what the world is trying to be.”

You have climbed the mountain to sit on the rock called Huntingdon. You are perched on this rock looking out at the rest of your life. Your job, sitting on this rock on top of this mountain, is to “find out what the world is trying to be.” Before you make a decision about your career; before you make a decision about your first job; before you make a decision about graduate school — I want you to look out, and listen to, those mountains there ahead of you. Find out what the world is trying to be. Then, and only then, tell your life what you are going to do with it in order to help the world be what it is trying to be.

Just what is the world trying to be, and how does your life fit into what the world is trying to be? I gave you a hint earlier in this speech. The world is trying to be a place where we respect and stand beside each other in our differences, even as we celebrate who we are as individuals. As William Stafford writes in another of his poems:

If you don’t know the kind of person I am and I don’t know the kind of person you are a pattern that others made may prevail in the
(” A Ritual to Read to Each Other”)

That’s the message of the story I told you about Usain Bolt — proud and thankful to be a Jamaican; proud and thankful to be an Olympic gold medalist; proud and thankful that he was given physical gifts and developed those gifts to run as the fastest human ever. At the same time, Usain Bolt is humble and respectful enough to celebrate the joy of another country; humble and respectful enough to celebrate another athlete’s gold medal; humble and respectful enough to acknowledge that another’s gifts and another’s triumph in life are just as important as his.

Respecting and standing beside another, in their differences, even as he celebrates who he is…so that a pattern others made may not prevail in the world.

This is what the world is trying to be, as surely in your life as it is in the life of Usain Bolt. It’s your job during your years at Huntingdon to look and listen for the times, and places, and ways your world can be like this. It’s your job at Huntingdon to begin thinking about how to design your life so that the world can be like this…now…and during all the years ahead that rise in front of you like mountains. Beyond this rock, beyond this mountain, there are other mountains.
What I want you to get from college and take from college is a resolve, an attitude that says: “I have climbed this mountain to be here awhile; to learn; to connect my mind and heart with what the world is trying to be; to look out and see what other mountains are there waiting for me to climb, what other mountains are there waiting to tell me what the world is trying to be.” That’s your job as a Huntingdon student.

Beyond mountains there are mountains. Such is the nature of life. Take heart, my friends. Be courageous. You are not on this journey alone. Look at the picture. You are not on this journey alone. And remember the ancient prayer of Israel and the Church, which you may very well study in Biblical Interpretation. From the 121st Psalm:

I raise my eyes toward the mountains. Where will my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. God won’t let your foot slip.
Your protector won’t fall asleep on the job. The Lord will protect you on your journeys… from now until forever from now.
(Psalm 121.1-3,8)

You are not on this journey alone.

Go climb those mountains. Keep searching for what God’s world is trying to be. And then tell your life — mountains beyond mountains, mountain after mountain you will climb — what you intend to do with it.

Thank you for listening to me. And let all the people say: “Hawk ‘Em!”

J. Cameron West President of the College


+From a Haitian proverb: A meditation on Psalm 121.1-3, 8 and Romans 8.19-23

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