“Your Place Is In the Arena”

Presidential Convocation Address
Huntingdon College
Montgomery, Alabama
September 4, 2019
The College’s 165th Academic Year

Welcome, everyone, to Huntingdon’s 165th academic year!  We’ve been around a long time, uninterrupted, since our founding at Tuskegee in the 19th Century.   We’ve been around through our move to this historic building in the early 20th Century, through our expansion over to Cloverdale in the early 21st Century, through our expansion into the neighborhood houses beginning just a few years ago.

I hope you like the brand new 24/7 Caroline Slawson Campus Commons over at Houghton Library.  I believe you will be very impressed with the brand new Scarlet and Grey Shop at The Phyllis and Gene Stanaland House, across from Samford Stadium, which will be dedicated Saturday before our home football opener.

What a beautiful gem of a village, our Huntingdon Village, truly is!

Speaking of the Stanaland House, it is named for our veteran Trustee, now Trustee Emeritus, Dr. Gene Stanaland, Class of 1960, and his wife Phyllis Stanaland, who have been faithful benefactors of this “Home We Love So Well” for many, many years.  Dr. Stanaland is with us today, and I would ask him to stand so that all of us may show our gratitude and appreciation.

There has never been a better time to be at Huntingdon than right now!  Can I get a, “Hawk Em”?  Can I get another, “Hawk ‘Em”?

Welcome, especially, those of you who are first year students:  Our entering class.  We honor you today, each and every one of you, in this longstanding tradition called The Presidential Convocation.  The word, “convocation,” means, “a coming together.”  We have come together today, as we do at the beginning of every fall term, to remind ourselves of what college —  and especially this college  —  is all about.

So first year students, entering class:   This one’s for you!  The next few minutes are for you.  Everyone else is here to listen in while I talk with you.

But before I talk…I have asked Dr. Womack to open this Convocation address with a solo of the spiritual, “Ride On, King Jesus.”


Let us pray:  New every morning is your love, Great God of Light, and all day long you are working for good in this your world.  Stir up in us the desire to serve you, to live peacefully with our neighbors, and to devote each day to seeking and discovering our callings in life, that we may do your will.  Amen.

How difficult it can be/How difficult it is/To move into a new arena/To move into new arenas.

You have just moved into, and are still moving into, your new arena called Huntingdon…and all the various arenas that make up this College.  Roland Arena, with the new challenge of being an NCAA student-athlete; the arena of the college classroom (Overheard last week in Flowers Hall:  “I’m not used to studying so hard every day!”); the arena of Slawson Commons in Houghton Library, which is open 24/7 because we know you all have a lot on your plates, and all have different schedules, and all have different sleep cycles; the arena of Drum Theater, for those of you active in Campus Ministries; the arena of Smith Hall and the Band Rehearsal Hall, for you musicians and artists; the arena of sorority and fraternity houses, for those of you who are Greek or will be Greek; the arena of the weight room at Samford Stadium, for those of you building and strengthening your bodies; the arena of The Green, for those of you who like to hang out in a hammock and think; the arena of the DH, for those of you who like to eat so that you can be nourished for everything you need to do in all of the other arenas of your lives.

The Arena  —  a place of competition; a place of study and thinking; a place to pray; a place to create new relationships and friendships; a place to begin putting all the pieces of life together.  A place to begin becoming The New You.

I want you to be successful this first term, and then be successful in spring term, and then in the next term, and then in the next term.  To succeed, you have to be part of the action; and because the arena is where the action is, your place is in the arena.  Not off to the side.  The only way to be successful is to learn how to be successful by thinking, by praying, by doing, by working  —  which is a good word, working is.  And the work is in the arena.  Your place is in the arena.

Learning how to be a successful college student will mean one thing for some of you, and another thing for others of you, and still another thing for still others of you.  The pictures of success are as many and varied as you are many and varied in the entering class.  300 different pictures of success, 300 different paths to success  —  every student…every day, every term…every year.  The common denominator among all these many pictures and paths of success is that they are taken in the arena, where you have to learn to be successful by doing, by working.

For me as a college freshman, the first challenge to becoming a successful college student was not in the arena of the residence hall.  I bonded with my roommate and my hall mates right away.  Different as we were, THAT was refreshing.  I learned to time my showers so that I would not have to wait in line.  I learned which rooms to avoid so that I would not get written up.

I had no problem, either, adjusting to the arena of the DH.  Sure, it wasn’t my mother’s home cooking every day;  but whose is?  Actually, on some days it was better than my mother’s home cooking.  And almost every day’s breakfast was better than the soggy scrambled eggs and burnt cheese biscuits that my father, bless his heart, put in front of me every morning in high school.

For me, the challenge to becoming a successful college student first played out in the arena of the classroom.  J. Cam West, National Honor Society student, a 3.9 high school graduate in the day when 4.0 was the highest g.p.a. possible  —  (J. Cam West) who grew up in the home of a college professor with demanding academic standards and a high school educated mother with shelves of good books  —  this same J. Cam West scored a 53 on my first college test.  53:  That is not a 3.9; that is an F.

Luckily for me, or since I’m a religious person, providentially, the gentleman standing in front of the chalkboard  —  yes, chalkboard  —  was a remarkable teacher, Dr. Donald Watkins, tenured senior Professor of Geology.  Looking out on a sea of bereft and defeated faces, Dr. Watkins knew what he had on his hands.  He had a room full of discouraged looking students, most of them first year students, most of whom had failed their first college test or come close to failing, but who were capable of doing better, much better.

So Dr. Watkins marched us over to the new undergraduate library; took us to the group study space that made up half the first floor; divided us into study groups of three; canceled the next class meeting; and told us (1) that there would be a re-test on Saturday  —  yes, we had Saturday morning classes  —  (2) that the re-test would be on the questions he then handed us on a study guide; and (3) that we could choose either one of the two grades we earned  —  on the original test or on the re-test  —  as our first grade in Geology 11.  And, for most of us, our first college grade…period.

Over the course of the next four days, I lived and worked in the arena of the undergraduate library with my two study mates and everyone else in our section of Geology 11.  The best decision I made during those four days was to watch and listen carefully to both my study mates.  They had transferred in that fall, were a year older than I, and certainly seemed more comfortable in the college arena than I did.  Both of them had passed the test, but they were not satisfied with their grades.  I learned a lot from them, not so much about Geology as about how to study in college.  And I learned that it is OK, not only OK but smart, to look for help.  For that re-test, the best sources of help were my two study  mates.

After a sleepless Friday night, I awoke on Saturday morning; nourished my mind, body and spirit in the arena of the DH; prayed to my God walking across the arena of The Green in the middle of the Carolina campus; and entered the arena of the Geology building to take the re-test under the watchful eye of Dr. Donald Watkins, who told us encouragingly before we opened our bluebooks that often the most sure path to the arena of success was through the arena of hard challenge and even previous failure.

I took the test; I sprinted back to the arena of my residence hall; I dressed in a blue blazer, picked up my date in the arena of her residence hall; I walked with her through a grove of pine trees to the arena of the football stadium, and sweating through my blazer under a hot Southern sun, I thoroughly bored her while talking about Geology as my beloved Carolina Tar Heels were blown out by the NC State Wolfpack, 38-14.  That night, back in the arena of my residence hall, I tuned out the noise in my hall, slept for 12 hours, and dreamed that I had passed Dr. Watkins’ re-test.

The next Tuesday, at 9:00 A.M., just after I walked nervously into the arena of the Geology building, Dr. Watkins handed me my re-test bluebook.  In bold red ink on the inside front cover, circled, was a beautiful 95.

I chose the 95 rather than the 53 as the grade on my first college test.

Out of the agony of defeat had come the thrill of success, but only because I had learned to confront my failure as an opportunity to become The New Me  —  not the old J. Cam West of high school glory but the new J. Cam West who had moved to a new arena with new challenges, new ways of doing things, new battles in which to engage (none of them easy) on the way to becoming a successful college student.

And now looking back on that grade of 53, an F, that I turned into a 95, an A  —  through the help of a remarkable, encouraging teacher who would not let me settle discouragingly into failure, and through the help of two hardworking study mates  —  I can say this to you, my first year friends, and to everyone else listening in:  I have learned my most powerful lessons in life, and still do, from my hard challenges and my failures.  Most of the successes that I have earned and that are enduring  —  in my personal life and my professional career, in the life of the Spirit, in the life of the mind, in the life of the body  —  I have earned with the gracious help of others after first getting knocked down.

So, my first year students, you have to be part of the action in order to succeed.  And because the arena is where the action is, your place is in the arena.  The playing field, the court, the classroom, the commons and library, the rehearsal hall, the studio, the Staton Center or Counseling Center, your residence hall, Campus Ministries, your sorority or fraternity house, The Green, the DH.  Success may or may not, one day, look like what you believe today it will look like.  And success is different for all of us, because we receive the gift of help from others and earn the prize that only we can earn ourselves, in different arenas.

For me  —  as a college freshman, then as a sophomore, then as a junior, and finally 124 credit hours later as a graduating senior  —  success came in the arena of the classroom, and in the arena of a leadership program, and in the arena of an SGA office, and in the arena of a fraternity office, and more surprisingly to me than to anyone else, in the arena of a softball field as a .450 leadoff hitting second baseman in the Blue Intramural Division.  Who woulda’ thunk it?

My place was in the arena, actually several arenas, and so is yours.  I scratched and clawed my way to success in the arena, in several arenas, with the help of so many others but finally earning it myself, as you, too, are beginning to do.

Thank you for listening to me today.  God bless you as you begin your life at this College, The Home We Love So Well.  I’ll see you around, in all the arenas across this College Campus…until one hot May morning a few years from now, we’ll see each other at the arena we call The Green, where you will walk across Top Stage to take in your hand the diploma I will be giving you…but which you will have earned as The New You.

So, ride on, my freshmen, can anyone work like you?

Ride on, my transfers, can anyone work like you?

Ride on, all my students, can anyone work like you?

Ride on, my staff, my coaches, can anyone work like you?

Ride on, my faculty, can anyone work like you?

Ride on, my Trustees, can anyone work like you?

Ride on, ride on:  Into The Arena.  Together, Our Place Is In The Arena.  No one, no one, will work harder than we do.

And let all the people say, “Hawk ‘Em!”


(The Reverend) J. Cameron West
President of the College

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