Honors Day Address: Rachel J. Beane

Story posted May 13, 2004

Honoring the "Offer of the College" by Losing Ourselves in Generous Enthusiasms
by Assistant Professor of Geology Rachel J. Beane
May 12, 2004

Thank you, President Mills, for the introduction and for the invitation to speak at this celebration of students' contributions and achievements. I extend a welcome to students, faculty, staff and friends who join us in this ceremony. I am honored not only to speak here tonight, but also honored simply to be at Bowdoin College surrounded by amazing students.

Colleagues often ask me "What are Bowdoin students like?" I respond that Bowdoin students are enthusiastic. When I enter a classroom I have the feeling that you, as students, truly desire to be here -- you want to learn and to be challenged. That is a good feeling, and one that does not exist everywhere. I have taught elsewhere, where in a survey of a class of 100 students, half wrote that they did not want to be there. They not only didn't want to take my class, they weren't excited about attending any college classes. I never get that feeling here. The enthusiasm of the students here at Bowdoin is infectious, and helps me to enter a classroom with energy to share what I know and to explore other ideas together.

William DeWitt Hyde, the Seventh President of Bowdoin, wrote the Offer of the College. Most of us have read or heard this Offer. It deserves repeating this evening:

To be at home in all lands and all ages; to count Nature a familiar acquaintance, and Art an intimate friend; to carry the keys of the world's library in your pocket, and feel its resources behind you in whatever task you undertake; to make hosts of friends...who are to be leaders in all walks of life; to lose yourself in generous enthusiasms and cooperate with others for common ends...

I first read this offer when applying to teach here, and when I was offered the position I taped it to my wall. Since then, I have used it in my grant applications to the National Science Foundation. For me, this Offer speaks volumes. I will address one aspect of it this evening: "to lose yourself in generous enthusiasms." To me this is an encouragement to pursue what we choose with great passion.

We are fortunate at Bowdoin to be surrounded by a supportive community that permits us to lose ourselves in these enthusiasms. Many of you are being honored here this evening, because you have brought great passion to what you do. You have found a discipline, a project, an idea, or a cause that sparked your interest and you pursued it.

It's a wonderful feeling to be interested in something so much that you just have to do or know more. A professor in computer science relayed a story of a student who was so interested in the topic they were discussing in class that day that he went to the library after class to learn more. When he couldn't find enough information to satisfy his interest on the topic in the Bowdoin library, he drove down to MIT that night to look at the books there. Often the pursuit of our enthusiasms takes at least momentary precedence over everything else.

I know that I can easily lose track of myself and time when pursuing my research. As President Mills indicated, I am a geologist. I walk across the rocks and try to learn what happened on our earth millions of years ago. Usually walking across the rocks is not enough for me. First, I might lie down on the rocks so that I can look at them eye-to-eye. Next, I'll hammer out a big chunk of a sample and look at it under the microscope. If you have not looked at a slice of rock under a microscope -- and my guess is that many of you haven't had this wonderful opportunity -- then I encourage you to do so. I find that rocks are like art. The colors and patterns of the minerals are beautiful and mesmerizing. They also tell a story about our earth's history -- about volcanic eruptions off what is now the Maine coast, about continents crashing together and then tearing apart. It is these stories, revealed in the rocks, in which I lose myself.

Our enthusiasms need not be limited to academic interests. One of my passions is my one-year old, Zander. He brings me immense joy. He's also a good example of how pursuing our passions may be difficult at times. At the end of fall semester, Zander wanted to crawl. He wanted to go places, and he would rock back and forth on his knees, but he couldn't crawl. He was grumpy and whiny with his frustration, and we all felt it. He didn't give up, and the frustration he felt was rewarded by the joy of accomplishment. His success was enough to keep him smiling and laughing for weeks at the discovery of the new world opened up to him.

I encourage you to pause a moment now and consider what are your passions? Where do you lose yourself? Now relish that enjoyment, and consider how you might bring this passion to benefit others. Perhaps it's in your choice of career or another activity. If you were all in a class I was teaching, I would call on you now to share.

I don't want to put anyone on the spot, so instead, I'll share. As an undergraduate, I enjoyed science, I enjoyed being outside, and I enjoyed traveling to new places. I put these interests together as a geology major, and then for my career. I have spent summers hiking outside in a number of places, a number of countries. I return from these research trips with heavy luggage full of rocks, with stories about my travels, and with new ideas about geology. I use these rocks, stories and ideas in the classes I teach, because I know that I will be excited when I talk about them. This enthusiasm will allow me to convey more, and students to learn more than otherwise would be possible.

Many of you are being honored this evening for essays you've written, research projects you've done, for excelling in studies. I know that you bring great energy to these projects. You have stayed awake late into the night writing. You have talked about your research with your friends. And, you have been frustrated. Perhaps your lab equipment broke in the middle of your experiment, or your advisor didn't return your draft to you as soon as you wanted, or you tried for weeks to reach someone you wanted for an interview. You have prevailed over many hurdles in pursuing your interests. Now is the time to celebrate.

I congratulate all the students who will be receiving awards this evening. With your enthusiasm, your energy, and your ideas you have made an impact in our community! Let us continue to honor the Offer of the College and lose ourselves in "generous enthusiasms." To bring passion to all we choose to do. To permit our interests to influence our choices. This is how we bring more than we thought possible to a pursuit, and enjoy it while we do it. Congratulations to all!

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