Convocation 2015: Three Stories of Kindness

On Wednesday, September 9th the College of the Atlantic Community celebrated Convocation — the opening of the academic year.  Alumna Amy Hoffmaster (’06) addressed the community and faculty member John Cooper and COA student Eloise Schultz performed a set of mass standards.  Before heading off to the 25th Bar Island Swim, I offered these words:

I bought a boat. Three weeks ago. I named her Nunu, Egyptian Goddess of the Sea.

Despite the name, it’s a very modest boat – a 12-foot inflatable with a rigid keel and an outboard motor. This boat has turned my world upside down, and I thought convocation would be the perfect place to talk about it.

I’ve always considered myself a terrestrial person. Though I’m at home on rivers and ponds, the ocean seemed spooky and malevolent.

I’ve been on boats at sea, of course; but there’s something about being the captain and pilot of a vessel – whether kayak or freighter. It’s about the responsibility, the decision-making, and the freedom, and the complete change in perspective. The world looks entirely different from the ocean.

The magic I’ve experienced also has to do with the novelty. In piloting Nunu, I’m a child – in the sense that I know so little. There’s so much new to know: winds, tides, a completely new language. It’s fun to be forced to grow up all over again.

But, like a child, I’m vulnerable. Consequences are intimately tied to my decisions and are so much more severe than on the land.

You miss a knot in your shoes, you might stumble. You miss a knot on a mooring and, that’s it for Nunu. Tying that knot, stepping off the dock, adjusting the choke, filling the gas tank, requires ultimate presence. 326 million cubic miles of seawater inspires reverence and presence.

Despite the vulnerability, I’m now more willing to step into the unknown – and this is strange. It has to do, I believe, with the community of boat people – there’s a degree of remarkable kindness within that community. Everyone seems excited to help me, the child, learn to walk on water. Whether it’s Rosa de Jong helping with my bowline knot; Tom Fernald up in Allied Whale lending me gear to be safe; Toby helping me get set up on a mooring; my fisherman friend Dan Clark keeping an eye out for me on channel 7 on the VHF; Adam Hilton over at Hinckley who piece-by-piece tore apart my carburetors on the back of the boat so I’d be able to use it this fall. People want me to succeed. There’s a kindness on the water. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.

My suggestions based on this revelation? First, don’t wait until your 45 to be a captain of a boat. Come to know the ocean and come to be a part of the kindness on the ocean. You’re in one of the best places in the world to do that. Obviously, do it thoughtfully, do it safely, do it respectfully … but do it.

***

That’s my first story of kindness. My second involves COA alumna Chloe Chen Kraus. Chloe graduated in 2013. I spoke with her yesterday and she gave me the green light to use her personal narrative.

In her second year Chloe went to Costa Rica as part of a field ecology course with John Anderson and Steve Resell. It was quite an adventure and, much like me in Nunu at sea, she experienced extreme vulnerability.

On the day students were set to begin their independent research, Chloe approached Steve and said, flat-out, “I can’t do it. I can’t go out there alone.” Hers was not an irrational fear, any more than my own fears of the ocean. The fer-de-lance is a snake as deadly as the cold depths of the sea.

“Will you come with me,” she asked Steve, sheepishly.

“No, I will not,” was his response. “Chloe, this is something you’ve got to do on your own. I know you’re ready for it. You’re prepared.”

It was the kindest, gentlest, most appropriate encouragement possible. That kindness and Steve’s expertise and knowledge were the safety net that made it the wisest decision in the world for Chloe to go off on her own.

That walk in the woods was transformational in the truest sense of the word for Chloe. It began a cascade of growth for her, unlike anything else she had experienced during her four years here at COA.

Two weeks ago, Chloe came back from her second field season of three months of independent research in Madagascar where she’s studying lemurs as part of her PhD program in anthropology at Yale.

That kind of transformation is something everyone should experience. It requires the kindness and support of a mentor and advisor. It requires risk taking and comfort with vulnerability. And, more often than not, it requires something we might call an “expedition” – something that takes us beyond: beyond our comforts, beyond our campus.

To facilitate these kinds of expeditions, we’ve created the student expeditionary fund. It will provide all students with $1800 toward such expeditionary work.

In week two – remember this is week zero – we’ll circulate a how-to guide explaining the details, but the basic outline looks like this:

  • The funds are for off-campus courses, internships, senior projects, or residencies of an expeditionary nature.
  • Use of these funds requires the negotiation with an approval of your advisor – that is crucial. You have to be in good academic standing and have all your bills with the college squared up.
  • First year students have to have been here at least three academic terms and transfer students have to have been here at least one academic term before they are eligible to use these funds.
  • For those students that have research and travel awards in their financial aid package, this money will not be in addition to those monies.

There are more specifics about frequencies of withdrawal, amounts, conferences, etc. and, like I said, a ‘how-to’ guide will explain everything precisely.

But for today think about Chloe; think about your version of her expedition. First year students, begin the process of developing a relationship with an advisor. And for everyone, think about that kindness again – that non-romantic, non-hokey, deeply empathetic kindness – that radical kindness – that helped Chloe venture into the woods.

***

My last story of kindness requires Sean Foley to stand up.  Sean is a new faculty member at the college and will be teaching drawing and painting. He’s teaching Drawing 1 this term.

Sean, we’re super excited to have you on board. About one-quarter into your job talk it was so obvious that you were spot on for this position. I’m so much looking forward to working with you.

Tim Liardet, would you stand up? Tim’s a poet and is on the faculty at Bath Spa University in the UK and is an author of 10 poetry collections. He did a poetry workshop for us last year and it was so good, we wanted to do everything in our power to get him here for a full term. So we did. He’ll be teaching Poetry as Synthesis this term.

And then there’s Abigail. Abigail Curless, can you stand up. Abigail is the next executive assistant in the president’s office. That’s my office. I’m very excited to have Abigail.

Finally, will all the new students stand up – transfer and first years? A welcome to you! All 105 of you; from all over the country and all over the world. You are an amazing bunch – welcome.

Yes, we have one of the most beautiful campuses on one of the most beautiful islands in the world; yes, we have one of the most innovative ways of teaching and learning. But the root of our success and excellence is about the people. This enormous wave of new people, new thinking, new enthusiasm, is something we celebrate on a day like today.

Heather Albert-Knopp – will you stand up? Wait a minute, you say, she’s not new. But, ah, yes she is – she’s new through experience, having just led the college through a new web redesign that went live today!! I wanted all of us to thank Heather for her leadership.

Today we also recognize that, at COA especially, we are all new. We’re all new through experience. Human ecology is about the expeditions, the encounters, the experiences that transform us. Me on Nunu. Chloe out in the tropical forests. But, also, Heath Cabot returning from her Fulbright in Greece; Ken Cline coming home from France; Dru Colbert, back from her ocean voyage.

Human ecology is about these expeditions, these encounters with the other, these experiences. It’s about becoming comfortable with complexity, with a lack of definitive answers. At COA we live in a sea of newness and vulnerability. And living in such a sea requires that kindness I’ve talked about today. Again, not the hokey “politeness,” but that deep, empathetic kindness that provides a definite and strong safety net for the risk taking we ask for.

It’s a kindness that’s about wanting everyone to succeed – about wanting to help everyone succeed – every student, every faculty member, every staff member. Thank you for listening and welcome to the new academic year.

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