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SGPP Twin Cities Campus Commencement Address

Delivered June 7, 2009 in Minneapolis

Brother William Mann, FSC
President

Introduction

As some of you know, my work as a leader of the Brother of the Christian Schools – prior to coming last year to Saint Mary’s – required that I travel internationally and allowed me many and diverse experiences. I had gotten to the point in life where I, more or less, had begun to expect the unexpected. However, never had I imagined the surprise of being invited to be the President of this university and never could I have imagined the many ways in which this past year required that I stretch and grow. I stand before you after one year as President with a greater appreciation of the contribution our university makes in the lives of students and society and with a profound admiration for the faculties and staffs with whom I am privileged to work and collaborate.

A Troubled Youngster Named Calvin

Now I’d like to tell you a story. Not so long ago, I was, as part of that former job as a leader of the Brothers, touring a school much as I have regularly – all throughout the year – toured our own Saint Mary’s campuses both here and in Winona. On that visit a few years ago, I met a troubled youngster named Calvin, 11 years old, attending a school for the emotionally, behaviorally and academically challenged.

The young teacher whose classroom I was visiting introduced all of the youngsters to me (there were about a dozen), but he accidentally skipped over Calvin. I later learned that Calvin was a second generation student at this school, where his young father had also previously struggled with educational failure and emotional unrest. It was the look on Calvin’s face when he was passed over that I will never forget. It was the look of a person ignored, left out, invisible … once again, inadvertently marginalized. When the teacher realized what he had done and tried to remedy his mistake, Calvin then chose to ignore us. It was as though he were saying, “If you didn’t see me before, I also can pretend that you are not here now.”

I was reminded on that visit of John Baptist de La Salle, the 17th century Frenchman, who founded the Brothers of the Christian Schools and launched the movement that we now know as Lasallian education, a world-wide network of schools and universities of which Saint Mary’s University is a significant part. I was reminded of this priest, De La Salle, who saw a whole social category passed over and excluded from having an education and who did something about it, who at about 30 years of age – having just finished the work of his master’s and doctoral studies – really for the first time in his life saw the poor of his own city. His eyes and heart were opened to their plight, and he used the many personal resources at his disposal – primarily an engaging personality, a keen and disciplined intellect, and an excellent university formation and education – not to accrue wealth, comfort, or status for himself, but he used all of the gifts at his disposal to educate the children of the working class and especially to enhance the quality of life for the less fortunate of his great nation.

This young boy Calvin remains an icon in my consciousness each time I enter another gathering of people, the majority of whom I do not know. He is a reminder about how easy it is in a crowd, a school, a grouping of students or families, a hospital or healthcare center, a professional or business setting, even today at this ceremony to see all, but yet to see few if any individual faces. He remains an inspiration to acknowledge each person gathered here as a holy presence and to recall that this quality of seeing and welcoming and knowing each precious individual is the key principle at the heart of the Lasallian ethos, which is the core of the educational mission of Saint Mary’s University.

Other Institutions That I Have Visited

You could well imagine what it was like for me to have had the opportunity to visit schools and universities in many of the 82 countries in which the Lasallian educational network is situated; and I carry within me many and varied voices and memories of important stops along that journey.

  • Meeting with students at Bethlehem University in Palestine, an institution opened by the Brothers at the direct invitation of Pope Paul VI because Palestinian Christians had no access to university education in their homeland. It is an oasis of learning in a war-torn land, a beacon of hope where the opportunity for employment and family well-being become a possibility, where a small bridge between religions is strengthened as the dream of peace with justice in the Holy Land is fostered and supported.
  • Accompanying some young student teachers in Papua New Guinea to the Hohola Youth Development Centers in Port Moresby. These are a number of small early childhood literacy centers run by university teachers and their students, where classes are conducted on dirt floors and where young mothers hang through open windows struggling to follow lessons being given to their children because this is the first and only opportunity that they themselves have had to learn to read and write.
  • Visiting the University of Saint La Salle in the Philippines where they’ve opened a Center that provides marginal rural rice farmers with micro-credit assistance and capacity building as entrepreneurs and driving in a van to its Bahay Pagasa Center. The House of Hope there gives adolescent delinquents a second chance. They live in safety and dignity, for the first time no longer locked up in an adult population of prisoners. Efforts are made to help these young people hope that there is an alternative to failure, self-destruction, and exploitation.

The Lasallian Educational Vision

As a student, the Brothers and my Lasallian educators communicated to me the message that I had great worth, that I was important and should be taken seriously, that I deserved respect, and that I could make a real difference in this world. That was a powerful lesson, such Good News, such a life-changing experience, that I cannot imagine not having spent my life – as an educator and a citizen – trying to communicate that same message to others.

For this is who we are as Lasallians. This is, at its core, what Saint Mary’s University is about. We strive to unleash the creative capacity of minds and to enkindle a passion in hearts. We strive to run good schools where students – both young and old – can be confident that they will be known and valued while receiving an excellent education. They know they will be treated as individuals and with respect while being formed to ethical lives of service and leadership. They will be welcomed into a community of belonging and belief while being prepared for civic responsibility and being formed to provide the kind of ethical and entrepreneurial leadership in the professional sphere for which the peoples of the nations dream.

Now my hope for you today, graduates, is that your years with us at this university have been good years. I hope that during your time among us you were helped to lay claim to a great portion of the promise and the potential that is yours to share with the world, to glimpse that contribution that you as graduates can make for good, especially in these auspicious and tumultuous opening years of the 21st century, and to embrace with enthusiasm and generosity the opportunity you now have to help make the work-place and the home-place of this great nation a better place for all of God’s children.

Conclusion

May you go forth from this ceremony today, then, with eyes truly opened to the hopes and the needs of others and with hearts on fire to be the artisans of a just world order, one that treats others with reverence and dignity and that benefits the whole of the human family.

As recipients of a Saint Mary’s education – supported and held within the loving embrace of your families and friends, prepared by your professors and your experiences at Saint Mary’s – go out there to embrace with both hands and a full heart the destiny that awaits you. Go out into the world and really make a positive difference.

Once again, congratulations! God bless you! Good luck!