For those of you who have been around Samford for a while, you may recall that I usually send this message to employees sometime during the month of August as we anticipate the arrival of our new students. It is personal, but I believe it is also an expression of our shared hope for providing a welcoming presence to the families we’ll embrace in a few days. I’m still stunned by the opportunities I’ve had in life, many of them shaped through the support I received from faculty, staff and students in college, four decades ago. Here’s my story . . .
Forty-four years ago this month, I loaded just about everything I owned into my Pontiac Ventura, said goodbye to my mom and dad, and hit the road from Batesville, Arkansas, 160 miles south to Arkadelphia and to Ouachita Baptist University. As best I can remember, it didn’t occur to my parents that they might accompany me on that fateful day. The reasoning was that, if I was old enough to go to college, I ought to be capable of driving there and unloading the car by myself. Somehow it escaped us that we were supposed to come as a family, listen to a bunch of sappy speeches from administrators, and then hug each other as if we’d never be together again, this side of Glory. I think I knew one other Ouachita student at the time. I also knew my admissions counselor. The first night in the dorm, I remember counting the number of days on the calendar until the end of the semester. Whatever the number, I was relatively sure I couldn’t live long enough to see final exams. I was lonely, I was surrounded by people who seemed to know each other, and I didn’t know the first thing to expect from college. I can recall not knowing what a credit hour was, but being too embarrassed to admit it to anyone I thought might actually be able to explain it to me. I remember the names of my student group leaders. I remember going with the members of my freshman group to the home of a faculty member for dessert. I remember standing in line in the student center, waiting to shake hands with the university president, Dr. Grant. When we finally shook hands, he was very gracious. He asked me where I was from. I said Batesville. He asked me if I’d considered staying home and attending Arkansas College, which was located in my hometown. I didn’t quite know what to make of that; perhaps he thought I should have stayed home; but I said no, not really. He asked me if I knew Dan West, the president of Arkansas College. I think I may have said that I’d seen his photograph in the local newspaper. He said, “He’s one of the good guys.” I agreed, although having only seen his photograph and having elected not to attend his college, I felt my response was somewhat hypocritical. Then Dr. Grant wished me well, which was my cue to move to the line for lemonade.
That semester I discovered that I could be a decent student. It was as big a surprise to me then as it is to you now. I also discovered that I could fit into college life. That was an even bigger surprise. The environment that seemed so distant to me in August had begun to feel like home by December. I found that I could make my way in a world totally unknown to me. The lessons that I learned that first semester were among the most important of my life, lessons—four decades after the fact—that are helping me to live out a calling to be at Samford University. A few years later, as I began graduate school, I also remember every detail of the first few days. The middle is a twilight zone of papers and seminars, but the beginning and the end, I recall with almost perfect clarity.
There are two points to this little autobiographical narrative as we lock arms to begin a new year. The first point is that I didn’t have to think very hard to recall each one of the details that I’ve mentioned over the past few paragraphs. Forty-four years after the fact, those encounters are still engraved in my memory. The point is not that I have a great memory; in fact, Jeanna will tell you that my memory is about shot by now. It is simply that these people and these events were of great importance to an impressionable 18-year-old. The students who will be arriving on our campus this week will be watching and remembering, and 44 years hence, they’ll still have memories of their moment of arrival. The events of the next few days will be crucial to the development of these young people. Let’s give them our best.
The second point is that the institution where we serve has a transforming nature about it because of the work that takes place on this little spot of ground in Homewood, Alabama. Every college does. That’s part of the character of higher education. But those of us who work here testify to the unique power of this institution. In this entering class of undergrads and in the entering cohorts in our graduate and professional programs are hundreds of students who are presenting their lives to us. I’ll admit that what happens from this point largely depends on them. It depends on the extent to which they apply, conduct, and discipline themselves. But it also depends on us. What will we do tomorrow, and next week, and this year to add knowledge and understanding to their lives? It is a challenge worthy of everything that we can offer.
Jeanna and I wish for you and for the members of your family the very best as we begin this time together. May God bless you and strengthen you each step of the way, and may God bless Samford University.
The world will be better, Samford friends, because of the work you will do this year.