Skip to main content

Opening Convocation, Sept. 2, 2022

Remarks by President Andrea Talentino

Welcome students, families, staff, faculty, and guests.

This convocation marks your first formal event at Augustana and the beginning of your path of exploration. There is likely little I can say to make you feel better at this moment, to soothe your uncertainty and perhaps even slight fear about what lies ahead. Will you find friends, will you enjoy your courses, will you know where to go to find the things you need? These are just a few of the questions that I imagine are running through your mind.

The answer to all of them is yes, and no. You will find friends and you will also lose them. You will be inspired by some courses and you will find others humdrum. You will find the things you need and then they will move. The most important piece of advice I can provide is this: Have patience.

As you know, in Augustana you have chosen an institution that is proud to provide a liberal arts education. As I also hope you know, liberal in this case has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with the spirit of an inquiring mind. It is also, most importantly, education designed to help you excel in a rapidly changing, often divisive, and complex world, where the drive to succeed leads many to forget about the larger context in which they live. But that larger context is important, and part of what Augustana wants you to consider.

Today you embark on a journey to independence, leaving behind the young person you have been and beginning a passage to become not simply an adult but a citizen. Why do I say citizen? Because the most foundational principle of an Augustana education is that it is an education with purpose, an education designed not only to bring you knowledge and fulfillment but also to equip you, inspire you, and even gently compel you to apply your skills and knowledge in ways that help others.

Serving the community

While many of you might think of Augustana as a place of classes and lessons, much like high school, it is not. It is a place dedicated to the concept that learning and thinking serves the larger community, not just ourselves.

If this sounds to you like a bit of responsibility, it is. Although the independence I reference brings freedom to chart your own course, it also brings responsibility to work with and for others. The journey that you begin today is not just about learning, it is about becoming, becoming an independent citizen, whether of the U.S. or elsewhere, who is ready to shoulder the responsibility of moving their community toward higher heights.

I use independent here to mean self-governing and self-directing, beholden not to parents, family, or to the constraints of childhood but to your sense of self and your vision of the world and your agency within it.

How you express that independence is not likely something you now know. Some of you, perhaps, are lucky enough to have a clear and singular vision of what you will do and how you will impact the world. Many of you sit here, as generations of your predecessors have before you, uncertain, wondering if you will even pass your classes, let alone become the citizen I describe. Fear not. You are here to chart your path, guided by your own compass, assisted by the expertise of professors, advisors, coaches, friends, and staff members whose abiding passion is to help you find yours.

Education with a purpose

The idea of education with a purpose is not new, quite the reverse. Imam Ghazali, a Persian religious scholar and writer living in the 12th century, believed that the major aim of education should be that it is useful, for both the individual and society. He believed that education was essential to help the individual build character in order to differentiate between good and evil, and thereby contribute in positive ways to society.

Martin Luther similarly advocated education for all specifically to advance freedom and independence. His notion of independence, however, much as I have suggested here, was based on the idea of common benefit. He wanted everyone educated so that they could exercise civic responsibility and contribute to social welfare. Notably, his commitment to education for all extended not only to topics such as ethics and mathematics but also, and importantly, to spiritual learning.

One of Luther’s most radical notions was something we take for granted today — the idea that the Bible should be translated into the languages that the people spoke so that all could read and consider its principles and teachings for themselves.

In the United States, the founders of our republic shared Luther’s commitment to the idea that education promoted civic connections. John Adams, our second president, believed that education was so critical to the development and prosperity of the young republic that no expense could possibly be considered extravagant, and that that expense should be borne by the government, as the representative of the people. Like Luther he believed that people needed to be able to think for themselves “instead of adorning their servants, their Generals Admirals Bishops and Statesman.”1

In more modern times, Malcolm X said, “Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.”2

Part of that preparation includes understanding the world beyond our selves and recognizing the role we play in building community for all.

We are not alone

What IS new today is the diffidence and disdain with which education is now often treated. In spite of the attestations I have just recited, across geography, culture and time, for the importance of education as a means of developing and improving society, we live in a time when the value of education is less appreciated.

We are told that college is not necessary, that success can be found in the latest gig activity, that we can figure anything out with the help of YouTube and TikTok. Perhaps. But those critiques treat education as something one does for oneself. They suggest that you need not spend the time or the effort or the money because you, YOU individually, can learn what you need.

But what you have heard me tell you, through the words and thoughts of these speakers, is that education is not exclusively about self. The president who delivered my freshman convocation, many years ago, said it most eloquently, “There is no growth of the moral and mental powers of the self if the self alone is the ultimate goal of learning. Independence….arrives only when one realizes what it means, in all its glory and responsibility, that one is not alone.”3

The importance of recognizing that we are not alone is reaffirmed by looking at the challenges we face today. They have never been more significant. Every age has its trials, there is no question, and those before us have experienced technological, social, and economic change. Imagine for a moment, living through the Industrial Revolution, or the World Wars.

What is distinct about our own time is the number of the challenges we confront. Violence at home and abroad. Environmental degradation. Extreme climate events. Economic inequities that worsen every day, in our country and across the world. Social disparities based on prejudicial views of race and ethnicity. A government in this country rendered ineffective by ideological rigidity and an interest in power over public service.

While these challenges I list may seem sobering, even grim, I offer them to you for the opposite reason. You are now Augustana Vikings, which means that you will enter the world equipped to work with others, across differences of perspective, training, race, language, and religion, to find solutions to the most haunting problems of our age.

We stand at a moment when we are told, increasingly, what we should believe. When we are told increasingly what is right. You should not accept those exhortations passively. 

Rather, in the spirit of community and guided by the inquiring mind you should pursue questions boldly and brightly, as is our motto, wherever they may lead. Because independence is freedom, but freedom with an awareness that we are part of a community and that we determine what sort of community that is. A community that requires nurturing, and whose health and welfare we ignore at our peril.

If any of you have looked at the accomplishments of Augustana alumni, you know that you will find your way. You also know that you will forge ties here that transcend most you have known before, and that will link you to this place, and these people, in ways you can scarcely now imagine.

Like you I am a new Viking, but in just two months I have already learned the power and meaning of all that Augustana is, and I have already become a better citizen than I was when I arrived. Let us learn this year together.

I will ask one thing of you, and I hope you will ask it of me as well — do not settle for the simple answers. Rather, take up the mantle of responsibility and use all that you do here to make your community, however you define it, better.

I am so pleased to welcome you today, and to start you on your journey of an education with purpose. Welcome to Augustana.

1 John Adams, Thoughts on Government, 1776
2 Malcolm X, Address to the Organization of African-American Unity, 1964
3 A. Bartlett Giamatti, A Free and Ordered Space, W.W. Norton & Company, 1988, p.83