Opening my Facebook feed the other day, Facebook reminded me of this event posted a year ago. Yes, our son graduated from the University of Washington. As I looked at the photo, I recalled that day...the day I was surprised by UW.
You see, I had never been to college graduation ceremony at a large state institution like UW. Though I had attended UW myself years ago, working on a Master's degree, I never finished, when a move to Alaska interrupted my course. I had attended several college graduations at relatively small, private, liberal arts colleges like the one I attended, Bethel University (St Paul, MN), the one two of my siblings attended, Seattle Pacific Univ, and the one a niece attended, Pacific Lutheran University. So as my husband and I ventured down the UW campus on that cloudy day in June, I wondered what the ceremony would be like. I must admit I more or less expected the typical message given at graduations..you know the one...go forth, work hard, achieve your dream.
The ceremony for the School of Communication was held on the lawn of the famous Quad of the UW Campus, known for its beauty, especially in the spring and fall. Taking a seat on the chairs on the lawn, there was a sense of excitement in the air.
The Chair of the Communications Department, Professor David Domke, gave the welcome and opening remarks. At one point, he had all the graduates stand and turn around to face the crowd. He said to the graduates, "Do you see all these people here today, parents, grandparents, family members, friends, significant others? Part of the reason you are standing up here today is because of the support and sacrifice of the people you see in front of you. Graduates, please give them a round of applause!"( I was a little surprised...wow, it's not all about the graduates!).
Professor Domke went on to introduce the speaker for the graduation ceremony, Nate Miles, a distinguished alumni of the UW Communications college (class of 1982). Nate Miles had quite a story to tell about the path that led him to the UW. Raised by a single mother in the Tri cities area of Washington state, his mom worked as a cleaning woman for several wealthy families to support herself and her young son. As she cleaned, if she was alone in the home, she would often pray aloud. Many of her prayers involved her hopes and dreams for her young son, Nate. One day, unbeknownst to her, one of the owners of a home had let himself into the kitchen and heard Nate's mother praying for her son. The next time she came to clean, he and his wife met her at their home and told her that he had heard her praying. They said if her son would work hard in school and get good grades, they would personally pay for his tuition at a school like the University of Washington! With his mother's encouragement and his own efforts as a student, Nate managed to get accepted at UW and graduated 4 years later. As Nate said, "Some of you here today have a "laude" attached to your name, Summa cum laude, Magna cum laude, or cum laude...the only laude I got was hearing my mother say, "Thank you, laude!".
Nate Miles went on to talk briefly about his career path, beginning with a job at KIRO broadcasting in marketing, to working in government, and then his current job as Vice President of Strategic Initiatives for Eli Lilly, a top pharmaceutical firm, throwing in several humorous stories. Then, Nate addressed the graduates. He said they were likely leaving this fine institution with a sense of freedom, a sense of accomplishment, a sense of having some knowledge, a sense of excitement about what the future holds, just like the Israelite's felt when they left Egypt (Wait...what?!!).
He spoke of the Israelite's coming to their first big obstacle...the Red Sea...and how many of them wanted to turn around, to give up, and had no faith that they could get across, even though Moses was telling them not to be afraid, to be brave, and move forward. He told the graduates that soon they would meet an obstacle in their lives, whether it be finding a job, or a challenge at their first job, or even a family issue. Like the Israelite's, their first impulse might be to turn back, give up, and lose faith in their dream. But, he encouraged them to do what Moses did and cry out to a God...the ultimate greater power...and move forward in the strength provided. Nate said he had often had to do that and God had always opened a way for him, even when the odds seemed insurmountable. That was the essence of his message...God would make a way if they sought His direction. His speech was full of hope, humor, and grace. (I was blown away at this point...a Biblical redemptive story as the backdrop for the graduation speech at UW!)
Reading the program, I discovered Nate Miles also serves as an elected UW Foundation Board trustee, representing the Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity, involved in encouraging private giving and support to the University. Amazingly, being vocal about his faith had not prevented him from having an active role in a secular, state funded University. If you saw the movie, God's Not Dead, you could get the sense that any belief in God is not welcome at a secular university. Yet, here was this man, Nate Miles, not afraid to share his faith at a graduation, and was respected enough to be elected to a trustee position at the University.
I think I often tend to put God in a box, and somehow believe that His power is limited in certain settings, like a secular University. Even colleges that were initially founded on principles of Christian faith like Harvard, Yale, and Oxford seem to have veered off course. Harvard's initial motto,"Truth (Veritas) for Christ (Christo) and the church (Ecclesiae)" was eventually changed to simply, "Truth (Veritas)." Yale's early motto, "Urim V Thummim", meaning "Christ the Word and Interpreter of the Father, our light and perfection" has been changed to "Light and Truth." Only Oxford's initial motto still remains the same, "Dominus Illuminatio Mea" meaning "The Lord is my light", taken from Psalm 27.
About a year ago I read a book titled, Surprised by Oxford, (and yes, I copied her title!) by Carolyn Weber. The author, once a skeptical agnostic, tells her story of coming to faith when she attends University of Oxford, through the threads of faithfulness that still exist in the life of fellow students, professors, and even traditional ceremonies.
And more recently, I am working my way through another book, titled, Finding God at Harvard: Spiritual Journeys of Thinking Christians, edited by Kelly Monroe.
Amazon's review says:
" In Finding God at Harvard, she presents the compelling testimonies of forty-two faculty members, former students, and distinguished orators at Harvard. Their candid reflections explode the myth that Christian faith cannot survive a rigorous intellectual atmosphere. Finding God at Harvard speaks to the emptiness that haunts college campuses across the country -- an emptiness that only Truth can fill."
As I read these books and reflect back on the graduation speech that day, I am reminded of a passage about Elijah, in I Kings 19. Elijah is fleeing for his life after killing the prophets of Baal and he believes he is the only one of the Israelite's left who follows after God. God, in his mercy, reveals to Elijah that he has preserved 7000 other believers...Elijah is not alone after all. I just want to offer encouragement to you parents who are sending your children off to college in the fall. I believe there are believers on every college campus, if your child will seek others who profess Christian faith.
When we took our son to dinner after the ceremony, I asked him what he thought of the graduation speech. He too, was surprised, when the speaker began to compare the graduates to the Israelite's. I'm so thankful that Mr. Miles was selected to be the speaker for this special day in our son's life and hope his message of encouragement and hope stays with him.
Happy Graduation season to all! Warmly, Gracia