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Open letter to students from the president

September 11, 2015

It’s easy for someone of my age and position to offer unsolicited advice. So I’ll try not to do it.

Instead, let me tell you four quick stories—after all, that’s what historians do.

The first is from fall semester of my freshman year at Centre College in Kentucky, where Lobie and I both went to school.

In my Fine Arts and Literature course, the equivalent to our Introduction to the Liberal Arts, we were starting to read Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. The professor, a great, powerful teacher named Paul Cantrell, began our work with the book by saying, “OK, is it The SUN Also Rises, or The Sun ALSO Rises, or The Sun Also RISES,” his voice emphasizing the words in turn. We were all blown away—the whole meaning of the book could change depending on how you said the title!

The second was from my senior year, in a class called “The American Novel,” taught by another great teacher, Charlie Hazelrigg. We were studying The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain. Dr. Hazelrigg had us work with the scene in the book where Huck has written a letter that would turn in Jim, the runaway slave who had shared his travels down the Mississippi.

The social norms, the laws of the day, every convention that Huck knew told him that unless he turned Jim in, he would go to hell. But Jim had become his friend, his confidant, someone who cared for him, shared his fears, and shared his joys. Huck’s heart told him that he could not betray his friend. “Alright, then,” says Huck, “I’ll go to hell” as he destroys the letter, in what I think is one of the greatest moments in American literature.

The third and fourth stories involve travel. In 1995 I took a group of students to Vietnam for the first time. It was a tremendous experience, as we explored this culture quite different from our own, but with which we had such a profound shared history.

Even more moving was the fact that one of the students had fled Vietnam when she was 12 years old. She had not seen her mother, brother, and sister in eight years. That reunion was one of my best experiences as a teacher.

The final story is from the summer of 2014. After Lobie and I had accepted the offer to come to Monmouth, but before we actually started, we went on a long-delayed honeymoon to Paris. Lobie had lived there for a year, but I had never been. The history, the elegance, the vibrancy of that city was amazing, made even more so by being there with Lobie.

OK, so here is some unsolicited advice. Don’t let your time at Monmouth become just a giant to-do list. Be open to and seek out experiences that will challenge your mind and move your heart. Find your Paul Cantrells and Charlie Hazelriggs—they are here. Eagerly offer, and graciously receive, kindness from others. Explore our big, wonderful world. Find the right person with whom to share it all.

Have a great year!
Clarence Wyatt

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