Higher Education

Higher Education

GUEST VIEW: The rough path to our futures offers valuable opportunities

This post originally appeared on SouthCoastToday.

Editor’s Note: This essay is adapted from remarks delivered at the new student Convocation at UMass Dartmouth on Sept. 4.

As the class of 2022, you mark the first cohort of entering college students born in the 21st century. All you have ever known is a hyper-connected, rapidly changing world; you came of age during a time of increased partisanship, weakened civil discourse, and fundamental questions about the nature of truth. Our duty, as a community of teachers and learners, is to equip you, our students, with an agile mindset that embraces perseverance, resilience, and service to others as you become fully engaged global citizens capable of transforming the world.

A few weeks ago, our world suffered a huge loss when Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul and my fellow Detroiter, passed away after a long illness. In 1964, Aretha gave an interview to Ebony magazine in which she said: “It’s the rough side of the mountain that’s the easiest to climb; the smooth side doesn’t have anything for you to hang on to.”

That may seem counter-intuitive. Things that are called “smooth” are generally considered good, whether that is jazz, an airplane flight, or a stretch of highway. “Rough,” on the other hand, is not usually a compliment. We do not want to look rough, live rough, drive over a rough road, or land our golf ball in the rough.

Class of 2022, throughout your life your parents and family have worked very hard to smooth your way; they have sought to remove obstacles in your path. What Aretha said — and what I believe — is that you have to embrace the rough to get to the smooth. Facing and overcoming challenges makes it easier, not harder, for you to succeed.

Challenges teach you who you are and what you are made of. They show you that you can survive failure and loss and stress; in fact, they show you that you can learn from those things. It is natural to be afraid, but do not let the fear of change and loss stop you. In today’s economy, where technology moves rapidly and the only certainty is change, you need a mindset that embraces challenge.

A mindset that embraces challenge will make your ascent of Mount Education easier. So will the title of Aretha’s most famous song: R-E-S-P-E-C-T. In college, you will meet people who are very different from you in their background, their political opinions, and their life experiences. You will encounter ideas in the classroom that may be new and challenging for you, and you will learn and grow in ways you cannot imagine. Enter into these new experiences with respect for others and an understanding that growth and change are never easy. When you have an open mind and heart, and curiosity about the experiences of others, you will find the climbing easier.

Here in Southeastern Massachusetts, we are connected to other communities all around the world. Many of us have family ties to other states and countries or have traveled widely. Each of us holds in our hands the power to connect instantly with people all around the globe; we call that power a “smart phone” and that technology has revolutionized the way we communicate. We can follow emerging events around the world simply by checking news and social media websites, and we can talk to people on the other side of the globe.

In four years, give or take, you will have earned a college degree, joining a small group of people: out of nearly 7.5 billion people in the world, only seven percent attain that level of education. You will have more education than 93 percent of the world’s citizens.

This combination of powerful communication technology and high-level education is an incredible gift, but carries an equally incredible responsibility: to keep choosing the rough path of reason, respect, service and justice.

Robert Johnson