The speech below was delivered Aug. 24 during the Founder’s Day kickoff ceremony at Mount Mercy College. I had written a first draft that Audrey read and did not like–she said instead to focus more on my personal experience, so I re-wrote the speech. She was right, it was much better.
Anyway, below are two versions, the first the one that speech that I wrote and delivered, the second one a speech that my daughter Theresa wrote for me so I would not have to write a speech. But, I think I did …
A New Way of Learning While Serving:
The Mount Mercy Portal
Hello, my name is Joe Sheller. I’m an associate professor of communication here at Mount Mercy, and also one of the faculty members who has volunteered to teach one of the “portal” courses this fall. My course is called “Avatars of Good and Evil: Media Stereotypes vs. Reality.” I’ll talk more about portal courses in a minute, but first I want to tell you a story about service, and how service can sometimes go astray.
It was June of 2008—I don’t remember the exact date, but the crest of the record-setting flood in Cedar Rapids was around June 13th, which was, as it happens, a Friday. Just before the really high waters hit, that Wednesday or Thursday, downtown Cedar Rapids was an eerie place. My wife Audrey, who teaches nursing here at Mount Mercy, and I were walking past frantic sandbaggers towards City Hall, located on Mays Island in the river, where we had been dispatched from Mount Mercy to help.
When we got there, a janitor showed us where the dollies were and told us to take boxes of city records from the basement to the auditorium on the first floor. For a middle-aged couple, it was cramped, heavy labor. Load a dolly with 4 to 5 boxes full of files; tow the dolly through a narrow creepy basement passage up a makeshift rickety ramp, up several steps, across the length of city hall, to the elevators. Upstairs, as least, everything was on one level—wheel the dolly out of the elevator through the lobby, past the Grant Wood window, into the large auditorium.
We worked pretty diligently … until the labels on the boxes and visible contents began to get more and more obscure. Boxes were labeled “various old files,” and at one point we saw a Kiwanis city beatification plaque from the 1960s, which must have been vital to city operations, the way is was carefully hidden in a box in a room of boxes in a basement …
I think Audrey reached a low point when we found a box labeled “Y2K.” You remember Y2K, how the world ended when all of its computers stopped working just after midnight on Jan. 1, 2000. Except it didn’t.
As I explained to Audrey, it was probably important to keep those Y2K records so the city could avert another catastrophe in 990 years when Y3K rolls around.
So it goes. Sometimes, when you perform what you think is an act of service, you see results and can feel good about yourself and what you’ve done. Sometimes, you spend hours moving boxes from a basement to a first floor—and the next day the flood waters rise 5 feet above the level of that floor and all of those heavy boxes might just as well stayed in the basement. It’s not always easy to know what impact you are having, although I think it’s also true that on some level, the effort is what counts.
You are entering Mount Mercy College at an important time of transition. Just as you are entering college to change your life, we are becoming something new—by the time this year’s first-year students graduate, this place plans to be something called “Mount Mercy University.” We are implementing a brand-new core of courses this year. Those of you who are first-year students are also taking a new kind of class this semester, a “portal” class.
One of the exciting aspects of this portal course is that it represents Mount Mercy taking active steps to preserve the best of its past even in the midst of change. We were founded by the Sisters of Mercy, partly because those sisters believed in serving those in need—originally this college provided education to women at a time when women’s opportunities and horizons were more limited than today. And while this school was founded to benefit its students, it has also always strived to train those students to benefit the community.
Service is something that’s always been important at Mount Mercy, and now we’re putting it front and center. Which is where it should be. We have lofty goals for your education, and the portal class with its service component is a key to aiming for those goals.
Service is a lifelong habit like learning—just as we hope you become lifelong learners, we want you to be lifelong servers. And we also know that if you serve with an open mind and open heart, that may create some of the key learning moments of your life.
I’ve had some wonderful experiences with service here at Mount Mercy in the past.
Several years ago, I traveled with a Mount Mercy group to the Texas-Mexico border and helped build houses at an agency called “Proyecto Azteca.” The houses were all constructed at the same site to be trucked to colonias—impoverished unincorporated neighborhoods—later. We could see the work of our hands taking shape in the heat of a Texas June. Although I have not had a chance to go back, I know other groups from Mount Mercy have continued that work. I also learned a lot myself that summer—by the way, “músculo,” Spanish for “muscle,” is a border slang term for “sledge hammer.”
In January of last year, Audrey and I both accompanied a larger group from Mount Mercy that did service work in New Orleans, helping an Americorps group that is reconstructing houses in neighborhoods that flooded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Both of those service projects had tangible, viewable results. Both involved contact with the people being served—the clients of Proyecto Azteca help construct their own homes, and during one of days of work in New Orleans, we were at the homes of clients being aided. One man had too much demolition to accomplish on his own, and we gutted his house. His gratitude was both touching and almost painful to see—it left you proud of what you had done, but wishing you had done more.
Service isn’t always that rewarding. Sometimes, the lessons it teaches are more about handling frustration and learning to be patient. Sometimes, the useless Y2K boxes get shuffled around before they get destroyed anyway. But, after all, service isn’t something that you do just to get credit, or for your own personal reward. People who are in need don’t exist so that we can learn from them. They live and breath and lead complex lives, just like us. We serve because being fully human involves empathy. And we serve because we should.
And that is part of why your portal has service integrated into it. You can’t learn what “service” means simply by thinking about it or reading about it, any more than you can learn to ride a bicycle without your feet touching the pedals. Furthermore, you can only really start to understand immigration or sharing the earth with animals or avatars of good and evil when you take these abstract notions and apply them somewhere real. You will know more about an area of critical social concern identified by the Sisters of Mercy not only because you have studied it, but also, in a small way, you have lived it through service.
Good luck with all of your schoolwork this year. Most of all, good luck with the new portal courses. May the service you provide in that class give you a sense of Mercy and a sense that you too, along with Mount Mercy, are becoming something new.
That was my speech. Here is the “alternative” speech that Theresa wrote:
Hi. I’m Mr. Joe. I am the chair of the faculty. As in spokesperson. I don’t have four legs.
I am awesome.
You will like Mount Mercy for three reasons.
1. It is on a hill. Hills are cool. You can see your future from here. Plus zombies have a hard time making it up hill. So at Mount Mercy you are safe from a Zombie attack.
2. Whiteboards. I bet you have one hung up on your dorm room door. Use it. Love it. Also you can write notes to professors on them. On mine you could write. “Mr. Joe, You are Awesome. Thanks for making a great speech.”
3. Me. I am here. As I stated previously, I am awesome.
Also. Mount Mercy is better than Coe.
That is all.