Connor Mahan, Outstanding Journalism Student, Mount Mercy University, 2018. Also editor-in-chief of the Mount Mercy Times.
Honors Convocation was today at the university where I teach. And two students who served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper during their time at Mount Mercy graduated. It made me think about learning from students, as I wrote the speech honoring one of them as Student Journalist of the Year, while also mentioning the other. Several people told me they liked my remarks, so I present them here—text of my presentation at the MMU Honors Convocation:
Each year, it’s a bittersweet moment when you have to say goodbye to your graduating students. For me, as the journalism professor and faculty advisor to the Mount Mercy Times, I’m often saying farewell to students who have worked hard in their classes, and also put in countless hours to serve this university as editors of student media.
It’s both my joy and pain to have that experience twice this year. Two great editors-in-chief of the Mount Mercy Times are in the class of 2018.
Graduating nursing student Madison Coates led the newspaper in her sophomore year, and has continued writing for the paper. When something happened in the newsroom that she liked, Maddie’s response was to say “perrrfect,” with a drawn out R. Maddie, to me, you were darn near perrrfect to work with as a student and an editor.
Maddie Coates, former Times editor-in-chief, won this year’s award from the nursing program. She receives it from nursing chair Dr. Mary Tarbox.
But today I’m here to honor the second editor-in-chief who is also graduating in the class of 2018.
As a transfer student from Kirkwood Community College, Connor Mahan began excelling early at MMU. In the fall of 2015, when our faculty series was about the legacy of the Vietnam War, Connor was one of five photographers and reporters from the Mount Mercy Times who covered the visit of the Moving Wall, a replica of the National Vietnam Memorial, to campus. During the wall’s visit, Connor made a poignant image of a young boy, holding his ears as he looked at the wall, seeking the name of a relative among the dead.
It wasn’t just any news image—Connor’s photograph was judged the best news photograph in an Iowa college news medium for the year 2015 by the Iowa College Media Association.
Anybody who has worked with Connor quickly recognizes his drive, intelligence and good humor. Life hasn’t given him all the advantages that chance doles out to others, and when he has to go somewhere to cover a story, the structure of his body dictates that it may take him a bit longer than others to get there. But that’s never held Connor back. He’s always willing to take on a new task, he is always pushing himself.
And when you compliment Connor on this hard work, his almost perrrfect answer is: “I do what I can.”
In 2016, the second potentially devastating flood in 8 years threatened Cedar Rapids, and the Mount Mercy Community joined the city in an emergency effort to erect barriers against the rising Cedar River. During that mostly successful, epic battle with rising water, Connor went to Ellis Park to cover the story. There, Connor made some news photographs of people from Mount Mercy who were filling sandbags. One of Connor’s images showed our own Father Tony Adawu handing a sandbag to an MMU student.
You probably can guess, as Paul Harvey would say, the rest of the story. In 2017, the best news photograph in Iowa, as judged by the Iowa College Media Association, was that picture of Father Tony made by Connor Mahan. Furthermore, Connor co-wrote the Times’ news story about the flood. That story was judged by the I-C-M-A as the best news story that year.
Connor had done what he could.
In fall of 2017, the Mount Mercy Times faced a leadership crisis when the previous editor could not continue. In the paper’s hour of need, two students stepped in—one, Madelyn Orton, was a sophomore English major who served as Managing Editor.
And the new editor-in-chief, who stepped into the role because he could and because he wanted to serve the newspaper, was Connor Mahan.
I like to think that I teach some lessons to my students, but there is a flip side. One of the joys of being a professor is that I can try to live out what we say about becoming a lifelong learner. And I find that I often learn lessons from my students.
I learned something about faith and joy, the power of a positive attitude and the warmth of a perrrfect smile from Madison Coates.
And I learned that the main challenge of each day that I am blessed with is to take what I have, whatever that is, and simply to get on with it. I need to do the work I am able to do. And I think we all agree that the world would be a better place, and we would lead better lives, if we all could simply say, at the end of each day, the words of Connor Mahan: “I do what I can.”
It’s my sincere pleasure to recognized Connor Mahan as the Mount Mercy University 2018 Outstanding Student Journalist.
Maddie with me after the ceremony.
Mahder Habtemariam Serekberhan is also in the class of 2018–she was opinion editor of the student newspaper.