Sunday, May 17, 2015

On Graduation Night, A Final Lesson for Grads

So if you're heading to the Coliseum on May 28 for NCC's graduation, be prepared for bright lights, music, balloons, selfies, smiles, and nonstop congrats, shout-outs, and applause--all in roughly two hours.

Expect speeches also, including one or two that (with a little luck) will offer some serious thoughts about life.

I can't say for sure the latter will happen, of course.  Many graduation speeches are more bromides than broadsides, talks that neither offend nor, sadly, inspire. Commencement addresses may be heartfelt and sincere, but they're rarely heart-stopping.  

Still, there are exceptions.  On YouTube you'll find Apple founder Steve Jobs telling graduates (not at NCC but at another college) to love what they do, to stay "hungry" and "foolish," and above all, to live their own lives, not someone else's.  

You'll find author J.K. Rowling encouraging grads to use their voice and influence to benefit those who are voiceless: "We don't need magic to change the world," Rowling notes, with a nod to Harry Potter. "We carry all of the power we need inside ourselves already--we have the power to imagine better."  

You'll also find my favorite, Stephen King, America's literary bogeyman, reminding his young audience that life doesn't last forever and that the only thing that really matters is what people give to others:

"Should you give away what you have? Of course you should. I want you to consider making your life one long gift to others, and why? All you have is on loan, anyway.  All you want to get at the getting place, from the Maserati you may dream about to the retirement fund some broker will try to sell you on, none of that is real. All that lasts is what you pass on. . . .

Like Rowling, King also reminds graduates that the fate of the world is in their hands:

"Imagine a nice little backyard, surrounded by a board fence.  Dad--a pleasant fellow, a little plump, wearing an apron that says 'You may kiss the cook'--is tending the barbecue. Mom and the kids are setting the picnic table by the backyard pool: fried chicken, cole slaw, potato salad, a chocolate cake for dessert.  And standing around that fence, looking in, are emaciated men and women, starving children. They are silent. They only watch. That family at the picnic table is us, ladies and gentlemen; that backyard is America and those hungry people on the other side of the fence, watching us all sit down to eat, include far too much of the rest of the world.  It's Asia and the subcontinent; it's countries in central Europe, where people live on the edge from one harvest to the next; it's South America, where they're burning down the rain forests to make room for housing developments and for grazing lands where next year's Big Macs are being raised; most of all, it's Africa, where AIDS is pandemic--not epidemic--but pandemic--and starvation is a fact of life. . . .

"What we scrape down the kitchen disposal after Thanksgiving dinner for a family of eight would feed a Liberian village for a week . . . . While the national wealth has tripled over the last quarter century, the help we give to the world's poor has sunk back to 1973 levels . . . . In West Africa, the average life span is thirty-nine years. Infant mortality in the first year is fifteen percent. It's not a pretty picture, but we have the power to help, the power to change.  And why should we refuse?"

Will NCC's graduation speakers--students and members of the administration--offer similarly stirring remarks?  Will they remind graduates of their obligations to the world? Will they leave their audience with something substantive to ponder?  

Let's hope so.  You don't have to be famous to be inspirational, after all, only courageous, passionate, and genuine.   

And what better way to bid farewell to our graduates than with a reminder of what really matters in life?  

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Be Like Abe

"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."
                                                         --President Abraham Lincoln, March 4, 1865

                                           *                   *                    *

In his second inaugural address, delivered just five weeks before his assassination in 1865, Abraham Lincoln held out an olive branch to a nation divided and convulsed by war.  Aware that the end of the conflict was near, Lincoln understood that the work ahead involved redemption rather than retribution and healing rather than hatred.

It's not hard to imagine what Lincoln would have thought about the years that followed--the sad collapse of reconstruction, the rise of hate groups, the passage of laws creating two separate but unequal Americas, and the brutal violence accompanying the civil rights movement of the 1950's and 60's.  And you can easily hear his disappointment and dismay at recent events in America, many of which suggest we've a long way to go before achieving a "just and lasting peace among ourselves."

One hundred and fifty years ago this week, America buried Lincoln, a President for the ages, maybe the best we've known.  Following his assassination on April 14, 1865, Lincoln's body was carried by train from Washington DC to Springfield, Illinois, passing along the way through Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Albany, Buffalo, Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Chicago. The funeral procession took a few weeks, with thousands turning out to pay their respects.

Given the racial strife that's sometimes as toxic today as a century and a half ago, it's on all of us to realize that creating a fair and respectful society is everybody's business. Righting wrongs and putting the past to rest isn't just the government's job or schools' job or some other generation's job, but yours and mine as well.  

I know everyone's busy right now, with the semester winding down and summer ahead, but sometime this week, remember Abe Lincoln--someone who put it all on the line for America.  

We could all stand to take a page from Lincoln's life and try, now and then at least, to be a bit like Abe.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow (Or the Day After)

After months of snow, ice, slush, killer winds, and frost-bite temperatures, spring has finally come to town.

Yahoo!  Time to enjoy the May sunshine, watch the flowers come up, and dream of sand dunes and sea gulls.

But before we all start waxing down our surfboards, let's remember that the arrival of nice weather doesn't mean we can put our brains on hold and stop thinking about the world (which as you've probably noticed is in pretty sorry shape these days).  Wars, environmental catastrophes, racial tensions, sexism, economic inequality, poverty, and violence know no season.  Rain or shine, hot or cold, Earth continues to be a planet in crisis.

Which is why all of us, even while enjoying blue skies and balmy temperatures, must continue to pay attention to what's happening in our midst.

Hopefully you got to at least a few of the many programs on social and political issues that NCC sponsored this semester.  They addressed a range of important issues, everything from dealing with global food shortages and containing the Ebola epidemic to bridging America's racial divide and stopping terrorists from wreaking havoc on the world.  Serious subjects to be sure, but ones that clearly deserve our attention.

This week brings even more to ponder. On Thursday, May 7 at club hour, there'll be two programs at NCC on topics that are important to us all.

First, the Women Students Association is holding a Speak Out--a student-led discussion--on relationship violence (11:30 a.m., Nassau Hall, Rm. 222).  Participants can share their thoughts on the telltale signs of a violent relationship (which aren't always clear at first) and discuss actions students can take if they feel they're in such a situation.  Even if you're not in a threatening relationship yourself, listening to others will be educational.

At the same time, in the College Center (Rms. 252-253), NCC's Campus Services Committee is sponsoring a presentation on another critical topic: Fracking.  As you may know, fracking is short for hydraulic fracturing, a process that involves drilling deeply into the earth for natural gas reserves. While fracking has its supporters, who tout its economic advantages, it also has its critics, who fear that the process could contaminate water supplies and cause other environmental problems. At Thursday's program, you'll learn more--and maybe make up your own mind.

That's not all that's ahead. On Tuesday, May 12, the Student Government Association is hosting a discussion (11:30 a.m., College Center, Multipurpose Room) on the state of higher education, including recent developments here at NCC.  If you haven't noticed, the winds of change are blowing across college campuses these days, and not everyone thinks what's emerging is all good.  Drop by the CCB at club hour and you'll find out what's happening, how it could impact your education, and what you can do about it.

In the midst of all this uncertainty, can we still enjoy the spring?  Of course--there's no other season quite so innocent and idyllic, no other time so full of promise and possibility.  But while we're taking in these great days, let's not lose sight of the big picture.  Now more than ever, the world needs alert, aware, thoughtful young people--folks like you.  No time to mentally check out . . .  

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Greatest Gift of All

Service.  It's a word that's used a lot these days by lots of different people.

The U.S. military, local community groups, national volunteer organizations, and religious groups of almost every denomination routinely cite the importance of service--to the country, to the world, to one's neighbors, to the poor, to humanity at large--as one of the most valuable activities a person can engage in.

They're right, of course: Service, in all its forms, is the greatest gift you can give.  For it affirms your belief in something larger than your own needs.  Whatever its nature or duration, service involves putting your own routine on hold and making someone else's life a priority. 

Service is such an important activity, especially in our time, that come this Wednesday, a good portion of the NCC campus will put aside their business and spend the day serving others.  Students, faculty, administration, and staff will come together on April 15 and devote a morning and/or afternoon (or maybe both) to doing something good for other people.

That "something" will take many forms: collecting food, clothing, toiletries, household goods, and even pet supplies for those who need them; making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the Mary Brennan INN; giving away books to anyone who wants one; providing free and confidential counseling services to post 9/11 veterans and their loved ones; planting flowers and shrubs on campus; cleaning the nearby Hempstead Plains; collecting recycled cell phones for soldiers overseas; selling homemade cakes and pastries to benefit breast cancer research; making get-well cards for hospitalized kids; painting a miniature house in support of Habitat for Humanity--and more. There'll be more than fifty service projects and activities happening in the College Center and other locations on campus.

And they all need your presence and participation.

I know, I know--you're busy with school and work and term papers and everything else that's happening this semester.  You're probably feeling a little tired these days.  And besides, free time is scarce, especially as the spring term winds down.

Still, people need you. 

And people are important.  Right?

So join us.  Come on over to the CCB bright and early on Wednesday, sign up for a project, and have breakfast with the First-Year Experience Committee, the Long Island Volunteer Center, the Center for Service Learning, and a whole bunch of other folks at NCC who've worked hard to make this terrific event happen. Then you can spend some time with the service project of your choice--making a sandwich for somebody who's hungry, buying (and eating!) a cookie to support cancer research, making a card for a sick kid in a hospital, painting a brick so Habitat for Humanity can keep building houses for the poor, or doing something else that feels good and makes sense.  And at about 4 p.m. or so, come on back to the second floor of the CCB for a celebration of the day. 

Making the world just a little better and brighter: What a great way to spend part of your Wednesday.

See you there.  We'll hold a seat at breakfast for you.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

A Life Changer

I was 18, midway through my first year in college, and looking for something interesting to do. I had seen a flyer in a campus building about the student newspaper needing members, so I showed up at the newspaper office one cold February morning and said I wanted to write.  

Truth be told, I was nervous about joining the paper.  I'd heard that campus groups were cliques, hard to break into.  I was also unsure just how much of my time the newspaper would take up.  And though I wouldn't admit it to anyone, I wasn't convinced my writing was exactly ready for prime time. 

Still, I screwed up my courage and decided to give the newspaper a shot.   

I can't tell you my experience was perfect.  It wasn't.  I soon figured out that I wasn't the best writer on campus, that working on the paper frequently kept me up nights, that putting out a newspaper was hard work, and that there were definitely some people on the staff with attitude problems.  And it also didn't take long for me to realize that there was a lot I didn't know about college, myself, and life at large. There were times, especially at first, when I felt pretty ignorant.

But there were plenty of positives too.  The newspaper turned out to be a great learning experience. Along the way, I learned all sorts of important lessons, like how to manage time and money, how to make deadlines, how to work with people (including some I didn't much like), how to give and take criticism, how to make tough decisions, and (yeah) how to write clearer sentences.  They were lessons that would stay with me long after graduation--many, in fact, for life.  I also made some friends on the paper, which not only made good times great and bad times bearable but pretty much brought my social life back from the dead.  

This isn't a pitch for joining the NCC newspaper, one of 100+ student groups active on campus these days.  Think of it instead as a nudge--to get you out of your comfort zone and to try something new in college. Too often I meet students who say they'd like to get involved--maybe join something on campus--but they're too shy to take that first step.  Some have the same fears that I once had, that they're somehow not good/smart/talented/funny/outgoing/whatever enough to join a club or do something else that will give them a chance to stretch. 

If this description sounds even a little like you, think about this: No matter what you do or don't do this semester, the time will go by.  You may have other chances to get to that club meeting you've been thinking about, but not this one.  Pass up today's opportunity and it's gone forever.  And if too many today's morph into yesterday's, well, college (and life) can go by in the blink of an eye. 

"You miss one hundred percent of the shots you never take," observed former hockey great Wayne Gretzky.  It's a terrific quote, one almost every hockey fan has heard before.  But if you stop to think about it, Gretzky's talking not just about ice hockey but the rest of life too. 

This is your moment to take that shot.  Whether it's joining a club, playing a sport, or doing something else on campus to make college a more interesting experience, the time is now--no more putting it off! Get involved in something and it will change your life, maybe not in exactly the same way the newspaper changed mine, but in ways that will make sense to you.  

There are no shortage of life-changing experiences waiting for you at NCC.  All you have to do is forget your fears and give one (or two) of them a try.  Trust me on this . . . 

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Read Your Syllabus Yet?

So how carefully did you read the syllabuses you received in your classes last week?

Not very, I'll bet.  In fact, if you're like a lot of students, you probably gave your syllabuses a quick once over before filing them in your notebook or backpack.

If that's the case, time to dig out those documents and read them from start to finish!

Why? Because a syllabus (aka a course outline) is one of the most important pieces of paper you'll receive this semester in your classes.  It's a contract of sorts: an agreement between you and your professor about the course you're beginning together. It's a document that tells you what you can expect over the next fifteen weeks and how you can make the most of the experience.

While not all syllabuses are alike, all contain information you need to know.  A syllabus will typically tell you
        • who's teaching the course 
        • what you'll be studying and learning
        • what books, manuals, online resources, and other materials you'll need
        • what work (assignments, projects, etc.) you'll need to do over the semester
        • when tests are scheduled and when assignments are due
        • how your final grade will be determined
        • what you need to know about attendance and classroom behavior (class do's and don'ts)
        • what extra help is available--and where you can find it
        • how to reach your professor out of class (phone, email, office hours) 
See why it's important to pay careful attention to the syllabus?  Besides explaining the course in detail, a syllabus also lays out what's expected of you--info you can't afford to blow off.

Over the years I've had tons of conversations with students who've messed up in their classes.  While their situations have varied, almost all of these folks have been basically clueless about what their professors expected of them.  Asked about attendance policies, tests and assignments, deadlines, extra help, their professors' names and office hours, most have known nothing.  If only they'd looked at their syllabuses . . .

As we all know, college can be crazy sometimes.  As the semester goes on, courses become demanding, assignments pile up, and life often grows more intense and stressful.  But having a handle on your courses--knowing when exams are scheduled, what chapters must be read, where you can go for extra help, and even where you can cut corners--can take some of the pressure off.

And that's where knowing your course syllabuses comes in handy. Giving your syllabuses a close read won't guarantee straight A's, but it will definitely help you stay on top of your courses, plan your time, and be better organized.  It'll also make you feel less pressured.

So before this semester gets too far along, sit down and read--REALLY read--your syllabuses. Highlight the important parts. Note dates (exams, papers, etc.). Pay attention to your professors' office hours.  Use the information on these pages to map out your semester.

Do it now.  No time to waste.  This is your education (and your life) we're talking about.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A Place of Possibilities

Did you read the recent New York Times' column by actor Tom Hanks about his experiences at a community college? It was terrific: honest, funny, inspiring, and insightful.

Also true.

Hanks writes about graduating from a California high school in 1974 and having neither the grades nor the bucks to attend a competitive and expensive university. So he enrolled at nearby Chabot College, a two-year college that not only accepted everyone but was free (nice, huh?).   

Hanks's classmates included recent h.s. grads, Vietnam vets, women returning to school, and middle-aged men seeking to boost their careers.  Together they commuted to campus each day, studying everything from accounting and auto mechanics to physics and journalism.

Though never (by his own admission) a great student, Hanks writes that he found himself--and his passion--at Chabot, discovering that he loved oral interpretation, public speaking, film, and literature. His experience wasn't perfect--he detested some required courses (sound familiar?) and almost flunked zoology--but the positives far outweighed the negatives.  He recalls taking a drama course that "filled my head with expanded dreams."  He also remembers sitting in the Chabot campus library and listening to recordings of actor Jason Robards, with whom he'd someday co-star.

I tell you all this because there are probably at least a few of you out there wondering whether enrolling at Nassau, a school in many ways similar to Chabot, is worth the time and investment.  It is--provided you give college and yourself a chance to see what you're both all about.   

I'm not saying you're going to wind up as rich and famous as Hanks.  But I am saying that if you're open to college--if you approach Nassau with curiosity and with the idea that college holds plenty of possibilities (which it clearly does)--good things will happen.  I can't be more specific about what those good things will be; you'll have to fill in the blanks yourself.

Hanks writes that community colleges give people low-cost opportunities to explore "the next chapter of their lives."  He's right.  For those willing to give college their best shot, two-year colleges, including Nassau, do just that.   

"That place made me who I am today," Hanks says he told his kids when passing Chabot recently.  

Wouldn't it be cool if someday you could say the same thing about your time at NCC?