Dr. Rebecca Stoltzfus, President of Goshen College, delivers the Fall Opening Convocation message on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020, in the Goshen College Church-Chapel.

President’s speech: Passionate Learning in the time of COVID

Fall Opening Convocation message, delivered by Dr. Rebecca Stoltzfus, President of Goshen College, on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020, in the Goshen College Church-Chapel (as prepared for delivery)

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Good morning, Goshen College! Welcome to the 2020 academic year!

Welcome to the new students in this sanctuary and in the Fellowship Hall, and to all of our students and employees watching on other screens.

Forty-two years ago, I was a first-year student at Goshen College. I started out here at GC as a music major. Honestly, I did not have a clear idea of what I wanted to major in, but I knew I enjoyed hanging out with musicians. I still do. And I am so glad that Goshen College will be making music in creative, rigorous, safe and beautiful ways this fall.

I think I changed my major – at least in my mind – four times, as I explored the academic disciplines here at GC. I started out in music, meandered through psychology and English, and finally graduated as a Chemistry major. As I thought about our core value of passionate learning in preparation for this morning, I tried to recall what I learned here at Goshen. I mean, what really stuck with me and what mattered. Honestly, I had trouble remembering any of the specific course material.

The Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget, was one of the most eminent psychologists of the 20th century. He said: “The principle goal of education should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done.”

Looking back to my own college years at Goshen, it was easy for me to see that my time here had made me capable of doing new things.

Here at Goshen, I discovered that I was in the midst of people who were dreaming of the new things they wanted to create or bring about. People who would get together in small groups, talk for hours, organize their time, and be unusually bold in their efforts to make things better.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has,” said the anthropologist Margaret Mead

Goshen College, followed by studies at Cornell University and the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, helped me to become capable of creating research groups that dreamed of new ideas and brought new theories and nutrition guidelines and practices into being.

At Goshen College, I learned what I am good at doing. I learned that I am not as suited to piano performance as I am to science.

I learned that whatever it is I choose to do, it takes hard work. Here is a particular memory from my years at GC. I always enjoyed studying languages and felt that I was quite good at it. One semester, I was studying French in preparation for going on SST to Haiti. I was also falling in love and working early morning hours at a restaurant. And so I didn’t really study my French. At the end of the semester, I got a grade that made me very unhappy! I remember feeling unfairly graded, because although, sure . . . I didn’t work very hard that semester, I was good at French! So I complained to the professor, saying something along the lines of “but I’m not a B- student in French!” To which my professor replied, you may not be a B- student, but you did B- work.

I look back on my immature, entitled, overwhelmed, sleep-deprived, love-drunk self, and think: what a mess you were that semester! But I learned – some French, which I’ve mostly forgotten, and that you really do have to put in the work, which I’ve remembered.

Yes, we learn a lot here at GC. But why, after all, is our core value passionate learning? Why not just learning?

No doubt, this will be a passionate year. It’s a good idea to expect plenty of emotions around this year—considering we are in the midst of a global pandemic, hard conversations about racial justice and a divisive presidential election. And while that might make some of us uncomfortable, a passionate year can be a very good year.

Emotions are key to deep learning. We pay attention to what we have strong feelings about. Emotion drives our attention, and together these make memories.

So whatever grades we may give and get, we are all going to do a lot of learning this year. Let’s make that learning count, let’s direct it to the common good. To the best of our abilities, let’s allow our passionate emotions – sadness, anger, joy, love – make this year of learning more relevant, more memorable, more connected.

Okay, now I’m going to get a little bit geeky about emotions, behaviors and learning.

About twenty years ago, I joined a global health research team based in Zimbabwe, along with scientists from around the world. We set out to figure out how to improve sanitation (that’s a nice word for where people poop and what happens to it) and handwashing in rural Africa.

Now, these behaviors are linked to human emotions such as disgust and shame. And at that time, there was a prominent movement in the world of sanitation that was promoting the use of shame for behavior change. The strategy was to publicly shame people who did not use a toilet or wash their hands properly. Keep in mind that these interventions were happening in poor communities where “toilet” means pit latrine, for example, in India and Ethiopia.

Before jumping onto this bandwagon of shame, our group set out to understand what psychologists and anthropologists know about shame. And research shows that shame does not bring about moral behavior. In fact, it is strongly associated over time with behaviors such as aggression, violence and drug abuse. So we designed intensive educational interventions around handwashing and latrine use that were entirely positive and focused around an ethic of care, not a campaign of shame.

But unlike shame, many emotions are pro-social and drive us toward learning. Like Guilt, anger, longing and joy. These are passions that can truly drive our learning, if we are willing to open ourselves.

And yes, I really did say guilt is pro-social and is different from shame. Here’s the difference, according to the research:

  • When we feel shame, we want to hide, escape or strike back.
  • When we feel guilt, we want to confess, repair or apologize.

In terms of moral behavior: Shame is bad. Guilt is good.

And that’s why I want you to feel guilty if you don’t wear your mask properly. We’re not going to shame you. We’re not going to call you names, or think that you’re a bad person. We’re simply going to remind you that if you don’t follow the Big Four, on and off campus, you are endangering our community, your friends and our employees. Your behavior has consequences.

Guilt, along with anger, longing and joy are strongly positive motivational forces:

  • Guilt motivates you to learn: how do you make things right between yourself and others?
  • Anger: how do you make the world better?
  • Longing: how can you bring your goals into being?
  • Joy: What can you do to keep this amazing energy going and share it with others?

Goshen College’s core value of passionate learning means that we connect your coursework with your passions and purpose in the world. We connect with each other: students with students, students with staff, students with faculty, all of us with the community. We are a place where ideas and experiences in one class are connected to what happens in another class. We will connect you with internships, community service, and careers. Goshen is a place where your mind connects with your spirit and connects with your body.

What happens in the world matters at Goshen College. And what happens at Goshen College matters to the world. Here, everything connects.

This semester I am a passionate learner about four things:

First, be assured that I am utterly passionate about learning how to keep us all safe in this pandemic. We have learned a great deal about the novel coronavirus since January, and there so much more that we will learn! Best practices, testing regimens and guidance will change as we learn more about this virus, how it is transmitted, who is at risk and what will protect us. As we learn, we will continually improve our plans and communicate that clearly to you.

None of us can pull a healthy semester off by ourselves. We must realize our profound interconnectedness — for good and for ill — and choose to act on behalf of each other’s good. We must all behave every day with the knowledge that we might be an asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic carrier of the virus who — through our choices and actions — can protect others who might become very seriously ill with COVID-19. We hold one another in trust.

And: When you maintain at least six feet of physical distance, if one of your friends becomes infected with COVID, you will not have to be quarantined for 14 days.

We will be transparent with you about our situation. We launched a new dashboard on our COVID page yesterday, giving you daily stats on new COVID-19 cases and the total number of students and employees in isolation each day. Remember: Isolation means the separation of people who are known to be infected with COVID-19. It is different from quarantine, which is for exposed people who are not known to be infected but could be.

Transparency builds trust. Another way we can build trust right now is for all of us to sign the pledge. I know we’ve been sending you lots of messages, policies and protocols. Maybe you’ve missed the invitation to sign our pledge. But here are the stats:

Of our employees, 87% have signed the pledge. Let’s hear it for the employees!

Of our students, 78% have signed the pledge. That’s great too, but the employees are ahead of you people!

Sign the pledge! Why does this matter? Because it is a powerful act to all publicly state our intentions together.

Second, I am passionate about the state of systemic racism in our nation. 

All six of GC’s vice presidents and I wrote to our students, employees and alumni in July, apologizing for the ways that being a predominantly white institution with a dominant white culture and white privilege have hurt Black, indigenous and people of color presently and in the past.

We committed to learning and doing better.
We promised to listen.
We promised action and change. We are in the process of that and will keep you informed.
We invite you to be a part of anti-racism work at Goshen College.

Third, I am passionate about the state of our democracy and how to create honest conversations about what is happening in our society and economy. One of my mentors, Parker Palmer, says it this way: insight and energy give rise to new life as we speak and act, expressing our version of truth while checking and correcting it against the truths of others. We, young and old alike, must find our voices, learn how to use them, and know the satisfaction that comes from contributing to positive change – if we have the support of a community.”

We strive to be a community where we find our voices, expressing our version of truth while checking and correcting it against the truths of others. With this in mind, we are making a new college statement on Freedom of Expression. The purpose of this statement is to make clear the freedoms and boundaries of expression in the life of the college. We will keep you informed as we make the full statement public next week.

Finally, in the midst of all we face in fall 2020, I am passionate about cultivating a deep sense of joy and vibrant faith, and fun. Now more than ever, we need to be nourished by music and art, by laughter and by each other. Let this not be a semester where fear takes the upper hand: Our fears are real, and we can work with them: meditate, exercise, pray, sing, do yoga, talk it out with a friend or a therapist.

Personally, I am holding tight to the disciplines that sustain me: meditation, Tai Chi, journaling, cooking great food, swimming. What will you do this fall to nourish and sustain you – body, mind and soul? Please be good to yourselves, as well as each other.

Welcome to fall 2020 at Goshen College, where everything connects. Welcome to this historically pandemic, wonderful, painful, hopeful year. I am so glad you are here, and that we have the chance to know you and help you become capable of doing new things. The world needs you!