'All things are possible' at beginning of school year
Sometimes in the hustle and bustle of daily administrative duties, I forget to stop and smell the roses.
I was preparing my monthly column on a totally different subject when I was called across campus. As it was the first week of school, I used the opportunity to get a sense for what was happening on the campus. Initial impressions stick, and I must say that I was impressed. The entire university team - from groundskeepers to faculty to students and staff - had done a tremendous job in preparing the campus for the beginning of another academic year.
An important Benedictine value is stewardship of the environment. For us, that stewardship must begin at home, at the university. A decision many years ago to build gardens of all varieties transformed the campus into a welcoming oasis. While many gardens have reached their peak, the variety of plantings ensures new blossoms are on hand to greet our students.
As I moved toward the center of campus, I was surrounded by students, their "freshness" much like the new leaves of spring. They walk with a bounce in their steps that boldly proclaims to the world that all things are possible. They have yet to be sullied by the first test, the all-night preparations and the annoying idiosyncrasies that arise when large masses of people live and work together. Freshmen have yet to feel that first tinge of homesickness and pangs of "did I make the right decision?" This really is a wonderful week because indeed "all things are possible."
As I walked around campus, I began to see some interesting phenomena. Abbot Hugh Anderson, O.S.B., was at the front entrance taking questions from incoming students and directing them to hard-to-find parking. It is quite a sight to see a monk, dressed in the 6th century monk attire, directing traffic. Abbot Hugh was so into his job that in his eagerness to greet every car, he created a traffic jam on College Road.
The greeting of students as they entered campus was not limited to Abbot Hugh. Staff members throughout the institution were out in bright orange vests trying to make the students' first experience one of their best. In addition to serving as "traffic cops," staff ferried students in golf carts to ensure that they got to their class on time. The football team greeted freshman resident students by helping unload the cars and helping the students and parents get situated in the residence halls.
Did we have some snafus as part of our welcoming? I am sure we did. But today, the air of Benedictine hospitality permeates the campus.
Many students were heard talking about how great the service was.
One returning student asked, "Why is it so hard to find a place to park this year? It wasn't this way last year." The answer? On the first day of class this year, Benedictine welcomed more than 700 new freshman and transfer students to campus. In fact, the university has grown to more than 5,500 students.
As I cross campus and look proudly at the students, I am amazed at who our students are. In a very real sense, the Benedictine University student is everybody - the cultures and the religions of the world. Benedictine looks like the United Nations at school. As I walked the halls, I heard Chinese, Arabic, Spanish and English within seconds of each other.
I am often asked, "How do you account for such a diverse campus?" The question sometimes perplexes me because this is what I believe we are called to be as an institution. Our Catholic and Benedictine heritage and tradition demand that we welcome the "stranger" to campus. Should we do otherwise, we would not be true to who we are.
But being diverse and embracing diversity are two separate undertakings. Diversity is a gift and a challenge. To have this wonderful diversity without taking advantage of it is like not having it at all. It reminds me of the Bible story of the talents hidden under a basket. It would be a waste of talents if the university did not take advantage of the gift of diversity.
How might we use this gift? As I continued my stroll through campus, the students began to show the way to an answer. They interacted in social groups and in organized student orientation groups and just simply talked to one another. We must provide an ever-growing forum where students of different backgrounds can come together for a common cause - be it a class assignment, a universitywide project or some other undertaking. The university's goal is to graduate students who know how to interact with individuals no matter their racial or ethnic background. Isn't this what the 21st century needs? Individuals who know how to interact without regard to ethnic, religious or racial background?
As I returned to my office, I wondered about the release of 2009 college rankings by U.S. News & World Report. While the pedigree of an institution as determined by these rankings can be quite controversial and subject to challenge, the recently released rankings speak to who we are as an institution. U.S. News & World Report ranked Benedictine University as a Top School in the Midwest (and seventh in Illinois) for master's universities, 11th in the Midwest (and sixth in Illinois) for racial diversity, as a Top Campus with the Most International Students (fifth in Illinois) and in the top half of Midwest schools for economic diversity and freshmen retention rate.
Benedictine University also was ranked 14th in the Midwest and second in Illinois among "Great Schools, Great Prices" for 2009. This category lists schools considered best values relative to their academic quality. Only schools ranked among the best academically in their category are included.
As I entered my office, I was reminded of another Benedictine value. With the great variety that is Benedictine University, our tradition and heritage demand that we once again enable our students and the people who work here to be the best they can be.
As we begin anew another school year, may your flowers continue to bloom and may you be the best you can be.
• William J. Carroll is president of Benedictine University in Lisle.