First and foremost, I would like to congratulate all the scholars that sit before me. It is an honor and a privilege to speak before you tonight. I would also like to thank the Druid Society for asking me to speak and the Hobart Dean's office for all their time and effort in programming this special event that I have been honored to attend the past three years. Then, likely the most important, because it's what is going to get you through this long grueling speech of mine and the awards that follow - thank you Pat Heieck for this delicious food.
So, Hobart? William Smith and Hobart Colleges? Or as I said for the first few weeks I found out about this place William Hobart and Smith College - true story. To say my last four years at this special place have been transformative would be an understatement and cliché. To say that these past four years of my life have been some of the best also would be horribly cliché and frankly depressing.
However, to say these past four years have put me on a trajectory I never once thought possible or desirable would be very true, and I think, far more meaningful than the prior two statements. These past four years have put me on a path where my impact will not only be global in reach, but on the local level here in Geneva, where I hope to inspire you, men of Hobart, to cross borders, domestically or internationally, personally or interpersonally to make a positive difference in your own life and others. However, this may all sound fine and dandy, but getting there takes some risk and trust in your education here at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. That is why I am standing here before you, I think, and why I will be living in Viet Nam next year working in a consulting firm or NGO, teaching English, or conducting research. These minor aspects of my future are still getting worked out as we speak, but point being is I will definitely be in Viet Nam next year cultivating relationships that will span generations and borders, hopefully coming back to where I learned the skill to do such, the inspiration to take risks, and more importantly, the unending support to follow my endeavors - here at the colleges.
This trajectory did not start in the library, Coxe, Napier, one of the beloved booths in the old café, the beautiful stained glass haven of the Blackwell Room, or the first floor bathroom in Durfee, and definitely not at the Holiday for that matter. Strangely enough, it began in the gym.
I was, and still am for the most part, the strange student that works out with all the professors at 7 a.m. Monday through Friday, and then enjoy my Metamucil and protein 2 breakfast to jump start my day. This bizarre routine, started four years ago, opened up the honor for me to get to know Dean Butler, emeritus. For those of you who do not have the pleasure of knowing him, to give you a notion of this man he is intimidating to begin with, and when in the gym he is absolutely terrifying - I think he asked me to spot him one time on a 350 pound bench, or maybe it was 35 pounds, I cannot remember.
But that is not the point, through working up the courage to start a conversation with this man who knew everyone in the gym, and I include myself in this because he simply exuded the presence of "I know who you are ..." Ironically, I finally introduced myself to him at an event outside of the gym and then we began to talk frequently in the gym and he would always admonish me for not using a spotter when I benched as any good dean would, and as any responsible first-year would do, I never listened, and still don't, and he still admonishes me to this day. Funny how things work.
Fast forward to spring 2006, my second semester, I was working on a project for Stan the Man, otherwise known as Professor Mathews. I was rudely sitting in someone's driveway, not thinking to ask permission, or caring to, but just focusing on drawing all the bricks, and I mean all the bricks, of Bampton House. As I was getting sunburned and trying to draw, this chariot of fire came screaming into the driveway, almost ending my short time here at the colleges. I jumped up and sheepishly apologized while Dean Butler introduced me to the driver, I was relieved to see Dean Butler who might be able to explain my rudeness, and then, with the presumptive close in mind, I said to the professor "So, is it ok if I continue to draw here professor?" He nodded and pulled away, by the way that professor was Jim Spates.
Shaken as I was, I sat back down, squarely in the middle of the drive way, and continued to draw until the sun began to set and that same chariot of fire almost killed me again a few hours later. I jumped up again and before I could say hello, Professor Spates said "So, Mr. Meeker, Dean Butler here speaks highly of you." And I am thinking, oh man this guy has got to be kidding, Dean Butler probably told him that I am that student that never wipes down the gym equipment and is always looking in the mirror more than working out. Before I could adequately respond Professor Spates continued, "You ought to take my soc-100 class next year." At the time he didn't sound like he was making an offer, but more of a demand. However, for this comment I had a response, "Oh well, I would love to Professor, and thank you very much, but I already have my classes all picked out." He sized me up after that comment and shrugged, and said "Ok" and walked into his house, while I was thinking "God, I am way to busy to take some SOC class, please, what the hell is soc anyway?" He quickly returned to his car, where Dean Butler was waiting, and I said my awkward first-year goodbye of I don't know what I am saying, but I hope it sounds studious. Professor Spates nodded, and then pulled out of his driveway, as he was driving away he rolled down his window and he yelled "Take my class it will change your life forever?" There I was, sun still setting, still 500 bricks to draw, and confronted with a situation that seemed pretty obvious to me, finish the bricks, hit up Saga, and try to remember that Professor Spates guy, but the way how his voice still reverberates in my mind today made me recalibrate the situation.
That evening I dropped my business-law class, thank god, and signed up for his intro to soc class. That was my first big risk and the beginning of many. Professor Spates then advised me to consider Vietnam as an abroad spot. Or actually, maybe it was another demand, but certainly not posed as an offer I couldn't refuse. Weighing my options, Vietnam seemed like an adventure. I was a little apprehensive, but there was this other guy that also applied for Vietnam, who was also my first-year roommate, sophomore roommate, and junior year roommate, and his name is, ah?Watkins, Dale Watkins. The irony of this part of the story is we both applied for Ireland, both got waitlisted there, and both got accepted to Vietnam. Even more ironic, is we never talked about which programs we were going to do, it just kind of fell into place.
At the time this other guy named, Professor Jack Harris was preparing the Vietnam Students for our future adventures. Up to that point I had never met Professor Harris and little did I know the impact he would soon have on me. Professor Harris became my adviser for an independent study on leadership in Vietnam, while this other character, Dale Watkins, also did an independent study with that Professor Spates guy.
Off in Vietnam, Dale and I had the same agenda in mind - disconnect from anything and everything Western and try as hard as possible to get inside the culture, though no matter what, we always ended up on the outside to a certain extent, but that didn't dishearten us. The countless invitations we received for dinner, the English speaking competition where the only two native English speakers, Dale and I, didn't know some of the questions seemed never ending and always genuine. The final epic adventure of our study abroad trip in 2007 was from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi on Minsk motorbikes, for those of you who are not savvy with motorbikes they are Soviet Era motorbikes that did not break down once a day, but yes, twice a day at the minimum. The relationships developed in Vietnam have only grown stronger and greater in numbers since our study abroad there, mostly because of the inspiration and motivation provided by Professor Spates and Professor Harris.
Upon my return to the States, Dale and I both were pretty intent on returning to that far off place that was known to us as Vietnam, but now Vi?t Nam. It was again, professors Spates and Harris, that provided the insight and guidance that got us both back - myself through a language fellowship program, Vietnamese Advanced Studies Institute, and Dale via Rustic Pathways, a tour company based out of Thailand, which he is now the manager for Vietnam trips this coming summer, but even more exciting is Dale is the recipient of a prestigious fellowship from Princeton in Asia, where he will be teaching English in the Mekong Delta region starting in September 2009.
I hope you all see the pattern here. This long winding story about my education at this special place is not about the equations learned or in many cases memorized, the long agonizing bulimic exam that I got an A on, or the awards won deservedly or not, but about the relationships formed that will last generations.
You cannot Google a life long relationship. You cannot depend on Google to talk with you about a major decision, family problem, or when a big snow comes you cannot shovel Google's walks. You can Google Durkheim's theory of collective conscience, or Einstein's theory of relativity or how to use the Doppler Effect, or far more basic and perhaps more important for some people, Googling how to write a complete sentence. The bottom line is they are all meaningless facts and numbers that at the end of the day can be crunched by someone smarter, faster, and willing to work for 70% less than you. But what that person likely does not have is a mentor dedicated to their success. A mentor always on the other side of the phone if a problem crops up, or the biggest honor of all, is when that mentor calls on you one day for help or guidance.
Men of Hobart for those who have made similar connections, you know the feeling and the possibilities it has produced in your time here at the colleges. For those of you who have not, I would suggest you to take a chance, a risk, to reach out to a professor, take a class you never thought you would take, or go abroad to some strange place that makes eyebrows rise when they hear the country's name. So with that being said, Congratulations once again men of Hobart and thank you all for listening.
Benjamin Hale Dinner 2009
Oliver Meeker '09
April 17, 2009