Friday, September 28, 2012

Look Beyond Yourself

This year’s Honors Colloquium, focused on health care, began with a talk by the celebrated author Tracy Kidder.  Mr. Kidder spoke about his influential and moving book, Mountains Beyond Mountains, an examination of the life and work of Dr. Paul Farmer.  Dr. Farmer has devoted himself to providing care and healing to some of our planet’s poorest people afflicted with HIV and tuberculosis.  During the question period following his talk, a member of the audience asked Mr. Kidder for his personal judgment of Dr. Farmer. His response was both brief and memorable: “I’m glad he lived here on earth.”
It is a judgment from those that know us that we should all strive to earn.  Many fail this simple test.  Unique combinations of factors can have a profound influence on each individual, and upon whether their time here on earth brings joy to those who know them. Every individual is different, but I would argue that we do have the common capacity to bring joy to those around us – or not.
My question here is: can college assist us in becoming the kind of person whose life would be judged as Mr. Kidder judged Dr. Farmer?  I think so.  There are probably many, many ways that learning, scholarship, serving, and being a part of a community, can develop in us the character and the determination to lead a life that brings joy to others.  But one thing, it seems to me, is a prerequisite.  We must be able to look beyond ourselves and place our efforts in a larger, outward-directed context.
Mr. Kidder spoke to this very requirement. In response to a question he stated that studying and learning – even subjects like organic chemistry – should be informed and motivated by our larger purpose.  He suggested that the goal of what we want to accomplish in our lifetime should be foremost.  Is it to heal people?  Then organic chemistry matters a lot. Is it to teach kids?  Then, in addition to the subject we aspire to teach, other subjects – like child psychology and human development – are important, too.  Seen from the summit of our larger purpose, every step upward to that goal is important, even indispensable.
That’s not to say that it is easy to maintain such a perspective. There may be times when a single step up is followed by a difficult slide down.  But every upward step matters. Keeping the goal in mind matters even more.  A university community, like that at the University of Rhode Island, can help refine, or define, our purpose in life and our goals for life.  In addition to courses, studios, and labs, participation in service learning, internships, volunteering, a living-learning community, student government or organizations, can all help identify the compelling interest or motive that can define a life.  That is why we offer all those things here, and why a rigorous learning environment and a strong, supportive community are both critical.
In the end it is up to each of us. We can choose to live a life with a purpose beyond our personal comfort, or not.  We can strive to be the kind of person that makes others glad they shared time with us, or not.  I believe that an important goal for the University of Rhode Island is to build an environment and a community that encourages all its members to create a life with a purpose beyond ourselves.  I hope you agree.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Cutting Ribbons

The University of Rhode Island community celebrated the opening of two extraordinary buildings last week. One, the state-of-the art facility for the College of Pharmacy attracted enormous statewide attention (see And rightfully so.   This building will provide an outstanding platform for educating generations of students, and its facilities will foster cutting-edge research.  The contributions of the graduates and the research programs will improve the health and lives of countless people.  Moreover, the advanced instrumentation and the modern manufacturing facility will help create new knowledge, new intellectual property, and products that can stimulate sustained economic development. This building represents a major investment in the university by the government and people of Rhode Island.  As noted in our web story, the University of Rhode Island had great partners in the design and construction of the pharmacy building. They, together with our amazing custodial crew and dozens of student volunteers, worked long hours to make the ribbon-cutting celebration a great success. Most importantly, the building we celebrated will provide a home for talented faculty, students, and staff who are dedicated to making a difference.
With much smaller crowds, and much less fanfare, the URI community and its partners dedicated another home just a few days later.  But it was just as special an occasion.  Over a hundred people, including many from the University of Rhode Island, gathered to celebrate the dedication of the first Habitat for Humanity house on the Old North Road site close to campus.  The completion of this house, the first in a four-unit complex, was an outcome of an inspirational partnership among South County Habitat for Humanity, URI, the town of South Kingstown and others.  As a direct result of this partnership the Stone family – Jay and Cora (a CCRI student), and their sons Jason and Eli – have their first home. 
What should make all of us at URI very proud are the generous and dedicated efforts of members of our community to make this happen. The partnership between South County Habitat for Humanity and URI developed in part through the determined efforts of Fran Noring (an Emeritus faculty member from the College of Human Science and Services).  In honor of her years of service and advocacy, the street for the Old North Village Project has been named for her.  Gail Faris (Assistant Director of the Women’s Center, now retired) and Jerry Sidio (Facilities Services, and advisor to our student Habitat chapter) were also instrumental in the success of this project.  In addition to the energetic and committed members of our student Habitat chapter, many of our student athletes and members of our Greek system devoted themselves to raising funds and to construction.  URI’s students in the Habitat chapter, our volleyball team, and the leadership of our sororities and fraternities have been an inspiration to the entire university. More details and pictures of the house dedication will be on our website soon. 
Thank you – everyone – who made these projects possible.  The completion of these buildings is a wonderful testimony to the importance and value of community.