Fall Convocation ~ Empowerment

Oct 19, 2012

Pictured, left to right: Atty. Marion Munley, Board Chair; Dr. Bernadette Gray-Little '66, Chancellor of the University of Kansas and keynote speaker, and Sister Anne Munley, IHM, President, surrounded by Marywood's brilliant fall landscape.

Greetings…I want to express my deepest gratitude to our honored guest, Dr. Bernadette Gray-Little, who is an inspiration to us all. We thank her for sharing her wisdom and insights on empowerment and responsibility. Let’s show her our appreciation with another round of applause.

 Bernadette’s personal and professional experiences affirm the values we hold as a university community. Our core value of empowerment is essential to the fabric of our culture as a Catholic institution of higher education—to transform the opportunities we’ve been given into transformative opportunities for others. For Marywood, that means enabling access to education that empowers all to achieve their full potential and to live as conscientious citizens in an interdependent world.

As I was reflecting on the theme of empowerment earlier this week, the Parable of the Talents came to mind. This is the New Testament passage in which Jesus tells the story of three servants, one entrusted with five talents, the second with two, and a third with one. In this instance, the term “talent” refers to money—but we can apply this lesson to the actual talents, gifts, and advantages with which we are blessed in life.

 As the story unfolds we learn that “The servant who had received the five talents went at once and put his money to work and gained five more…So also, the one with the two talents gained two more…But the servant who had received the one talent went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.”

When the master learned what his servants had done, he praised the first two for doubling the talents they’d been given, but scorned the third for simply burying her talent and doing nothing with it. There is a clear moral to this story—Take a risk; uncover the light within yourself and others; and let it shine! Each of us is expected to do as much as we can with whatever is entrusted to us.

We are all stewards of precious blessings, which go far beyond material wealth. Whatever our talent—a mind for numbers, a spirit of creativity, a heart for justice—we all have choices to make: we can bury our talents out of fear, or we can make them grow for the greater good of all.

Living an empowered life demands moving beyond fear, self-focus, or apathy to an unwavering quest to develop God-given gifts and potential wherever they are found.

Think about our heritage; in 1915, at a time when higher educational opportunities for women were meager at best, when women had not yet attained the right to vote—Marywood stood as a bright light of hope and opportunity for the daughters of coal miners. The IHM Sisters were serious from the start about establishing an institution of higher learning that would transform the dreams of eager-minded young women into deeds that would change the world.

Decades before, in 1845, two visionaries—Louis Gillet, CssR and Theresa Maxis—turned their shared dream into an extraordinary deed. They saw the need to educate young immigrants and established the IHM Congregation in frontier Michigan. The congregation they founded grew beyond their wildest expectations.

That pioneering spirit and willingness to risk all to develop God –given gifts and potential also can be traced to 18th-century Italy and St. Alphonsus Liguori—founder of the Redemptorists and a spiritual patron of this university. An immensely gifted person himself, Alphonsus lived and worked among the peasants of Scala, Italy, and saw the undeniable spark of God’s Spirit in hearts eager to know the Good News. He met the poor right where they were, speaking plainly and directly, that they might understand the powerful, abundant love of their Creator and Redeemer. He wanted them to know that they were not abandoned, and that they, too, held an esteemed place at God’s table.

Certainly, we live in different times and circumstances than those missionary priests, those pioneering sisters, or even those coal miners’ daughters who were educated during Marywood’s early days. Yet, that spirit of empowerment—letting the light shine—is woven throughout the history of our University, and it comes forward to connect to our experiences today. Here we encourage students—woman and men of all backgrounds—to discover and cultivate their talents and abilities to enhance the quality of their own lives and the lives of so many others. Every single day on this campus, I see and hear marvelous stories of empowerment brought forth from transformative engagement of Marywood faculty, staff and students. I draw inspiration from these stories and from other powerful examples of willingness to take a risk for the empowerment of others.

Last week the world drew together in shock and sorrow at the tragic shooting of Malala Yousafzai, a fourteen-year-old Pakistani girl who has become a national heroine for defending her right and the rights of other girls to education.  Malala was sitting in a school van with friends waiting to go home when an assailant  came up to the van, asked which student was Malala, and shot her. Now she is in critical condition in a hospital in the provincial capital.  Malala was only eleven when she first stood up to the Taliban over their ban on education for girls in her home district. During a television appearance, with Taliban sympathizers in the audience, Malala, with courage far beyond her years, stated: “I don’t mind if I have to sit on the floor at school.  All I want is education. And I am afraid of no one.”  Malala is an icon of empowerment; she has a passionate desire to develop her own gifts and fierce commitment to bringing others forward with her.

Poignant examples of empowerment are not always so dramatic. Sometimes transformative change takes place when those who have had access to education pass on their skills and learning by mentoring others.  I saw this in Africa last summer during a site visit for the Sisters Leadership Development Initiative (SLDI), a collaborative program that provides training in technology, leadership and finance to Sisters serving in six Sub-Saharan countries. SLDI is funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and is housed here at Marywood.  Overall, in the second three-year phase of this grant, the 250 participants have passed on what they have learned to more than 2000 co-workers and community members. Such light will not be extinguished. Let it shine; let it shine; let it shine!

Many times the light of empowerment that I see is right here on our campus. A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending our annual Scholarship Dinner. This is a special event, because it brings together benefactors who believe in our mission and student scholars who benefit from their generosity.

The student speaker at this year’s dinner was a Maxis-Gillet scholar, Colleen Traub ’14. The Maxis-Gillet Scholarships are service-based awards, which are so named because the students who receive them are committed, just as our IHM founders were, to the empowering spirit of servant-leadership.

Colleen, a nursing student from New Hartford, Connecticut, shared with us the transformative experience of serving in Tanzania and meeting a six-year old girl from Morogoro named Katherine. She spoke of the day that she brought Katherine a special gift—a bottle of bubbles. She said:

I had loved playing with bubbles as a little girl, but I wasn’t quite sure how the kids in Africa would take it. Would they understand what the bubbles were? Would they think I was crazy when I blew into a plastic wand and streams of round shimmering globes came out?…I unscrewed the cap, took out the wand, and, as Katherine quizzically watched me, I blew into the little circle of clear liquid at the top of the wand. As the stream of bubbles emerged from the circle, Katherine’s eyes widened in amazement, and she laughed with the joy that only a child can have. I pointed to the magic I had made and said, “Bubbles.” Katherine laughed and repeated the English word after me, “Bubbles.” I could almost see the light bulb going off in Katherine’s head, the connection being made between my language and hers. It really was magic.

After that magical moment, Katherine couldn’t get enough of the bubbles. And while playing with those magical bubbles, I was able to teach Katherine many English words.

(During this two-week service trip)...I taught high school students English grammar, gave tender love and care to orphans there, and helped the people of the community build better lives. I was able to give so much and learn so much from the people in return. But it was Katherine who taught me the most—about friendship, connectedness, and the joy of life. 

As I sat on that porch stoop with Katherine until every drop of bubble mix was gone, and as we watched the bubbles drift up into the sky, I knew my life would never be the same. I knew I was changed, because of her, because of this little bit of magic, and because of all of these experiences—in Scranton, in Africa, and right here on the Marywood campus. I would never be the same.

Never the same…even though they did not share a common language, Colleen and Katherine understood the meaning of empowerment. That simple act of blowing bubbles and watching them float away broke down barriers making room for the magic of empowerment to occur.

What Malala, Colleen, Katherine, the African Sisters, and all of us have in common is awareness that the blessing of education is that we can never be the same. The light that education shines lifts up people and breaks down barriers. Whether barriers are financial, legislative, social, religious, psychological, or physical—or even those presented by language, ethnic or cultural differences—the task of overcoming them involves recognizing and realizing potential in ourselves and others. In the process, we are all empowered, transformed, or, as Colleen put it—never the same.

The gift of true empowerment is that all things change.

In the words of Helen Schucman: …The rhythm of the world shifts into concert.  What was harsh before and seemed to speak of death now sings of life, and joins the chorus to eternity.

And so, with the poet John O’Donohue, I say particularly to our students:

Awaken your spirit to adventure.

Hold nothing back; learn to find ease in risk.

Soon you will be at home in a new rhythm,

For your soul senses the world that awaits you.