As the members of the Hope College Class of 2011 prepared to cross the stage and out of their undergraduate days on Sunday, May 8, Commencement speaker Dr. Jesus Montaño asked them not to underestimate the importance of the stories and traditions in their lives and the responsibility to remember and share them.
“For a long time I thought that a story was just a way to pass the time along,” said Montaño, an associate professor of English. “Little did I know that stories were the best vehicle for passing along the best of ourselves, that is our inheritance, all that stuff that comes from the farthest reaches of time when the world was still settling.”
Approximately 745 graduating seniors participated in the ceremony, the college’s 146th, held at Holland Municipal Stadium. The class, the largest in the college’s history, consisted of students from throughout the United States as well as foreign nations including Canada, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, the Netherlands, Nigeria, South Korea, the United Kingdom and Vietnam.
The event included seats left empty in memory of three members of the community who were missing and missed due to their untimely deaths: students Emma Biagioni and David Otai, who died in an airplane crash on Sunday, Jan. 17, 2010; and English faculty member Dr. Jennifer Young Tait, who died on Saturday, March 19, after suffering complications from premature childbirth.
Prior to the Commencement address, the graduating class presented the 47th “Hope Outstanding Professor Educator” (H.O.P.E.) Award to Dr. Heather Sellers, professor of English. The award, first given in 1965, is presented to the professor the class feels epitomizes the best qualities of the Hope College educator.
Montaño, who had received the award the year before, titled his address “stories needing being told.” He shared the importance of stories in his life, and the price that he paid when he tried to ignore them.
He recalled his father’s gifted storytelling, tales of those who crossed the border from Mexico to the U.S. in search of a better life, even though at the time he didn’t appreciate the meaning of what was being told and how. He told of his own experiences growing up in an immigrant family.
As a young academician, he said, they were stories that he was trying to forget.
“Flash back to 2003 and its short thereafter, and you will find me, and the me is very different than the me you see now,” Montaño said. “That me is dressed in the professorial male uniform, khaki pants (Dockers for the poorer members and LL Bean or Land’s End for the gentrified), a light blue Oxford shirt (Polo preferred), and black loafers with tassels. In many ways the outside was a true representation of the inside. I was trying to fit in.”
“The problem was that I was failing miserably at the endeavor. The problem was that all the ‘acting the part’ was slowly killing me,” he said. “The problem was that I was quickly making everyone around me miserable, and that showed in the classroom.”
His perspective changed, he noted, when he considered his daughter, who was seeing only the part of himself that reflected his role as a professor, and not his experience growing up and how it had shaped and enriched him.
“She was well on her way to knowing only a part of me and the least of me. So I told her the stories that needed being told,” he said. Connecting also to his interest in photography, he told her, for example, about “how I used to work in the agricultural fields as a child and because of that how I would walk from one horizon to the other and because of that how I came to understand the glory of God because even though the work was hard, I was walking under the blue sky and because of that how I bought a camera so I could show the world that there was a reward for those who toiled—it was not a big reward, only the blue sky and the red earth and a few clouds that slowly moved across both.”
It would be for the graduates, he said, to remember and share the stories that made them who they are, and in so doing to shape the world and those who in a generation would be at the same beginning as they were Sunday afternoon.
“You know those stories you look forward to, the familial histories and the personal histories? You know that special food you look forward to when you go home? You know that family tradition that brings the family together?” Montaño said. “Mark this day, because now it falls upon you to carry them forward. From this day on, it is your duty, your responsibility at times and your privilege at others and your burden at still other times, to carry them to the next generation.”
“Many days from now, at another event like this one, you will be sitting in another area of this arena, and your children, the next generation, will sit much like you do now,” he said. “And then and only then can it be said, all that will ever have to be said about you, that you took the torch in days of darkness and light, in times of sorrow and joy, and you carried forth to that new generation a beacon whose light was a message that love is important, that family is important, and that what you accomplish in life must be done with grace and courage as well as honor and humility.”
The graduation activities began in the morning with the college’s Baccalaureate service in Dimnent Memorial Chapel, during which the Rev. Dr. Blaine Newhouse, who is executive director of the Geneva Camp and Retreat Center, delivered the sermon “Course: Graduate Level Learning – Teacher: Professor Job.”
He built his message around Job 42, in which Job emerges from the trials that he has endured with a deeper understanding of God and wise perspective regarding both the good and the bad that life offers, and goes on to a long and full life. Newhouse encouraged the graduates to remember Job’s example as they experience highs and lows in their own lives.
“First and foremost, Job made his peace with God. Second, Job made his peace with disappointing people. And finally, Job made his peace with the possibility—and I underscore the word ‘possibility’—that life can be good again after defeat, after tragedy, after loss,” Newhouse said.
Making peace with God, Newhouse said, reflects realizing that both good and trouble happen outside of one’s control, for reasons beyond one’s understanding. “Job was able to live and die well because first and foremost, he acknowledged that there were things he knew and things that he did not know, and that he could find a peace in the faith that rested in God alone,” Newhouse said.
Job also models forgiveness, Newhouse noted, proving generous to family and friends who had abandoned him while he suffered. “The natural response is to allow our heart to shrink, and to trust people less,” Newhouse said. “But the Word of God encourages us to forgive, to allow our heart to grow larger, and to believe that people can change and that relationships can improve.”
Finally, Newhouse said, Job provides an example for how to look past current adversities to the potential of a better tomorrow.
“You know and I know that if we are going to succeed in life, we’re going to have to come to terms with failure,” Newhouse said. “We’re going to have to come to terms with loss. We’re going to have to come to terms with tragedy.”
“And this thing we call hope, the thing upon which this institution is grounded, is indeed a great gift in that regard,” he said. “Hope asks us to believe that life can be good again. And that we need not be defined by our failures, by our tragedies, or by our losses, but by our belief in a God that is working a redemptive purpose even in the midst of things that are difficult and the things that we do not fully understand.”