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Faculty Laureate Address as presented by Richard G. Jones Jr.
Welcome to Your Academic Home and Your Academic Family

Aug-19-2016

 Richard Jones

Home is probably something that’s been on your mind recently.

Most of you have just left one home for a new one. Most of you are setting up a home without your family for the first time.

Some of you have been waiting excitedly for this move for a while. Some of you are already getting the first tinges of homesickness. Some of you might be not be thinking about home at all.

In any case, I’d like to encourage you to think of EIU as your new home and this week as your extended house warming party.

Over the course of this year, and the years to come, you will also begin to create your chosen family. Hall mates and classmates will become your friends, and faculty and staff will become your advisers and mentors. And, next year, when you return to EIU after summer break, this week will hopefully feel like a family reunion.  

EIU is a special place. The small faculty-to-student ratio, the numerous opportunities to collaborate with faculty, and the outstanding student housing and student life programs that we have create a student-centered climate that made me want to make my home here.

As you find your new academic home and family at EIU, you will also be getting a great education. And getting a college education is not something to take for granted; it is a privilege.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2015, 36 percent of people in the U.S. had attained a bachelor’s degree or higher -- just 36 percent. To make this a little more concrete, a 2015 study by Georgetown University found that, over the course of a lifetime, college graduates earn one million more dollars than high school graduates. And while we all want to chase that money, we also need to realize that it’s the skills and knowledge we gain while getting a college degree that allow us to earn that money.

As a college student here at EIU, you will develop valuable knowledge and skills as you make your way through at least 120 semester hours of courses (which translates into about 40 classes by the way). What you get from those 120 credit hours is much more than a degree or a job. What you are going to come out with on the other end is a set of knowledge and skills that will prepare you to be successful as an employee, relational partner, and citizen in the rapidly changing 21st century.

The five university undergraduate learning goals that we have adopted at EIU can become your superpowers -- superpowers you use to distinguish yourself from the competition and engage with your communities to make them better.

Those superpowers include: critical thinking, writing and critical reading, speaking and listening, quantitative reasoning, and responsible citizenship. These goals were carefully chosen because they are the sets of knowledge and skills most frequently cited by employers and other experts as necessary to be successful today. But as with any superpower, you must work to hone and master it, in order become the superhero we know you can be.

Now, if you’ve watched any of the recent superhero origin movies that have come out in the past years, you know that it’s often a rough start for them. My transition to college was also a rough start for me.

When I was sitting in your place, as an incoming first-year college student at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, 18 years ago, I didn’t really know what to expect over the next week, much less the next four years.

I was the first person in my family to go to a university. I know that many of you in this room can relate to that situation and that feeling of uncertainty. I had known I wanted to be a teacher since I was a little kid. But, at that time, I was majoring in music education and on a track to become a high school music teacher.

The thought of becoming a college teacher had never even crossed my mind. As I said, I was the first person in my family to go to college. Having the goal of becoming a high school teacher was already like reaching for the stars, so why even think about reaching further? Having reflected on it more, I guess I thought that college professors just came fully formed from the heavens. It didn’t occur to me that it was something I could do.

I had always been good at school, but in college I had a series of stumbles over the first couple years as I tried to figure out a new system on my own. In addition to the new educational maze I was navigating, the personal and social freedom that college afforded me wasn’t something that I was used to in my small mountain town in Western North Carolina. And, trust me, I made the most out of that personal and social freedom -- sometimes at the expense of my education.

During that first couple of years, I did manage to accidentally find my way into something that ended up shifting my path in a new and positive direction. As I was realizing that music was a passion but not something I wanted to major in, I took the mandatory Introduction to Public Speaking class. I loved it and ended up taking another communication course, Interpersonal Communication. After that, I ended up changing my major and I have never looked back.

Aside from finding an academic home in communication studies, where I got to study something that genuinely fascinated me, I also found my academic family. As a second-semester sophomore, I was dealing with all kinds of personal drama stemming from relationships, finances, and other non-school related things.

Now, as someone who has taught a lot of college sophomores, I realize that the “sophomore meltdown” is pretty common. So, during my meltdown, I spoke to one of my communication professors after class, to explain why I didn’t have a big assignment ready to turn in.

She said, “Rich, I can see that you have a lot going on. And it’s important that you deal with that. But, you’re letting your academics suffer, and I don’t think that’s the kind of student you want to be. We all make choices and decisions and you need to figure out what your priorities are.” This empathetic but stern response was one that I came to know much more over the next few years.

This professor, Dr. Jody Natalle, became the most significant mentor in my life. She’s the one who encouraged me to study abroad my junior year. She’s the one who first suggested that I consider applying for the master's program at UNCG. She’s the one who wrote me a letter of recommendation for my Ph.D. program. And, we’re still in touch today, and she has a picture of me on her desk at work.

So, what is the lesson to take away from this? First and foremost, you do not have to do any of this on your own. I made the mistake of trying to figure things out and navigate the maze of higher education on my own for the first two years of college. I was lucky that I didn’t mess things up more than I did. And I was lucky that I had a professor who gave me a firm and supportive reality check.

Taking selfies at Convocation 2016

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. There are a lot of faculty and staff members here who were first-generation college students. And, even if they weren’t, we are all here because we love the university environment and we love helping students. We can relate to leaving a familiar setting and starting a new journey as a university student. I didn’t just leave home and go to college -- I left home and made college my life, my profession. I earned my degrees, but I never left college.

You have all been on an academic journey that has spanned 13 years. And that may seem like an eternity. But, let me tell you that the next leg of your journey here at EIU will fly by. And, although some of that time will be a blur of readings, papers, homework assignments, classmates, and professors, you will remember the next couple of weeks for the rest of your life.

Remember to pause and appreciate the friendships and memories you make, the relationships you form with faculty and staff, and, of course, all the knowledge that you will gain.

 
 

Let’s take a minute to pause and make a memory. In a second, I’m going to ask you to take out your phone, if you have one with you, and take a couple pictures or videos of what’s happening. If you don’t have a phone with you, take a selfie with your neighbor and have them send it to you. I’m going to give you 30 seconds to do this – and I’m going to do it too. (Pause for memory-making.)

Post these pictures on whatever social media platforms you would like to. Tag #EIUmemories and tell your family and friends that you are excited to start this new journey in life. Thank you for choosing EIU. I am very happy to welcome you all into my academic family. If you see me around Coleman Hall, please say hello. Feel free to look me up and email me or stop by my office. Have a great weekend and a great first week of classes.

(Related story found here.)