Tuajuanda C. Jordan, President
Phi Beta Kappa, St. Mary’s College of Maryland
April 7, 2017
“Love of Learning is the Guide of Life.” This is the motto of Phi Beta Kappa. In principle, we understand that this motto represents advocacy for liberal arts and sciences. Our motto focuses on the importance of these disciplines because we, as a group of scholars, “believe curiosity and creativity cultivated by a liberal arts and sciences education are essential to making the most of life’s experiences.” I contend that we, as members of Phi Beta Kappa in this period of the 21st century, should be focused on making the best of life’s lived experiences for all of humanity.
I want to take a few moments to focus on the portion of our motto that reads, “guide of life”. As you get older, you will find yourself constantly questioning your purpose – your calling, if you will. As an inductee into this esteemed society, it is apparent that you are one who has focused determination and that you live in the pursuit of excellence. I know I do, being mindful of the fact that “excellence” is not “perfection”.
Over the last few decades as my list of mentees continues to grow, and as they appear to get younger and younger, one piece of advice I impart to them is to always do your absolute best in everything you do because you never know who is watching and what opportunity will present itself. These opportunities may lead you down paths that you may have never contemplated, they may provide you with experiences you may have never imagined, and they may open your mind to new ways of knowing that were never known before. The “new ways of knowing never known before” … does that not require a love of learning? Will you not then be the embodiment of the Phi Beta Kappa motto?
When I went away to college, I had no intention of going to graduate school. I was going to get a bachelor’s degree and then get a good job so that – using the vernacular of my youth – I would not have to worry about making ends meet for my family. Now, as a Phi Beta Kappa scholar, I might say that I was going to get a bachelor’s degree and then get a good job so that I could “make the most of life’s experiences.” I thought I knew why I was going to college but, unbeknownst to me, there was a different plan for me.
The toughest professor of my freshman year in college said to me one day after she had berated me for using my hands too much during a speech, that I had to apply to a scholarship program “because (I) was smart”. I was deathly afraid of this professor and simply said, “Yes ma’am.” She then went on to say that if I were accepted into the program, it would pay the cost of attendance at the college and provide me with a stipend. All I had to do in return was to keep my grades up, do research both during the academic year and over the summers, and get a PhD in the sciences. I didn’t know anything about “research” and goodness knows, I was clueless about what a “PhD in the sciences” meant. However, I did know that I needed the money. So I interviewed, got the scholarship, and did what was required of me to excel.
This directive from my Oral Communications professor, Dr. Gladys I. Ford, put me on a path that I didn’t know existed, required me to do things that many did not believe to be possible, and led me to become something that I never before imagined and that is being a college president; and, not just a college president, but a president who is a strong advocate for liberal education, science and science education, and social and environmental justice. How very appropriate that my calling has led me to be the leader of this institution, a liberal arts institution known for its excellent teacher-scholars, its knowledgeable and caring staff, and its students who are bright, compassionate, and who want to do good in the world; an institution founded on the site of religious toleration; an institution with a long history of advocacy.
How will you know where you are being led? How do you know what you are being called to do? Initially, you will not, thus the words of advice I give to my mentees. You will eventually know in your gut whether or not you are doing what you are meant to do. During the many intervening years, I implore you to be open to ideas, opportunities, and to people who may not look, sound, or act like what you expect.
My maternal grandmother, a woman with only a third-grade education who worked as a live-in maid for a Dutch family in a town located in the Piedmont area of Virginia, started me on my path. My ninth grade algebra teacher focused my determination to achieve that which others may not believe possible because he said he was “sick of programs targeting people like (me) to get special opportunities in science and math”. After Hurricane Katrina when my twins and I were displaced from our home in New Orleans, I was struggling with what it was I was supposed to be doing when a virtual stranger appeared and provided me with an opportunity that put me on the national radar as an innovative thinker. I could go on and on about the countless number of individuals who have appeared throughout my life to provide clarity during those moments when I found myself doubting or confused about where I was being led. Suffice it to say for now, that I am thankful for them.
I did not aspire to be a college president. All I wanted was to be a scientist hanging out in a lab and having sufficient resources to take care of my family. Where I was led to was a position of tremendous responsibility that affects the lives of many, directly and indirectly; a position of power and authority that requires knowledge and skill, empathy and humility, and, importantly, a respect for humanity; a position that epitomizes a labor of love. I am grateful to having been led to this position and to each and every individual who provided guidance and direction along this journey. I believe today that I am where I am meant to be at this point in time. As you know, last month was Women’s History Month. Joan of Arc, one of the women featured on the campus banners, is quoted with saying something that speaks to my soul every day. It reads, “I am not afraid. I was born to do this.”
Phi Beta Kappa equips members with information and tools to thoughtfully engage in American society as leaders, volunteers, and citizens. St. Mary’s College of Maryland builds upon that and provides you with experiences, both within and beyond the classroom, that are meant to prepare you, in your zeal for life-long learning, to be global citizens ready to work to ablate injustices, and to experience all that life has to offer. Take advantage of the opportunities presented to you. With the tools you have been given and your innate ability to excel across a broad spectrum of endeavors, you have what it takes to make this world more just and humane for all. As Nelson Mandela is quoted as saying, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” I say to you, go forth and do!