I was honored to be selected as one of two student speakers for the 2013 Baccalaureate service at Bluffton University. The following is the text of my speech, given on May 5, 2013 in the Sommer Center at Bluffton University.
Three and a half years ago, Rudi Kauffman changed my life.
It was the first day of spring semester classes. I had just transferred to Bluffton, and looking back, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. That January afternoon, as I sat in the classroom waiting for the professor to arrive, a very young, VERY energetic man walked through the door and started cracking jokes at the front of the room.
“Great,” I thought to myself. “This guy is pretending to be the professor!” Within seconds, my mind was blown when he introduced himself and was actually Rudi Kauffman. What Rudi said to us at the beginning of that class taught me almost everything I needed to know about Bluffton, and much of what I hope we will carry with us as we graduate and go out from this place.
He started out by saying something that is so common here at Bluffton that most of us take it for granted: “Just call me Rudi.” After transferring from a school where I didn’t even know the first names of most of my professors, it took me a whole semester to adjust to this strange new place, where my professors were simply Rudi, Trevor, Lynda, Alex, Gerald…and the list goes on. You see, when Rudi invited me to know him as Rudi, nothing more and nothing less, he invited me to know him as a person, not just a professor. In that moment, I learned that at Bluffton, faculty members are simply people living alongside us in community. They are incredibly gifted, accomplished scholars, but they are also human beings who care more about relating to us than they do about status and fancy titles.
The second thing that Rudi said is something that I will remember for the rest of my life. He said, “I am not a professor. I am a teacher. To call myself a professor would be to claim that I have some knowledge to profess to you. But we all have knowledge, so I am a teacher and so are you. This semester we will teach one another.”
Now, by this point, I was sure that I had wandered into a parallel universe. As someone who has taken classes at three other universities, let me assure you, this is not typical of professors. To my surprise and delight, though, Rudi’s words came true with each class I took at Bluffton and with every passing year. Bluffton professors are not only people who live in community with us; they actually expect to learn with and from their students. Class of 2013, in these last four years, we have been given the extraordinary gift of learning not only with one another, but with these gifted scholars who have been to us, and will continue to be, teachers, mentors, and friends.
You see, Bluffton is a unique and beautiful place because we do community together—students, faculty, staff, guests, and even strangers. We are a community of respect and warm welcome. But with that being said, like any family, we have our disagreements and we have our challenges. Contrary to what I thought during my first semester here, Bluffton is not a utopia. Yet I believe that the challenging experiences we have faced, both individually and as a community, are the greatest gifts to us as we move forward. We have learned together, many of us have lived together, and we have seen each other at our worst and our best. But as the Scripture for this morning urges us to do, we have loved one another deeply, and the love in this community is what remains. It is love that we have for one another and for this place as we gather this morning to reflect upon our time as Bluffton students. It is love that we carry with us as we move into the next chapter of our journeys. It is love that we are called to be in the new communities we will call home.
As we stand at this moment, looking back upon our time at Bluffton and looking forward to all that lies ahead, this morning’s Scripture also issues a fitting challenge for each and every one of us: “use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Pet 4.10).
As I look out this morning and see each of your faces, I see an abundance of gifts to be used in the world. Class of 2013, we are a diverse community. We are athletes and we are scholars. We are from just down the road and from across the globe. We are residential students and those who have never set foot in a residence hall. We are people of all ages who have come together for this season to learn and grow, and today, we are sent out into the world to put our learning into action. Just as all of our gifts have brought a rich diversity to the Bluffton community, the Scripture tells us that as we use our unique gifts to serve others, we become the embodiment of God’s grace in the world.
Now, if you are like me, this task of going out to serve the world is a daunting one. Community, love, diversity, and grace seem possible here at Bluffton, at least on our good days. But the thought of leaving this place and actually living up to these values is incredibly intimidating. And if we are being honest, for many of us, the sheer thought of leaving this place is overwhelming.
On this final day of our Bluffton journey, I believe the lessons that I learned from Rudi on my very first day in this community contain wisdom and guidance for all of us today and in all of our tomorrows.
First, just be Rudi. Now, I am not encouraging anyone to actually be Rudi; I think we all know that would be a little dangerous. But I am encouraging all of you to be yourself, nothing more, and nothing less. Do awesome things, get PhDs and score jobs with impressive titles, but don’t take yourself too seriously. Be real in your community. Dare to treat every person you meet as your equal. Just be Rudi, and let everyone else be who they are, too.
And second, be a teacher and be a learner. Never forget that every person you will meet has gifts and knowledge to share with you and with the world. Be ready to receive these gifts, be eager to learn what they have to teach you, and be grateful every step of the way. These practices are the foundation of true community.
So, go, class of 2013, and be your most authentic self.
Go, class of 2013, knowing that all are one and all are equal.
Go, class of 2013, eager to learn with and from all who cross your path.
And above all, go into the world and be love. Amen.