Last Lectures focus on personal experiences, inspiring students

Rachel Matuszewski

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On Tuesday, Feb. 26, Professors Joel Wendland and Neal Buckwalter gave their last lectures in Grand Valley State University’s Mary Idema Pew Library. Although their final topics skewed away from their usual lessons — liberal studies for Wendland and the nonprofit sector for Buckwalter — when addressing students this time around, they gave testimonies of their lives, lessons learned and advice. 

Wendland spoke about “how to be your most radical self.” He explained his upbringing in Tacoma, Wash. where their family wallet was not as full as they would have liked. 

Wendland remembers his mother selling their television for $35 in order to afford her children’s Christmas presents. He also the white supremacy instilled by all social institutions in the 1990s. 

But Wendland knew there had to be something different — a different way of looking at social class and people. This is how he began forming his radical self. 

“We didn’t recognize that a social disease like racism so powerfully outcasted whole populations of people, and discards them so significantly that they can be seen as less valuable,” Wendland said. 

“I used to think that there was something wrong with me. But over the years in life, in school, in readings and my experiences with work and community involvement, I’ve learned to realize that something is not wrong with me, but something is wrong with the world.”

Wendland told students about his first day of orientation at the University of Washington, where his two-hour-long bus trip landed him alone in a seat full of other freshman and their parents. But when he didn’t understand the speaker’s instructions of syllabi and registrars, he took the next bus home following the mid-morning break and served in the Army for two years. 

“My experience on the day that I tried to orient to college and failed had both personal and systemic roots,” Wendland said. “I could not alter it until I became my most radical self. The self that had to discover new truths about the world. That people from different backgrounds shared similar aspirations even if they did not share identical cultural experiences. Those differences did not make them bad people, but rather made them interesting and valuable people worth knowing and sharing my time, work and friendship with.” 

If he wanted to become his most radical self, Wendland said he had to demand more of himself by expanding his knowledge of the world, forming opinions of acceptance and sharing it with university students in the hopes that they would share it with others. 

Buckwalter opened with a story for his lecture on “expanding the circle of our lives.”

In the story, 15 firefighters drop into a forest fire to direct the flames, but a routine job quickly escalates into a dangerous escape, as the flames turn against them. 

One of the leaders lit a fire around himself and urged the others to join them. When they said he was crazy and left in their own directions, only three of the fifteen survived — the two who had run up a steep hill and squeezed through a wall of rocks and the man in the circle of fire. 

Buckwalter explained three ways our circles can become wider: by opening up to others, learning about our ancestors and nurture core relationships. He described people in life when they don’t expand their circles as bubbles on a screensaver, bouncing off one another in every direction. 

“It’s been my experience that life is so much more meaningful when we seek to expand our circles,” Buckwalter said. “When we, rather than being free floating and bouncing off others, look for ways to connect meaningfully with people around us.” 

Buckwalter continued with stories, speaking about a woman who welcomed his family into her own and his great, great grandparents.

His last story involved his family when he went to defend his dissertation. His children gave him a congratulatory sign. After hanging it up in his bedroom, he noticed a small picture his son had drawn: it was of Buckwalter reading. 

But when his son asked him if he wanted to play baseball instead of work, he finally had the time to say yes. 

“It was important to Issac not that I got those three letters, ‘PhD,’ after my name, (but that) I became Dad again.” Buckwalter said. “Wherever you are in your college experience, I want you to think about the people, your family, your friends, your teachers (and) your loved ones, who have helped you and supported you along the way. There may be times when you feel alone (or) overwhelmed, but I assure you that people are cheering you on in their own way. They want to see you succeed. Remember them and nurture those relationships.”