Students and staff celebrate life and learning at Last Lecture

Jacob DeWeerd, Laker Life Editor

GVL / Lauren Seymour

On Feb. 22, Grand Valley State University students and staff gathered in the Mary Idema Pew Library Multi-purpose Room to watch professors Polly Diven and Majd Al-Mallah give what may have been the most meaningful lectures of their lives. These lectures were shared as part of the annual Last Lecture event held at universities across the country.

Last Lecture is held every year in honor of Carnegie Mellon University professor Randy Pausch, who gave his own last lecture a year before dying of cancer. The speech, which was given a month after Pausch learned his pancreatic cancer diagnosis was terminal, focused on celebrating the wonderful life he had lived instead of focusing on death.

“He’s an incredibly inspirational story of someone who decided that he wasn’t going to accept that his last few months are just going to be wallowing about the fact that he was going to pass,” Al-Mallah said. “He really made a conscious decision to take advantage of every moment to give advice and wisdom to the people.”

Al-Mallah teaches courses on Arabic language and literature, which were obvious sources of information for his lecture about taking risks and the common theme of the journey found in Arabic poetry.

“I joked with everybody that I needed to tell them about camels and Arabic poetry,” Al-Mallah said. “I tried to make sort of a larger point to link the importance of taking a risk in our life and in our journey in order to make meaningful lives and decisions.” 

Knowing his audience well, Al-Mallah was able to relate his lecture to the journey all GVSU students are going through right now.

“The journey part is not really about the camel, but it’s about the poet’s journey with the camel facing difficulties, dangers and tribulations and having learned from that experience,” Al-Mallah said. “Students who are studying at the university are basically going through a similar journey of transition and a journey of becoming.”

Diven’s area of expertise is in international relations and foreign policy. Her lecture was broken up into three parts that all represent something about her or her career in teaching.

“It was a third about my influences in my life and where my political socialization comes from in particular, some of the early parts of my life and how I got interested in politics,” Diven said. “The second part was about how I teach, where my teaching style comes from and the third part was about why I teach what I teach.”

Because Diven’s lecture was focused on her own experiences, she ended up learning more about herself by the end of her lecture than she expected to.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever really talked about myself in a speech, so I think it’s very different because you learn more about somebody,” Diven said. “I guess the other thing that I think is very nice about it’s that in preparing for it, you do more reflection. I probably thought a lot more about where some of my political socialization comes from than I have ever thought about that before.”

Al-Mallah and Diven shared similar sentiments of what it was like to give their last lecture. They championed the opportunity to teach about broader life lessons and share more about themselves with the audience. Both professors also highlighted how the experience of speaking at Last Lecture differs from teaching a class due to the format of the event.

“It was me just giving a lecture, which is typically the way these are,” Al-Mallah said. “Folks tend to do a presentation, but all of my teaching is based in discussion. It’s a different type of environment where you have a limited amount of time.”

Last Lecture is also unique because the speakers are chosen by students. Diven and Al-Mallah were the two finalists after Student Senate sent a survey out to members and various social media channels. Planning for the event was led by student and Senate Vice President for Educational Affairs Faith Kidd, who said the event was a success this year.

“After planning and attending Last Lecture, I left the library with a huge smile on my face, thanked the professors profusely and was motivated to take an additional class with both of them before I leave GVSU,” said Kidd.

Being able to learn more about professors was Diven, Al-Mallah and Kidd’s favorite aspect of Last Lecture. All three said it was the defining factor that made the event worth attending and participating in.

“Students sometimes fear professors or avoid getting to know their instructors,” Kidd said. “Last Lecture is great because students can learn about their professors and laugh and cry through their life stories with them. It’s more than a lecture or educational experience. Last Lecture allows us to connect as people.”