Let’s be less individualistic and work harder at building community, urged the president of Eastern Mennonite University in his 2011-12 kick-off address to the entire campus community on Aug. 31.
“To fully engage with ‘the other’ opens the possibility that each of us understands in a new way what it means to be part of the larger community,” said Dr. Loren Swartzendruber.
Referencing the core values of EMU and the 2000 book Bowling Alone, by Robert Putnam, PhD, of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, Swartzendruber noted that, “instead of thinking that rugged individualism should be the ideal for achieving our life goals, we would do better to understand that each of us is most fulfilled when we are enriched by the larger community and by meaningful relationships.”
Swartzendruber linked his message to a spring 2011 conference at EMU on the theory and practice of “attachment.” In that gathering, attended by 1,200 people, researchers stressed new findings that the brain is a social organ and that healthy human relationships are essential for our survival.
The challenges that people face today—war, natural disasters and economic depression—can hasten the tendency to withdraw from one another and further erode a sense of community, the president said.
Swartzendruber advised students to become fully engaged with one another in an effort to foster community.
“It is a goal that I have set for myself—to increase my capacity to resist the urge to be more productive by multi-tasking (which research shows is not really possible anyway) and to strengthen my capacity to be present—with you as students, with faculty and staff members, with my wife, my children, and my grandchildren; indeed, with the strangers I have occasion to meet,” said Swartzendruber.
The convocation included the singing of the university hymn, “Christ of the Mountain,” and closed with a commissioning for 26 students who left campus Thursday, Aug. 31, on a fall semester cross-cultural seminar in South Africa and Lesotho.
The group, led by Harlan de Brun, instructor in physical education and recreation, and assisted by EMU alumni Elizabeth Barge and Jason Ropp, will study the values and norms of South African culture, learn about the African Independent Church movement, do elementary Sesotho language study and focus on community development and projects with particular attention given to AIDS issues.
Students will do readings, hear lectures and journal in learning about the history and culture of Southern Africa, including the apartheid era and how religious beliefs affected government policy. They return to campus Dec. 5.
Returning students, faculty and staff gave new members of the EMU community a “Shenandoah Welcome” as they wended their way through a human “tunnel”—with Appalachian bluegrass music playing—to the Campus Center plaza for ice cream and fellowship before heading off to classes.
EMU’s fall semester ends Dec. 16.