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Bruce Baker at Opening Convocation Aug. 31, 2016. (center)

I grew up only a few miles from this college, and for my early years I considered Charlotte my home. But, in eighth-grade, I stepped off of an aged, green bus and onto the property of Camp Barakel. My first week there is little more than a blur today, but emotions of happiness, acceptance, love and friendship are so strong I never doubted why I went back year after year. After graduating from high school I spent a summer up at camp life guarding, last year I spent the summer counseling students from third-grade to 12th grade, and this summer I spent one week as a team leader. A team leader has a special role only necessary during a high school week. I lead a single team made up of two girl tribes and two boy tribes, a total of 40 people made up Bruce’s Brood of Bandits. This whole week is a competition. You earn points for cheering, you win points for playing soccer, for shooting archery, for competing logic puzzles at lunch and for winning capture the flag… you get the picture. As a college athlete I’m slightly competitive, so to say winning the week was the highlight of my summer would be an understatement.

I know you are all wondering, “why this is relevant?” just hang in with me. As a camp counselor you learn, quite quickly, that your needs are secondary. If you need sleep, but you have a homesick camper, there is no sleeping until he/she is comforted. If your camper is bored in dining hall line, you make up a silly song and dance, no matter how stupid you look, and when you have a tribe of the most un-athletic campers on the face of the earth, you stop trying to win the soccer game, and you let the campers do cartwheels while playing defense. To be a camp counselor, you must put their wants and needs below that of their campers. You must become second.

Becoming second is almost completely contrary to the way we grow up. Most of us spend our entire childhood and high school years concerned about our own pain, wants and dreams. We are too invested in our lives to see the world around us. It’s like we are on a street bustling with people, so closely packed that we can hardly help but brush against someone. But, no matter who walks past we never look from our feet. Too focused on the details of our feet, the laces, the color of our shoes, the holes in our soles. These things consume our energy, time and recourses.

As we enter college, a time of great growth, our infatuation with ourselves often grows worse. I’m concerned about my classes, my degree, my program, my team, my GPA, my career…. I worry that we waste our most formative years consumed with ourselves, never looking up. We stare at our feet for many reasons. The world around us is too loud, there is too much pain, too much chaos, too much emotion to carry all at once, so we stare at our feet. We become absorbed by the trivial nature of our own lives in an effort to feel important and secure. But at some point we have to look up and realize that the world is bleeding out, right in front of us, and we’ve spent our whole life ignoring it. I know most of us don’t consider ourselves incredibly selfish people, but if we take time to observe our actions. It doesn’t take long to see just how self-centered we all are.

As a counselor, I had a camper who lost his father only a month earlier, and his emotional processing became my primary concern. I had another camper whose sister was dying of terminal cancer while he was in my tribe, and his comfort became my primary concern. When my camper broke down in a panic attack due to his severe autism, his care became my primary concern. Our lives became so intertwined that my needs and wants became second to them. I can’t believe that it took me almost twenty years to connect with people, outside of my immediate family and friends, and live life alongside them in the way that I lived alongside my campers. It wasn’t because I’m not out going enough. I wasn’t lacking compassion. It was my self-focused life. Up to that point, almost all my energy, time and love was spent on myself, and those close to me. Only when I removed myself from this pedestal above others and placed my needs below them that I truly lived with them. We can’t live with each other, and we can’t see each other if we stare at our feet.

It was, and is, not easy to remove my gaze from my feet and look the ugly world in the face. Living a life where we are second takes daily sacrifice. It’s not easy to stay up late talking with a hurting friend, work longer hours to give money away, to study with another person when I already have an A.  But, if we want Olive College to be a healthier, closer knit and a more loving campus then we must accept that change is hard, but that the change we want to see is worth the challenge required.

A better parking lot, or better dorms or better food at the KC won’t make our college experience any different. Yet, we spend a great deal of time complaining about them. We talk about these pointless complaints because it allows us to focus on ourselves and block out the real problems around us.

I challenge you to reach out to your fellow Comets this school year, truly get to know them. Don’t avoid your roommate’s depression, don’t outcast someone for their quirkiness, don’t take your easy A and ignore the students struggling through the same class, don’t act like the victories of others can’t be shared by a community.

Share your laughter with me, share your victories with me, share your pain with me and share your fear with me. Because in the end, our shared experiences crate our college experience. This year I challenge you to stop putting yourself on a pedestal, to stop acting like your problems and your desires are somehow more important than everyone else’s. In fact, I challenge you to lower yourself and become second to the people around you. Because it is only by becoming second, by removing our gaze from our feet and looking into the faces of one another that we can change our community.

Thank you.

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