Laura C. Taylor ’05
Welcome, seniors, to the Phi Beta Kappa initation banquet, where you will be inducted into our nation’s oldest and largest academic honor society! Phi Beta Kappa serves to celebrate the liberal arts education. You all, by way of your outstanding academic performances here at St. Olaf and your passion for actively participating in your educational experience, have proven that you value the liberal arts as well. My father’s favorite liberal artist, the historical writer David McCullough, in a speech to the 1986 graduates of Middlebury College, implored, “I hope you go to Italy and Scotland and to places like [the Mayan ruins of] Palenque because I think you will afterward see and understand your own country more clearly.” Traveling to foreign lands on a study abroad experience is a mode by which we learn more about who we are as Americans and where we come from, and consequently, how we fit into the broader world we call home. St. Olaf embraces this idea, and although we may feel sheltered here on the Hill, we physically leave our comfort zones every time we travel abroad. Just as St. Olaf embraces the concept of physically leaving familiar territory, the college strives to lead us through foreign academic lands as well, heightening our liberal arts experience.
For me, my study abroad experience was also a wild safari through rough humanities terrain. Stationed in Oxford, England, I spent days meandering about the cobblestone trails of the university town, running into gruff English intellectuals, partially because the roads were narrow, and partially because I couldn’t stop looking up at the stone structures of the university, built by those born one thousand years before I was. I, an obsessive chemistry major, faithfully studied the history of the early modern family and the eighteenth-century novel. After writing 18 2000-word essays in 8 weeks, I eagerly jumped back into my lab coat and inhaled the comforting fumes of my research lab. In all seriousness, this was a great experience for me because it reaffirmed my love of science, while allowing me to explore my creative side (or at least the side of me that’s really adept at analyzing Jane Austen novels). Without a doubt, many of you have had similar experiences, whether here at St. Olaf or abroad, where your mind was stretched and twisted into seeing things a little bit differently. These types of experiences are only available in the context of a liberal arts education.
As I mentioned before, I’m a huge science nerd, and I’m particularly interested in neurology. Santiago Ramon y Cajal was an anatomist who won the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1906 for his studies on the organization of the nervous system. He successfully proved that the nervous system was composed of tiny neurons, of which there were many types which served myriad functions. Interestingly, and I believe appropriately, Ramon y Cajal was an outstanding photographer and a draftsman as well. A photographer pays close attention to the smallest detail, the slightest shifting of light in a room that will create the perfect shot. It is no stretch to see Ramon y Cajal applying his eye for detail and passion for aesthetics to his medical drawings. Although you may not win a Nobel Prize, you can still utilize this liberal arts education in many ways. A group of students are traveling to Peru this summer to help give medical care with Operation Smile. What better way to synthesize knowledge of science, sociology, language, and culture than to serve others who are less fortunate? On the Hill, cds are being produced for sale of new music by Olaf student composers. Musical creativity and business smarts combine to bring new messages to listeners. Phi Beta Kappa is here to celebrate connections like these between academic fields.
One of the most important things to remember tonight is that much of the support we get to pursue our many interests come from the fantastic professors here. St. Olaf professors, although it may not seem like it at times, have interests outside of their chosen fields as well. My research advisor, Gary Miessler, who some of you may know as a dedicated inorganic chemistry fan, is also fluent in Russian and German (at least he used to be). Because of our professors’ varied interests, they supports ours as well, even our extracurricular pursuits. When I did a little intracontinental traveling to LA to be on The Price Is Right, Dr. Miessler printed out a 6-page detailed biography of Bob Barker’s life and career. If that’s not support, I don’t know what is.
So again, congratulations on your many accomplishments that have helped you get to where you’re sitting tonight! Keep traveling and keep in mind the many lessons you have learned here at St. Olaf, and you will undoubtedly make Phi Beta Kappa very proud.