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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Collective genius and generosity, and thoughts on comfort

Launching has been our life this month.

First Luke to UVA med, transition and tradition all rolled up in taking the stride from being an undergraduate in a dorm to becoming a white-coated medical student in an independent apartment, already learning about diabetes and acid-base equations and ethics. We helped him assemble the bed he bought used, purchased him sheets and groceries, cleaned and organized. A week later we were back for the ceremony when the students receive their coats and give a solemn pledge of integrity and honor as doctors-to-be. There was lemonade on the Lawn, handshakes and greetings, and then a relaxing evening when our friends Stephanie (who went to UVA with us back in the day . . . ) let us invade her deck and grill steaks and relax. This is a young man who will ask hard and good questions, who will wrestle with the implications of everything he learns for the majority-world, who will foster relationship as he moves through a new cohort of colleagues. It will be a joy to watch, and we will feel the heartache too.

Then Julia to Duke, which was a multi-day process due to International as well as regular New Student Orientation, for which we are thankful. We set her up in her quaint top-floor no-AC dorm room, spreading her new comforter, putting up pictures and a bulletin board, buying hangars and cleaning supplies, hanging the Kenyan flag. We all attended lectures and tours, with helpful people explaining the ins and outs of health insurance, student advising, the history of the institution. We met couples from Singapore and India and Taiwan, all traveling to see their child off like we were. And we were well cared for by the Harteminks, friends with a long history of support for Christ School who actually came and taught in Kenya at RVA a few years ago. It all went as well as possible when you are letting go of something so precious. She met us for breakfast riding the more than 30-year-old bike I had when I was in school. In an atmosphere of nervous new students spouting off their grand plans for majors and careers, she resolutely sticks to "undecided". This is a young woman who will hold onto her core beliefs, who will watch out for others, who will have moments of intense longing for home but who will ultimately thrive.

So here are a few thoughts on this particular launching process.

First, since I grew up in Virginia, and have been living cross-culturally ever since, I was reminded of how great it is to be back in the South. UVA and Duke are southern schools at heart. I admit it may not be the same for parents from elsewhere, but for me the Duke atmosphere in particular was wonderfully friendly and hospitable. Perhaps we suspected those Duke fans were a bit into exaggeration. But no, it really is an amazing place, and I mean that in the literal sense of causing surprise and wonder. On Freshman move-in day, there is an orchestrated traffic pattern, even the police are super-friendly, and when you pull up to the dorm an army of older kids in matching t-shirts clap and cheer and descend on the car to whisk everything up to the room. The janitorial staff is there shaking peoples' hands and introducing themselves. There were multiple social events with really good food, handed out with an atmosphere of festivity and welcome. There was at every turn a helpful, informed, smiling person. Usually wearing a Duke t-shirt. These people genuinely like the school and genuinely want to share it with you. Refreshingly without pretentiousness.

Second, the Dean of Arts and Sciences today spoke about collective genius. The idea is that accomplishments are most often the result of team work. Each students stands on the shoulders of those who went before, parents who prayed and sacrificed, teachers, colleagues. An advance in science that moves health forward is still only a piece of the puzzle. Luke's curriculum is integrated and team-oriented, and Duke seems to foster collaboration in their students. Individual gifts are celebrated, each person's unique contributions valued, but not elevated. The beauty of the student body is collective, which I found to be quite biblical. Together we are the presence of Jesus making the world new. So I add to the collective genius the idea of collective generosity. We certainly would not be taking children to medical school and university without the care and support of hundreds of friends.

Lastly, President Brodhead of Duke (after 32 years at Yale) spoke today about comfort. He was warm and engaging in acknowledging the homesickness almost all the Freshmen are feeling right now, and the common suspicion that everyone else is smarter or more deserving of admission. He wanted to be comforting. But then he warned about comfort as a societal value and goal. Because other values we hold more deeply may require a good amount of discomfort to achieve. He challenged students to try hard things, new things, uncomfortable things. A good speech and again solid truth. Take up the cross, because the path to glory passes through loss. As helpful and organized as Duke and UVA are, the transitions are inevitably painful. But there is a purpose to these places, and that pain is not something to avoid.

Which leaves us, the launched-from, driving west into the dusk of a North Carolina evening, parents with only one child left under the roof. Grateful for southern hospitality. Acknowledging the collective action of achieving this moment. Decidedly uncomfortable, but trusting that it is worth it.

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