Last Saturday, one of the graduates looked down his row and noticed that everyone had a phone out, busily texting. Once Dr. Agate Nesaule started speaking, however, all phones disappeared; students became attentive. Bringing in very concrete and specific stories drawn from her past as a survivor of World War II, exile of Latvia, Professor of English and Women’s Studies, and now writer and recipient of the American Book Award, Dr. Nesaule created the sense of open hearted compassion that she was advocating. Her story of learning English with the help of a copy of Gone with the Wind borrowed from the public library in Indianapolis and a Latvian dictionary helped to re-frame the novel as a “war story,” one that particularly explores the impact of war on women and children. Recognizing that today’s graduates face challenges, she recounted her own challenges: starvation in a displaced persons’ camp, fearing the status of “outsider” and “immigrant” as she came to this country as a twelve year old. This was a powerful and inspiring story, one that elicited compassion and connected with the audience on an emotional and intellectual level. I doubt the graduates will soon forget.
In some ways, her themes reinforced issues raised by our last speaker in the Contemporary Issues Lecture Series, Sonia Nazario, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Enrique’s Journey: The Story of A Boy’s Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite with His Mother. Enrique’s mother comes to the United States because her children are starving and she is unable to provide for them. Nazario traces the economic, sociological, and political factors at work, complicating the easy generalizations about immigration and its problems. The impact on this particular family and women and children dealing with extreme poverty in the larger community was presented with great compassion, but no easy answers. A high point of the evening was the attendance of members of the Bookman’s Book Club, a men’s reading group composed of a pharmacist, a farmer, two professors (Businss and Safety Studies) and others. They have decided to align their reading with the authors who will be visiting campus, creating a welcome community connection. I hope they will continue to join us!