Reading Between the Columns

2014 Honors College Induction Ceremony Speech

By Rachel Koehn

Good afternoon, everyone! Welcome to the 2014 Honors College Induction Ceremony. Thanks for coming! My name is Rachel Koehn, and I’m a senior studying Strategic Communication and Religious Studies here at Mizzou. And, like you, I am an Honors College student.

My journey with the Honors College started in my first semester, during which I became immersed in the Honors community very quickly and pretty completely. Not only did I take the first course in the Humanities Sequence, the Ancient World, but I also took an Honors section of a regular course, was enrolled in an Honors FIG, and lived in the Honors Learning Community in Schurz Hall.

From the start, I was captivated by the engaging environment of the college. Professors were passionate and enthusiastic about the material they were teaching. Students were encouraged to explore what interested them further and discuss the connections they made between areas of study. Class wasn’t just about tests and papers, but instead about genuinely and thoroughly interacting with concepts and ideas in a meaningful, challenging way. I was hooked. So much so that in the spring of my freshman year I applied and was offered the opportunity to be an Honors College Ambassador.

My first experience as an Ambassador didn’t exactly go as planned. My roommate was also an Ambassador, and we had signed up to help with something called a Meet Mizzou Day. To our understanding, a bunch of high school seniors were going to come tour campus on a Saturday and sit through sessions about the different academic colleges, one of which, of course, was the Honors College. We were supposed to show up to the presentation, which would be given by an older student, to answer questions and basically tell students how much we love the Honors College. Easy, right?

Well, we got to the auditorium about 10 minutes early and found the presentation slides ready to go and a few students and parents sitting in the seats. No presenter yet, but no worries. 15 minutes later, we were looking at a half full auditorium, and still no presenter. At this point, my roommate was pacing and I was biting my nails because both of us knew what was about to happen. We gave it another 5 minutes, but eventually she and I looked at each other, took a deep breath, and gave our first ever Honors College recruiting presentation.

In retrospect, I honestly have no memory of it other than being sure that no one got up and walked out, but I know that cemented what was already becoming an incredible relationship with the Honors College.

Some of you are freaking out right now. Don’t worry, no one is going to ask you to give a spur-of-the-moment recruiting presentation about the Honors College to measure your level of commitment. I just tell that story to illustrate how, even as freshmen, my roommate and I felt such a sense of belonging and loyalty to the college that we didn’t consider any other option. Because of the rewards we’d already reaped from being Honors students and the value we had identified in the mission of the college, we couldn’t help but want to speak highly of and encourage others to be a part of this home we’d already found in the Honors College.

This could be home for you, too. This could be a place where you’re finally stretched to your full potential. This could be a place where you’re taught by a professor who becomes your mentor and role model. This could be a place where you encounter the idea or opportunity that becomes your passion, that you build the rest of your life around.

Welcome.

At this point, all of you are probably familiar with Mizzou’s four core values. Some of you may even be living in residence halls that bear their names. Others may have seen them written on banners hanging between the columns on the quad.

Respect, Responsibility, Discovery, Excellence.

As Honors students, I think these values can be especially applicable for us as we lead our peers through the next four years. As I’ve struggled and grown and failed and succeeded during college, I’ve learned a lesson about each of these values that I hope will help you along the way.

The first of the values is Respect. At its core, true respect requires recognition of the value and concerns of others over your own feelings and desires. The lesson I’ve learned about respect can be simplified as follows: It’s not about me.

In his book Good to Great, business author Jim Collins discusses a surprising and perhaps countercultural conclusion he came to when researching essential qualities of the most successful CEOs. When speaking with these company leaders, Collins found that “they [displayed] a remarkable humility about themselves, ascribing much of their own success to luck, discipline and preparation rather than personal genius.”

Collins remarks that perhaps the most important thing about these leaders is that they are able to put the interests of coworkers and the company above their personal interests, and when placed in the spotlight, these leaders never hesitate to give recognition and glory to those working alongside and beneath them.

As much as education can be about individual recognition and achievements, I have found that it’s equally important to respect and recognize others who have helped you along the way or who have accomplished much themselves. As I’ve discussed, the Honors College is a community, and a crucial part of community is respecting what each individual member has to offer. Most of the time, that requires taking a step back and getting outside of a self-focused world to reach out to someone else.

The second of our values is Responsibility. My advice on this value is this: take responsibility. And by that I mean learn to take responsibility for yourself and your actions.

I spent this summer working as a Communications Intern for a camp back home in Texas. It was, overall, an incredible experience and honestly one of the best summers of my life. However, my job description as Communications Intern for some inexplicable reason included being trained and then trusted to drive the 15-passenger buses that we used to transport staff members from one place to another.

On the last day of my employment at the end of the summer, we were packing up camp for the last time and trying to get staff members to a celebratory dinner to reflect on our time together. The packing process ended up being more complicated than we thought, but we finally loaded the bus, leaving behind my boss and a few guys to finish up the last of the work. As usual, I climbed up into the driver’s seat and guided the rather large vehicle down Houston freeways to our end-of-summer event.

We finally made it, but as we were pulling into the driveway, I heard a sickening scraping sound somewhere above my head. I slammed on the brakes, and everyone on the bus sucked in their breath. It was only then that I realized that the driveway had an overhang that was maybe not quite tall enough for our bus the fit underneath.

Minutes later, I was up on top of the bus assessing the damage. There were at least five sizable gashes in the roof of the camp vehicle. Hands shaking, I dialed my already stressed out and exhausted boss. I explained the situation as quickly as possible and braced myself for the response. On the other end of the phone, my boss was silent for a few painful seconds.

In that moment, I wanted nothing more than to offer any excuse I could think of for why this wasn’t my fault. We had been working all day, it was dark so I couldn’t see the overhang, it was a dumb idea to trust me behind the wheel of that giant bus anyway. But I knew that if I said any of those things, it wouldn’t make the situation any better or easier to deal with.

Instead, I said, “This was completely my fault, and I am so sorry. What can I do to help?”

My boss looked me in the eye and said the one thing I didn’t expect to hear: “Thank you.”

Understand that you will make mistakes. Some of them will be small and easy to cover up, and others will be glaring and tempting to run away from. Either way, realize that there is maturity and integrity in owning up to the mistakes you make, even if there’s nothing you can do to fix them. This means not making excuses, not shifting the blame, but acknowledging and feeling the weight of your mess-ups and bad decisions and admitting that there’s no one to blame but yourself. And, more importantly, it means learning from them.

The third of Mizzou’s values is Discovery. The lesson here is much easier said than done: discover what you love and chase it.

In general, I’m a person who likes to make plans and stick with them. When I was in 5th grade, I anchored my elementary school’s broadcast news channel and decided at that point that I was going to be a journalist. It made sense, after all. I loved to write, and I was good at it, and that’s really all it takes, right?

I stayed the course on that plan from then on, joining my high school’s yearbook staff, searching for and then attending the best journalism school in the nation, and applying myself wholeheartedly in my courses to learn how to be the world’s best journalist.

It wasn’t until I was sitting in my editor’s office at the Missourian trying to explain why I was so stressed out despite my success in the course that it occurred to me that I didn’t actually like what I was doing. When I looked at my future, working as a reporter wasn’t something that sounded fulfilling or like it was something I would enjoy. Somehow, in the midst of trying to achieve my goals, I had forgotten to think about whether I still even wanted to achieve those goals to begin with.

For the rest of that semester, I did some serious soul-searching to try to determine what I did want to do with my life. I looked at the opportunities and experiences I’d had and decided that my absolute best days were those spent working for a cause I believed in alongside others who were equally as passionate about it. I find life and purpose in the feeling of helping and serving another person, not because I have to, but because I know that they need it and my work could change their life for the better. That’s how I decided that I want to work for a nonprofit organization, where I can use my writing abilities and communication skills to reach and impact people.

The following semester, I was sitting in my first Strategic Communication course excited about gaining skills that I would one day use in doing what I love.

The things that you love are typically those that energize you, give your life direction, and make it worth it to wake up the next morning. Find those things, from the smallest of them to the largest, and hold on to them. Realize that in the process of finding them, it’s okay to change your mind and to try things you usually wouldn’t. When you’ve at last figured out what you really love, look for ways to make those things as frequent a part of your life as possible.

The fourth and final value we’ll talk about today is Excellence, and my words of wisdom to you are these: desire excellence in everything.

I heard a story a few months ago that really illustrates this principle of being excellent in whatever you do. Do any of you remember the 1988 Disney movie “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”? It was one of the first feature-length films to combine animation and live action throughout the entire movie, and it did so impressively, coordinating the movements of the actors and the lighting and shadows perfectly with the drawn-in animated effects.

There’s one particular scene in the movie where actor Eddie Valiant drags the animated Roger Rabbit around a small room as he tries to saw off a pair of handcuffs linking them together. The room is lit by a lamp hanging from the ceiling, and in the original scene, the lamp just kind of hangs there, useless to the movie and untouched. However, during the production of the film, director Robert Zemeckis decided the scene would be much funnier and more dynamic if the actors jostled the lamp, casting light and shadows throughout the room and adding to the chaotic nature of the scene.

The scene was reshot with the lamp movement, causing the animators to redraw every frame of Roger Rabbit to account for the lighting changes and shadows. Every inch of the character was shaded precisely to make the interaction as realistic as possible, an extremely arduous task for the artists. Knowing that the average viewer wouldn’t have any idea if the shadows matched up and that fine tuning the shading would likely have no bearing on box office revenues or Academy awards, the animators committed nevertheless to excellence.

It is that kind of desire for excellence that I’ve found makes my work most meaningful. It stops being about making the grade or winning out over your peers or overachieving just for the sake of it, and instead becomes about taking pride in what you’re doing. It means considering what you’re working on important enough to make it the best it can be, no matter who will see or notice or applaud you for it. And if what you’re doing doesn’t seem important enough to be excellent, then maybe it’s time to question why you’re doing it.

In the next four years, you’ll encounter things that you were expecting and things that you weren’t. What matters most is how you handle those things and whether you choose to let them shape you into a better version of you.

As you start this newest adventure, remember the lessons in those four words that hang between the columns. Be humble. Own up to your mistakes. Seek after what matters to you. Crave excellence. I’m convinced that if you do, you’ll make the most out of your time at Mizzou.

I wish you all the best, and I can’t wait to see what you’ll accomplish. Thank you.