What Benedictine College Taught Its Dean

Educator of the Year Speech to Students Achieving Honors

2013-2014 Honors Assembly

By Dr. Kimberly Shankman, Dean of the College, Benedictine College

Good evening. My job tonight is to say a few words about the power and the impact of a Benedictine College education; words that are suitable — encouraging, challenging, and inspiring — to our very best students; words that are both relevant and timeless (although also very strictly timed — I am well aware, since I’m the one responsible for driving this message home to the speaker, that this talk should under no circumstances last more than 7 minutes).

That’s really hard, so I want to change this up just a little bit; I am going to talk about my Benedictine College education; what it has consisted in and how it helped me through this most difficult and dramatic time in my life.

As many of you know, last spring my youngest son was in a devastating car accident. He was rescued from the brink of death by heroic efforts of the doctors and nurses at KU Med; he spent 6 weeks in intensive care, and several months in two different rehabilitation hospitals before coming home last November. During this time the Benedictine College community rallied to our side, with prayers, love, support, and “random acts of kindness” to a degree that is simply breathtaking.

Among the many wonderful expressions of support was my being named Educator of the Year; an honor that leaves me humbled and incredibly grateful. But even more than for this honor, I am grateful for the education I have gotten over the years as I have been formed and transformed as part of this community of faith and scholarship.

Through my privileged position as Dean of the College, I have been able to participate in countless conversations over the years about how we pursue our mission, and to see its impact.

Our liberal arts education is designed to equip students to pursue and acquire the truth partly through the curriculum — our requirements are broad and diverse enough to demonstrate to our students that there is no field of academic endeavor that you can’t at least begin to understand; and so you develop confidence. On the other hand, by seeing similar topics examined from a multitude of perspectives through different academic “lenses” you develop the humility of knowing there is always more to learn, more to strive for.

Even more than the curriculum, though, the effective inculcation of desire for the truth comes from the talent and dedication of our faculty. They have dedicated their lives to sharing their wealth of knowledge with all of our students. It takes a special kind of love to forego the professional accolades of a research-university environment, and instead to dedicate yourself to a teaching career. I would encourage all of the students here to seek out the faculty members (maybe especially those you had in gen ed classes outside your major) who have had an impact on your intellectual development and let them know that.

Because we are not just a liberal arts college, but a Catholic liberal arts college, my education was deeper. I learned especially that the search for truth is inherently in the service of life, because life itself is a great gift from God. The value of life is not measured by accomplishments, talents, or capacities; life itself is good. Suffering does not negate the beauty and value of this gift; in fact, suffering can itself be a path to sanctity, enriching and ennobling not just an individual, but all those whom the suffering person’s life touches.

Having had 12 years of immersion in my Benedictine College education, I then had to face my final exam.

Shortly after my son’s accident, after he was stable, but while he was still comatose, we had to authorize the insertion of his feeding tube. Discussing this during our meeting with his care team, one of the doctors asked us if we had considered if John would want to live this way; perhaps, she suggested, it would be better just to “let nature take its course” rather than to subject him to a diminished life.

At that moment the essential simplicity of the truth — that life itself is good, and it is a gift that is not ours to refuse — was what I had to cling to. I was able to tell this doctor that no, of course John didn’t want to live this way — no sane person would. But he didn’t have a choice between living that way and the life he had before the accident. This was the life he now had, and this life was God’s, not ours, to give or to take; our job was simply to love him and care for him as best we could.

Later, one of the people who was in the meeting told us that several others were very moved by what we said, because they had never heard it articulated so clearly. I would like to believe that I could have done this on my own, but I know that it really was the many years of living and learning within the Benedictine College community that prepared me for that moment, gave me the clarity to reject the false assumption that suffering made life unworthy, and the words to respond to the reality we faced.

Today our son is still severely handicapped — he can’t walk or talk or eat or even turn over in bed — but there is no question that his life is a blessing. He is getting stronger and better by the day, he can enjoy visits from his friends, playing video games, watching sports (and he can still summon up a really obnoxious smirk when his Packers beat my Bears). We do not know where his journey will end, but we do know, because we see every day, that he turns people into the hands and feet of Christ as they care for him, visit him, sing to him, bring him joy.

When I think about my personal journey I am amazed. For years I had felt it was God’s will that I come to Benedictine College. In my naivete I thought it was because he wanted me to do a service for him; now I know it was what he wanted to give to me: the community I needed to face this challenge.

So to you tonight I would ask two things: first, embrace your talents and gifts. Pursue the truth in the service of life; of the lives around you — your family, friends, neighbors, the unborn, poor, sick, lonely. You are blessed, and God has given you these gifts for a purpose. My son owes his life to the fact that talented people worked hard in school to make the most of their gifts. You won’t all be neurosurgeons or intensive care nurses, where this impact is so obvious, but you all will be in a position to contribute something, something special, probably something spectacular, to the world. Make the most of your abilities because they are needed!

Second, take what we have to give you. Take it with you when you graduate. Being part of this community of faith and scholarship is a unique opportunity to integrate faith and reason and to become who you are meant to be. Your life will have many surprises; you will have many opportunities to “be the light” as you go forward, so absorb as much as you can here.

We are all proud of your accomplishments and blessed by your presence among us. God bless you.

Benedictine College

Founded in 1858, Benedictine College is a Catholic, Benedictine, residential, liberal arts college located on the bluffs above the Missouri River in Atchison, Kansas. The school is honored to have been named one of America’s Best Colleges by U.S. News & World Report, the best private college in Kansas by The Wall Street Journal, and one of the top Catholic colleges in the nation by First Things magazine and the Newman Guide. It prides itself on outstanding academics, extraordinary faith life, strong athletic programs, and an exceptional sense of community and belonging. Benedictine College is dedicated to transforming culture in America through its mission to educate men and women within a community of faith and scholarship.