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Austin tells 2017 graduates to always look, listen and learn

April 16th, 2018

by Melanie Zuercher

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Aaron Austin, Bethel College vice president for student life, is always on the lookout for life lessons.

He shared eight of them with Bethel’s Class of 2017 in the commencement address delivered May 21 to 104 graduates (minus those graduating in absentia), their families and friends.

Austin, a native of Garden City, has an undergraduate degree in music education from Kansas State University, a master’s degree in higher and postsecondary education from Arizona State University – and two days earlier, he had walked across a stage himself in Lubbock, Texas, to receive his doctorate in education from Texas Tech University.

Austin has just completed his fifth year as VP for student life at Bethel.

In his introduction of the speaker, Bethel Interim President John Sheriff (who is serving his third interim presidency, and previously spent a decade as academic dean and a long career teaching at Bethel before that) said, “It is a credit to Aaron that, in all my years at Bethel, I have never seen a better organized or more effective student government, nor has [the Office of] Student Life been more involved in positive campus morale.”

Austin titled his commencement address “Lessons from Everywhere” because, he said, “in the last few years, I have found that I have been able to apply lessons from various conversations, interactions, songs, movies, TV shows, books, memes, quotes, etc., that I have been able to file under ‘little life lessons.’ I present a few of them to you in no particular order.”

The father of 3-year-old daughter, Austin said he has learned many things from children’s books and television, from the difference between frogs and toads to the satisfaction of solving a problem on your own.

“As a supervisor, I appreciate when the Student Life staff comes to me with potential solutions and not just questions,” he remarked.

“Take initiative. Show off those critical-thinking skills we talk about all the time. Put your education to use.”

His daughter and her favorite stick, fallen from a backyard tree, reminded Austin to “experience joy in the mundane.”

“So often we are told that we need more and more. Newer, faster, stronger, more, shinier, bigger, more expensive, more fancy – on and on and on. We forget the joy found in the simplicity of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a hug, your favorite song on the radio, your favorite stick.”

From “rapper now mogul” 50 Cent comes the caution “before we look to judge or cast blame on someone else, make sure we have taken a good look at ourselves,” and from Austin’s known favorite font of wisdom, Prince (“the greatest popular music artist of your lifetime – no debate”), the necessity to “keep it all in perspective.”

“You will have bad days. I promise you. Your job will be difficult, and no matter how much you love it, there will be a few days when you’ll hate it and everyone. But keep faith that it will pass.”

And, he added, “If you need help, listen to some Prince.”

Austin’s Lesson #5 comes from the Bible. When asked to identify a “foundational Scripture” for a Bethel chapel last fall, he picked I John 4:8: “He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love.”

“Love everyone the best you can,” Austin said. “Loving doesn’t always mean you agree with them. It also doesn’t mean you ignore or condone all of their behavior. It just means when you want to hate – don’t.”

The sixth lesson came from Austin’s pastor, who said one Sunday, “You can’t change the nature of a relationship to which you don’t belong,” backed up by part of an e-mail from another source that advised, “If you can’t fix it, it isn’t your problem. Change what you can and take charge of what’s yours.”

Lesson #7 was encouragement to “celebrate diversity,” reinforced with a quote from Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister.

“I mean celebrate as in appreciate,” Austin said. “Study, observe, inquire.”

Invoking Bethel’s tagline, he added, “Seek ?out opportunities, serve ?others who are not like you, grow ?in the space that expands from knowing more about others.”

Austin’s final lesson, facilitated by Joanna Bjerum, campus counselor, was a caution that “the real world of adulthood” doesn’t actually exist.

“Do not think of being an adult as an end,” Austin said. “You will just continue to grow and evolve, grow older and wiser.”

Austin ended his address with two challenges to the graduates.

One was to express gratitude to all those – family, friends, mentors, teachers, the ones present in body and the ones there only in spirit – who had helped each graduate achieve the milestone of commencement.

The other was to “recognize you are now a privileged group. A college degree has privilege. I encourage you to use that privilege to help others achieve.

“As you walk across this stage and watch your friends and peers receive their degrees, take notice of how many people look like you. To your knowledge, do they come from backgrounds similar to yours? How many of your friends and peers made it here without the same opportunities to be as successful as you were given? Does it surprise you? Does it bother you? What can you do?

“Your education has prepared you for greatness. You must put that greatness to use to move all of us forward.”

Robert Milliman, vice president for academic affairs, presented the 2017 Ralph P. Schrag Distinguished Teaching Award to Rachel Epp Buller, associate professor of visual art and design.

Epp Buller just finished her fifth year as full-time faculty. She has a B.A. from Bethel and an M.A. and Ph.D. in art history from the University of Kansas, and is currently in a low-residency MFA program through Transart Institute of Plymouth, England.

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2016'17 analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see

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As the first Mennonite college founded in North America, Bethel College celebrates a tradition of progressive Christian liberal arts education, diversity within community, and lifelong learning.