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Epp gives graduates ideas for building lives from their college foundation

September 11th, 2017

by Melanie Zuercher

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – As he addressed the Bethel College Class of 2015 at commencement May 17, E. LaVerne Epp, Lawrence, got a little personal.

He recalled “a day in May much like this one and a 21-year-old young man, a history major, sitting where you’re sitting” among his other graduating college classmates.

“He asked: What will I be? Will I be successful? Will I even know? What will I be doing? Where will I be living? Who will I be loving? How will I get from here to there?”

In other words, Epp said, in an address he titled “From Here to There”: “How do you take a memorable college experience and [use it to] build careers and lives?”

Epp had three suggestions, starting with “Be a thinker.”

He quoted from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Intellect”: “What’s the hardest task in the world? To think.” Not from the neuroscience perspective on the biological activity of the brain, Epp said, but in the sense of forming ideas, asking questions and solving problems.

“Keep an open mind,” Epp said. “That’s how you become a thinker.”

Epp’s second suggestion was “Be ready.”

“You all know the statistics,” he said. “You [will likely] have four careers and seven job changes over the course of your life. And I’m right on track.”

The Bethel history major went on to a degree in law and was a practicing lawyer and judge before founding his own company (retirement management services). He then served as Bethel College president for three years and now is executive chair of the Bioscience and Technology Business Center at the University of Kansas – and an occasional January interterm instructor in entrepreneurship at Bethel.

Epp commended the Class of 2015 for already having practiced “readiness,” using specific (though unnamed) examples of members of the class such as one who had “changed majors three times – my kind of opportunity seeker”; the football quarterback who majored in communication arts; and the one who combined natural sciences with literary studies.

He also referred to a popular campus-wide game of nonviolent strategy, Humans vs. Zombies, that Epp said “illustrates my point. [It shows] a willingness to seize opportunity when you see it: ‘I’m ready. Let’s play.’”

Finally, Epp’s third suggestion was “as difficult as it is simple: Be grateful.

“A college degree is an achievement – be worthy of it and be grateful for it. Love yourself so much you’re able to see the goodness in others.”

Epp returned to “that 21-year-old history major” at the close of his address.

“Forty-three years later, I’m still wondering, how do I get from here to there?” he said. “I return to those three things: Be a thinker. Be ready. Be grateful.”

Brad Born, vice president for academic affairs, introduced the Class of 2015 by citing a number of its characteristics, including the fact that 74 of the 95 graduates are from Kansas; the largest cohorts of 2015 graduates are within two of the professional programs, nursing (26) and social work (15); and at least four graduating seniors are following a long-standing Bethel tradition of taking voluntary service assignments, both overseas and within the United States, starting within the next several months.

Born also presented the 2015 Ralph P. Schrag Distinguished Teaching Award to Dan Quinlin, professor of languages.

Quinlin has an undergraduate degree from Augustana College and a master’s degree and Ph.D. from the University of Illinois. He has taught at Bethel College since 1991 – when he came for what he thought would be a one-year sabbatical fill-in and never left.

At the baccalaureate service earlier in the day, several graduating seniors reflected on their journeys at Bethel College, in keeping with the theme from Dr. Seuss: “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.”

Katie Schmidt, North Newton, noted that what she’d found was “a community – a group of people who care about what I have to say. That is Bethel.”

She cited one of the foundational scriptures for the baccalaureate service, Isaiah 42:16: “I will lead the blind by a road they do not know … I will guide them. I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground. These are the things I will do, and I will not forsake them.”

This idea of “journeying with God parallels my last four years, my years at Bethel,” Schmidt said. “My journey at Bethel has been about seeing God in people and in this place.”

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2014-15 analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States, and is the highest-ranked Kansas college in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2014-15. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see

About Bethel

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.