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Speaker gives Bethel graduates ‘lecture notes for life’

Graduate Roderick Williams and his parents after Bethel's 2018 commencement

Bethel College is good at helping students be successful, said Francisca Méndez-Harclerode, the speaker for the college’s 125th annual commencement ceremony May 20 -- but maybe that isn’t quite enough.

Méndez-Harclerode, associate professor of biology, titled her address to 83 graduating seniors and their families and friends “Guard your heart: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

“How many want to be successful? Raise your hands,” she said to the students.

“The good news is, at Bethel we’re good at teaching you to be successful. We teach you to write well, to speak well, to think critically and be high achievers.

“We also teach you to work hard, to always do a little bit more – and that worries me sometimes, because I think we teach you to love work above all else, and I want my students to be happy. We don’t always do so well at [teaching] that.

“I want you to have that long-lasting happiness of the person with a life they lived well.”

The principal of “where your treasure, there your heart” came from “two important books, the Bible and Harry Potter,” Méndez-Harclerode said.

“Whatever endeavor you spend the most time and resources on, you will start to value the most.” She cited her late father, a hard-working physician, and herself during her Ph.D. studies, as examples of people who (temporarily or permanently) “became their work.”

The justification for spending so much time and energy on something is “It’s worth it.” But does it have inherent value, Méndez-Harclerode wondered, or do we create the value out of our own striving?

“That’s not to say it is not worth it – but then some of us lose our identity in the child, the degree, the job, the endeavor, and you don’t know where you end and the other starts.

“So are we not to pursue endeavors with high cost? That isn’t what I mean – pursue them with your eyes open.

“I’ve told many of you repeatedly: Decide what you want to be and why. I don’t mean ‘a biologist’ or ‘a scientist,’ but what kind of person. Let that be your true North that helps your find your way out of the dark woods and scorching deserts of life.

“Many of us base our identity in performance, but what happens when you don’t get the A, you don’t win the prize, you don’t get admitted, you don’t get published, you don’t get promoted – when we disappoint ourselves?

“Find something that can bear the weight of life and death, joy and disappointment. For me, that’s God. Not because I’m ‘so religious’ – the truth is, I’m selfish and I want to be happy. I choose the Christian God, the only being that can make me happy, that gives me grace.

“I choose God to reign over my life, so when times get tough and happiness seems like a distant illusion, my sense of identity is not crumbled.”

Méndez-Harclerode concluded by handing a card to each graduate with her speech title printed on it, as the “notes” from her “lecture.”

It mattered to have these, she told them, because “I know you’re getting a test. I know you will be tested on identity issues, on giving your heart away to something that doesn’t deserve it, over and over again.

“[Now] when the test comes, you’ll have the notes to remind you to guard your heart and remain true to yourself.

“We love you and we’re very proud of you. May God grant you the desires of your heart, now and always.”

Robert Milliman, vice president for academic affairs, presented the 2018 Ralph P. Schrag Distinguished Teaching Award to Kip Wedel, associate professor of history and peace studies.

Wedel just finished his sixth year at Bethel. He has a B.S. in business management from McPherson College, an M.A. in world history from Emporia State University and a Ph.D. in American history from Kansas State University.

Earlier in the day, the baccalaureate service included prelude music by graduating seniors and reflections from three of them.

Perhaps previewing Méndez-Harclerode, Roderick Williams, Dallas, said, “Bethel taught me to be true to myself, no matter where life takes me next, and to keep my own style – [we] can be imitated, but never duplicated.”

Kiley Varney, Hesston, noted how experiences had shaped her over four years. She had been encouraged to be part of student government already as a freshman and concluded her time at Bethel as student body president.

The most important aspect of student government, she said, was that “it helped me grow into a person with a passion for serving my community.”

Kimberly Carbonell came to Bethel as a transfer student from Wichita, but is originally from Puerto Rico.

“Being a gay, Puerto Rican woman, I was afraid coming into this small Mennonite college in the middle of nowhere, I’d be judged,” she said, “but boy was I wrong.

“I have never in my life loved myself more for who I am than I have in the last three years. Through the spirit of Jesus Christ, Bethel College has fostered a community that loves, accepts and showcases those in it. Bethel College has accepted, cherished and uplifted me and my soul.”

Bethel College ranks at No. 1 in College Consensus’ ranking of Kansas colleges and universities, and is the only Kansas private college listed in the Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities, the Washington Monthly National Universities-Liberal Arts section and the National Liberal Arts College category of U.S. News & World Report, all for 2017-18. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.

Bethel College does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, creed, age, gender, sexual orientation, parental or marital status, gender identity, gender expression, medical or genetic information, ethnic or national origins, citizenship status, veteran or military status or disability. E-mail questions to TitleIXCoordinator@bethelks.edu.

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.