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Bethel’s first outdoor Commencement mirrors speaker’s advice to “open the world”

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Bethel College’s 115th Commencement was certainly the most colorful in recent memory.

A major factor was the setting, outdoors under a bright blue Kansas May sky on the artificial turf of Joe W. Goering Field, the first time since 1941 that ceremonies were not held in Memorial Hall and, as far as anyone knows, the first time Bethel Commencement has ever been outside.

Another reason was an unusually high number of students from Africa. The 2008 graduates represented seven countries other than the United States, all of them African, with six students from Nigeria, three from Kenya, two from Tanzania and one each from Cameroon, Ethiopia, Niger and Togo. All but two of the students graduated with degrees in nursing.

Nursing students wore the traditional orange stoles to signify their degrees and the Nigerian students had green and white stoles in the colors of the Nigerian flag as well. In addition, as has been the case for the past number of years, Bethel’s African-American Alumni Association presented every African-American graduate with a multi-colored Kente cloth stole.

The electronic carillon in the top of Memorial Hall played a peal of bells as the graduates took the traditional march around the Green and then headed past Mem Hall to Thresher Stadium. As they entered the stadium, Director of Church Relations Dale Schrag rang the bell that has marked the “opening of school” since the mid-1970s.

Commencement speaker Janine Wedel, a social anthropologist and a professor of public policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., echoed a theme from the annual Alumni Banquet of the night before in building her address, “Serious fun,” around life lessons to be learned from pranks.

“What I remember most [from my years as a Bethel student] is Bethel College’s common lore, the shared stories,” she said, many of which center around pranks pulled on campus over the years, a healthy number of them at the instigation of fictional perennial student Herman Bubbert.

“Cows have been known to visit the library,” she said. “Cars have appeared on top of buildings. Dining hall chairs have gone missing until finally discovered on a roof after weeks of us eating while sitting on the floor.”

She was reflecting on pranks, she said, from a social anthropologist’s perspectives. Pranks reflect the community’s sense of trust among members, require flexibility, creativity and teamwork, demonstrate a sense of adventure and curiosity, and indicate willingness to question rules and upend the “natural order.”

Wedel said she had picked up many, if not all, of these values as a result of her Bethel education. Perhaps evoking the “wide open” feel of Bethel’s first outdoor Commencement, she said, “The spirit of pranks can open up the world,” she said, which led her to study in Germany in her junior year and to take advantage of a chance to travel to Poland, an experience that “motivated me to want to learn more and has kept me going back to this day.”

Noting that the average college graduate today can expect to change jobs six times before retirement, her advice was: “More than the skills you acquired, your success may depend on your ability to adapt. Cultivate curiosity, a sense of adventure and [willingness to play] with the rules of life’s games, but honor the rules when they deserve to be, engage in teamwork and nurture your relationships.”

Christine Crouse-Dick, recipient of the Ralph P. Schrag Distinguished Teaching Award, seemed to epitomize Wedel’s words to the graduates. As Bethel vice president for academic affairs Brad S. Born presented the award, he said, “Christine is a conscientious and committed teacher, every interested in becoming better in her craft. From students, the praise goes beyond pedagogy to the content of her character. Her faculty colleagues are unanimous and effusive in their praise for her collaboration and her skillful work on all issues. One of them wrote, ‘She is a leader and at the same time a wonderful team player.’”

Crouse-Dick has a B.A. from Tabor College, Hillsboro, and earned her M.A. from Wichita State University. She has been teaching at Bethel since 2002. The Schrag Award is given to a faculty member judged to have made an outstanding contribution to teaching.

Bethel College President Barry C. Bartel conferred 51 bachelor of arts and 73 bachelor of science degrees. According to a survey of graduating seniors, 50 of the graduates intended to enter health- and social service-related careers, 15 business and 12 education. Of those who responded to the survey, 68 percent plan either to enter or apply for graduate school within the next year. “At least 10 will carry on a time-honored Bethel tradition by entering voluntary service assignments soon after graduation,” Born noted in introducing the class of 2008.

As the formal ceremonies drew to a close and students could shed their hot black robes and mortarboards, the green space of the football/soccer field and surrounding lawns turned into a flower garden as the brightly colored traditional dress of the African female students mirrored that of mothers, grandmothers and sisters now streaming out of the bleachers to congratulate them.

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the highest ranked Kansas college in the national liberal arts category of U.S. News & World Report’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2008. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.

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