NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Bethel College’s commencement speaker, Mark McCormick, tackled what seems to be the looming issue for the class of 2009 in the United States: the economy.
But the career journalist deliberately gave his address a title – “The Caring Economy” – that could be read several ways, and treated the topic with a twist that seemed to resonate with his audience.
McCormick was speaking to the 116th graduating class of Bethel College, with ceremonies taking place for the second year in a row outdoors in Thresher Stadium. The second-year tradition of a peal of bells from the electronic carillon atop Memorial Hall marked the much older tradition of the graduates’ march around the Green, led by the commencement speaker, administrators and faculty.
As the procession entered the stadium, Director of Church Relations Dale Schrag, as he did last year, rang the bell that has marked the “opening of school” since the mid-1970s and which the 119 graduates would have heard right before the first convocation of the school year when they arrived at Bethel as freshmen or new transfers. There was also a new ritual added to commencement: touching a threshing stone, the same one freshmen touch as they are welcomed to campus at the first convocation.
As he introduced the speaker, Bethel College President Barry Bartel pointed out that most of the locals in the audience had probably heard of Mark McCormick and perhaps even read his writing but likely had not heard him speak. Until earlier this year, McCormick worked for The Wichita Eagle, for which he had written a weekly column since 2004. He was recently named executive director of the Kansas African-American Museum in Wichita.
“I’m talking about the economy in terms of everything we spend – time, money, energy,” McCormick said. “How we do that reflects our priorities and our values.
“God calls us to tithe in order to keep him first in our lives,” he continued, “to organize our priorities to keep him in front.
“Consider what our nation spends on war in relation to education. Wouldn’t it be nice to be patriotic about education as well as our military?” That line drew applause from graduates and audience.
“A caring economy,” McCormick said, “supports and promotes capitalism and also conscience. It stops opening more liquor stores in neighborhoods where violence is on the rise. It puts a check on predatory lenders and credit card companies. It provides health care for all those who are sick.”
McCormick said he is an example of the current economic downturn. Several months ago, he learned that his position at The Wichita Eagle was being reduced to half-time and that ultimately it would not survive budget cuts.
“I felt like a failure,” he said. “Then I learned that although I was a victim of an uncaring economy, people did care.”
A lesson he learned from reading best-selling author Mitch Albom, McCormick said, is that “relationships are the most important, not money or possessions. A caring economy is based on relationships.
“The world needs you,” he said to the graduates. “The city needs you. A friend needs you. No matter what your major or your training – the abandoned child, and the mother who abandoned him, need you to cultivate caring … that is broader than investments and portfolios and more vast than the Federal Reserve.
“Graduates, we need an economy that cares, and we need you.”
As they were crossing the stage to receive their diplomas, several students expressed their appreciation to McCormick for his remarks, which Schrag noted is not something that commonly happens.
Also as part of the commencement ceremonies, Born presented the Ralph P. Schrag Distinguished Teaching Award to Professor of Social Work Ada Schmidt-Tieszen. The award goes to a faculty member that the academic dean’s office judges, based on both peer and student evaluations, to have made an outstanding contribution to teaching at Bethel College.
Among student comments praising Schmidt-Tieszen, Born noted that many cited Schmidt-Tieszen’s “modeling [what] she seeks to foster in others. In the words of students: ‘She exhibits the traits and skills we learn in class’; ‘She is a real role model for me’; ‘Observing her is the best example of all.’”
Schmidt-Tieszen has a bachelor’s degree from Bethel College and a master of social work degree from the University of Denver and earned her Ph.D. at the University of Kansas. She has taught at Bethel College since 1985. Schmidt-Tieszen’s daughter Tina is a 2007 Bethel graduate in social work and her daughter Alison is a current Bethel student. Schmidt-Tieszen currently serves on the boards of Offender Victim Ministries and Mirror, Inc., both in Newton.
Bartel conferred 40 bachelor of arts and 79 bachelor of science degrees. According to a survey of graduating seniors, 53 of the graduates intend to enter health- and social service-related careers, 15 business and seven education. Of those who responded to the survey, 56 percent plan either to enter or apply to graduate school within the next five years. At least four will follow a Bethel tradition of taking voluntary service assignments soon after graduation.
The class of 2009 comes from 14 states and 10 countries in addition to the United States: Canada, China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Kenya, Mexico, Nepal, Nigeria, Rwanda and Tanzania.
Parents of graduating seniors opened and closed the commencement ceremonies with prayer. Rev. Michael Chittum, pastor of First Congregational Church of Salt Lake City and father of graduate Josh Chittum, gave the invocation and Rev. Rigoberto Negrón, pastor of Iglesia Menonita del Cordero, Brownsville, Texas, and father of graduate Moraima Negrón, offered the benediction.
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 only Kansas private college to be ranked in Forbes.com’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2008 and one of only two Kansas colleges listed in Colleges of Distinction 2008-09. For more information, see the Bethel web site at www.bethelks.edu.