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Keep leveraging learning opportunities, speaker tells graduates

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – The thunderstorm passed to the north and Bethel College’s 117th commencement exercises proceeded outdoors in Thresher Stadium for the third year.

A few sprinkles fell on faculty, graduates and audience and a gusty wind kept whipping mortarboards off graduates’ heads as they listened to commencement speaker Aziza Hasan give them five ways to “leverage learning opportunities.”

Hasan, of Los Angeles, is a graduate of Halstead High School and of Bethel College, the first of four siblings to attend the college (two are also graduates and one is currently a student). Their father, the late Farouq Hasan, studied at Bethel in the 1970s. Hasan’s sister, two brothers, mother Christine Hasan of Halstead and many extended family members were present to hear her address the Bethel audience.

As southern California director of government relations for the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) and co-director of NewGround, a project that seeks to foster communication, respect and understanding among Jews and Muslims, Hasan is an interfaith communicator who “exemplifies in her life and profession Bethel’s core values,” said interim president John Sheriff in his introduction. “She is a graduate of whom Bethel is very proud.”

“I’m humbled by this great honor [of speaking to you today],” Hasan said. “It’s so good to be back at the place that has left its imprint on my life and work.”

She opened her address with a familiar story of “a commander-in-chief” who was berated, after praising his opposition, by someone who asked, “How dare you speak well of them? You should destroy our enemies.” The commander-in-chief replied: “Do I not destroy my enemy by making him my friend?”

“No matter how big or small the conflicts in our lives,” whether wars fought across the globe or disagreements within families, Hasan said, “they’re always going to be there.

“It’s simple – what has really helped me most since leaving Bethel has been leveraging learning opportunities,” she continued. “Challenges can pull you back or they can motivate you.”

First, she said, “Be specific. Say what you mean and pay attention to language.”

Second, is “LOL” – not “Laugh Out Loud” but “Listen, Observe and Learn.” “Learn from you opposition,” Hasan said. “A well-thought-out question is half the answer.”

Third, she said, “Get rid of the word ‘but’ [in] your vocabulary. Listen and paraphrase. Instead of ‘but,’ use ‘Yes, and … .’”

Her fourth way to leverage learning opportunities was “Commit to honest conversation.”

“At NewGround, we spend months getting young Muslims and Jews to be friends and be excited about talking to each other,” she said, “and then just as much time getting them to be honest.

“Speaking truth to power is the responsibility of all people of faith,” she said. “One of my favorite stories in the Koran is when Moses had to prepare to talk to the greatest of all tyrants, Pharaoh, and God told him: ‘Speak softly so he will hear you.’”

Finally, she said, “Constantly seek to improve and invest in yourself. You’ve worked hard to get to this point but sorry, you can’t stop here. Find at least two mentors, one 10 years ahead of you and one 20 to 30 years ahead of you.” The younger mentor can help with “the details, the nitty-gritty,” she said, and the older one with “the bigger picture, the long-term goals.”

She concluded by returning to the story of “the commander-in-chief.” That was Abraham Lincoln, she said, speaking of the Confederacy to an audience of Union supporters. “You turn the other cheek when you have power, not when you are weak,” she said. “The Koran says that evil and good are not equal. Use what is good to repel the evil.”

Also as part of the commencement ceremonies, Vice President for Academic Affairs Brad Born presented the Ralph P. Schrag Distinguished Teaching Award to Professor of Music William Eash. 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.

Eash is director of choral activities at Bethel College, where he is responsible for four choirs and also teaches conducting and music history. He is a graduate of Bluffton (Ohio) University with a degree in music performance (vocal, string bass), has master’s and doctoral degrees in choral conducting from the University of Iowa and has studied voice at the Hochschule für Musik and darstellende Kunst in Vienna, Austria.

Sheriff conferred 37 bachelor of arts and 52 bachelor of science degrees. According to a survey of graduating seniors, 35 of the graduates intend to enter health- and social service-related careers, 22 business and 10 education. Of those who responded to the survey, 44 percent plan either to enter or apply to graduate school within the next five years. At least three will follow a Bethel tradition of taking voluntary service assignments soon after graduation.

The class of 2010 comes from 14 states and five countries in addition to the United States: Cameroon, China, Kenya, Sierra Leone and Tanzania.

Sharon Nance, Dallas, mother-in-law of graduate Priscilla Tang, gave the invocation and Ruth Harder, associate pastor of Bethel College Mennonite Church, offered the benediction.

“These graduates represent an investment in life,” said Nance, “by students, parents, professors and college friends and supporters. [May God] transform their possibility into promise.”

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the only Kansas private college to be ranked in’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2009 and one of only two Kansas colleges profiled in Colleges of Distinction 2009-10. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at

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