My 7 minute Commencement Speech at Samford Graduation

In Defense of Normal*
Samford University Commencement, December 2014
Matthew Kerlin

Thank you Dr. Westmoreland and good morning to you all – trustees, friends, broke parents, proud grandparents, antsy siblings, picture-happy loved-ones, exhausted colleagues, and distinguished graduates. Let me begin by saying that I am honored to be your second choice commencement speaker.* Over 7.1 billion people in the world and I made the top two. Now, I’ve worked in higher education for over 2 decades, and I’ve attended enough graduation ceremonies to know two things: (1) you aren’t here to listen to me, and (2) I am standing in the way of you hearing your graduate’s name called and getting to lunch. So let’s get down to business. Today I want to speak in Defense of Normal.

First, let me cover the obligatory inspirational advice that all commencement speeches should contain. Ok, are you ready? Follow your dreams, change the world, overcome obstacles, be courageous, don’t be afraid to fail, take risks, be creative, be a life-long learner, be yourself, love others, stay true to your faith, stay true to your family, trust yourself, smile, have fun, be positive, work hard, don’t settle, don’t hold grudges, ignore your critics, listen to your critics, go make a difference in the world, give something back, Oh the Places You Will Go, and the world will be better for it. Does that sound familiar?

Actually, some that is good advice, but you already know most of it. The truth is that you can follow all of that advice and still not become anything like the people who typically give you that advice. Most graduation speeches are delivered by people who are famous, or wealthy or influential or highly successful by societal standards, politicians, entertainers, powerful business executives. They are usually the people to speak at graduation precisely because they are exceptional – exceptions to the rule. But I am the rule.

By contrast, I am rather ordinary. I am not rich or famous or powerful. I’m not as smart as most of my colleagues, not even as smart as many of my students, because after all, this is an exceptional place. I’ve been married for 23 years, but I am not a marriage expert. I have three kids and they’ll tell you that I’m not a perfect parent. I’ve taught courses in campus ministry but I work with people who are better ministers than me. I am an atypical graduation speaker because I am just a normal guy. But maybe that makes me the ideal person to speak today In Defense of Normal.

The truth is that most of you are going to be relatively normal. I mean that statistically, most of you are not going to become exceptionally wealthy or famous or powerful. Most of you won’t make a revolutionary discovery, or find a cure for a notorious disease, or write a best-selling novel, or become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. And that’s OK. In fact, it’s not just OK. It’s GOOD, because what the world needs is not a few more celebrities trying to fix what is broken while posing for photos. What the world needs is a few billion normal people committed to making the world a better place; a few billion normal people willing to pray “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth”; a few billion normal people willing to live like Jesus; a few billion normal people willing to fight poverty and disease and racial inequality and violence in all its forms; a few billion normal people who love their families and their neighbors and do their jobs well, day after day after ordinary day. And the sum total of all that normal would indeed be exceptional.

In her poem “To be of use,” Marge Piercy writes this: “The work of the world is common as mud.” In his letter to the Corinthian and Thessalonian churches, Paul wrote this, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God”; and “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders.” In an op-ed piece to the New York Times, Garrison Keillor wrote, “savor this peaceable street and its lawns and driveways, kids’ bikes leaning against the house, the listless cat on the porch, the sheer beauty of ordinariness.”

Today you should feel no pressure to achieve the outlandish, or to live up to the nearly impossible expectations that you may have for yourselves or perceive from those around you. The problem with idolizing greatness is that one day you wake up in your 40s and your life looks relatively ordinary and you think you’ve failed. There is no reason to make that mistake. As a theologian, I would argue that the meaning of life consists not in what you accomplish, but in what God through Christ has already accomplished. This frees you to live with simple gratitude, to be faithful in the small things, to be kind when no one is watching, to be honest when it profits you nothing, and to be hard working when nobody thanks you. Aristotle calls this the virtuous life, the means between the extremes, the normal. So make the virtuous life the normal way that you live.

No, you may not achieve remarkable success according to the standards of our society. But as Samford graduates, you have learned how to live by a higher standard. No, you may not become rich or famous, but as Samford graduates, you WILL change the world. You may not do great or historic or revolutionary or exceptional things. But as Samford graduates, you can do normal things with exceptional love, for the glory of God. And I know that you will.

God bless you and congratulations!

*[The video of this speech can be seen on YouTube here. Dr. Westmoreland’s introduction and my speech can be found between 16:21 to 28:04.]

* [The originally scheduled speaker for commencement had to leave town for a funeral.]


A Common Sense Dress Code for College Students

As a college instructor, parent, and campus minister for over 20 years, I’ve seen it all when it comes to the clothes students wear, or the lack thereof. I’m not particularly conservative or legalistic when it comes to dress, but I do think that some common sense is needed for the best interest of students, and to respect the learning communities of which they are a part. I am not attempting to destroy individuality; I firmly believe that one can dress both appropriately and creatively. I’m no fashionista, so my suggestions aren’t intended to make you the most stylish person around.  I’m not a shopping diva, so I can’t point you to the best sales, but I can tell you that it doesn’t take an enormous budget to dress reasonably.  And reasonability is my goal here, to avoid unnecessary and attention-seeking extremes.

Of course, this isn’t the most theological post I’ll ever write. I do intend this somewhat tongue-and-cheek. But still, there are some serious faith implications for how we think and feel about clothing. Jesus taught, “Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the lilies of the field. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.” In other words, you can surely spend too much and worry too much about these matters. In that light, here are a few common-sense suggestions for dressing in a sensible, simple, and considerate manner.

  1. Get dressed. Seriously. Wear actual clothes intended for public viewing. I get it that you were up late studying, but nobody wants to see what you slept in. Respect the people around you enough to look at least somewhat presentable in class.
  2. Dress according to the season. When in doubt, check the weather app on your phone. If it’s 30 degrees, avoid shorts and flip-flops. You look silly trying to look tough through your hypothermia.
  3. Wear clothes that fit. A blinding flash of the obvious I know. But you’d be surprised … actually, no, you aren’t surprised at how poor a judge people tend to be about what fits and what doesn’t. Here’s a hint – if it takes more than about 2 seconds to slip it on, it’s probably too tight. If you could fit another human being into it with you, it’s probably too big. The extremes look ridiculous to at least half of the population. You aren’t looking for that kind of attention, are you?
  4. Wear clothes that appropriately cover everything that ought to be covered. Remember that cameras are now ubiquitous, so think about that when you head out the door. Your clothes say something about you.  What are you saying with your short shorts, low cut tops, muscle shirts, skin tights skirts, or leggings?
  5. Don’t wear clothes intended for a specific activity unless you’re engaged in that activity, or on your way to or from that activity. Let me be more specific. Yoga pants are for yoga. Gym shorts are for the gym. Hiking pants are for hiking. That makes sense, yes?
  6. Wear clothes that go together. Please, I beg of you, no shorts with snow boots. No jeans with a tuxedo. No running shoes with a dress. No dark calf socks with athletic attire. These may seem trendy to you at the moment, but trust me, you’ll be embarrassed one day.
  7. Avoid clothes obviously intended to draw attention to you. Whether you realize it or not, vulgar tee shirts, extreme colors, and stripes with plaids are all screaming to those around you, “Hey, look at me!!” Is that really what you want to scream?
  8. Ladies, always wear pants. Always. Tights are not pants. Leggings are not pants. Yoga pants only count as pants if you’re at yoga (see #5). If you aren’t sure whether you have on pants, go put on some pants.
  9. Gentlemen, no tanks. Nobody wants to see your deodorant coated armpit hair, no matter how large your biceps are. If you are a weight-lifting athlete, I grant you a once per day exemption to this rule, if and only if you are in the gym. After that, put on a tee shirt.
  10. When you stop growing, buy fewer items of higher quality. This is just a practical tip. When you’re growing a couple of inches a year, you do what you have to do to get by. When you stop growing, start building a reasonably better wardrobe. Most people wear about 20% of what’s in their closet. Only buy items you like better than the 20% of stuff you currently wear. Buy less but get higher quality. You’ll like it better, it’ll last longer, and you’ll save money in the long run.
  11. Clean out your closet every year and give away what you haven’t worn. The principle here is simplicity. There is no sense owning what you don’t need. It takes up limited closet space, makes your other clothes wrinkled, and makes it more difficult to find the clothes you want to wear.
  12. A summary principle – your clothes say something about you. What do you want to say? What are you actually saying? Do these two questions have the same answer?
Campus Ministry College

To Rush Or Not To Rush? Some Advice for Recruitment Participants

This is the time of year where students on my campus are participating in fraternity and sorority recruitment and receiving bids, or failing to receive bids, from Greek organizations on campus. Although I did not participate in this process as a student, I have observed the process on my own campus for the past 9 years, and seen it on other campuses for a decade longer than that. Each year I see both the joy and emotional turmoil that the process creates in students, both those being recruited and those doing the recruiting. There are things that I observe each year and after repeated conversations with hundreds of students about Greek recruitment, I offer these hopefully helpful and humble bits of advice for students involved.

  1. Always remember that you may not get the bid you want and that you may not get a bid at all. The process is exclusive, just like applying for colleges and scholarships. Exclusivity, in and of itself, is not wrong, but it can be painful. Manage your expectations. If getting ZERO bids is the most frightening thing you can imagine, then you probably have too much skin in the game. Don’t stake your entire college experience on getting a bid!
  2. Be yourself. Don’t suck up and don’t answer questions the way you think someone wants you to answer them. Be honest, truthful, confident, and friendly. Never compromise who you are in what you say or what you do. No bid is worth that. You do not want to be part of an organization that doesn’t want you for who YOU are. Represent yourself, your family, and your faith consistently and fairly and then don’t worry about the consequences. You can always live with the consequences of doing right in God’s eyes. In the end, His opinion matters more than anyone’s.
  3. Realize that formal recruitment activities are a kind of game. People have a tendency to say what they think you want to hear, and people have a tendency to hear what they want to hear. Don’t mistake small talk for hard-and-fast promises. In the crunch time of decision-making, people change their minds, make irrational decisions, and sometimes flat-out make mistakes. Don’t let what you hear in conversation build up your hopes or expectations. Let the process play out in its own time.
  4. You are not the sum total of your bids. If you get multiple bids or get none, you are no better and no worse a person than you were before you started the process. Your identity as a person need not be altered by whether or not the organization of your choice chooses you.
  5. Nobody can make you feel bad about yourself without your permission. Greek organizations make choices on the basis of criteria that are not usually public. Sometimes those criteria are objective (GPA, legacy connections, your interest and participation in the process) and sometimes they are subjective (your appearance, your personality, your social connections). Organizations have to decide who fits and who doesn’t, and fit can be a subjective thing in any organization. You are who you are, be confident in that, and don’t let recruitment shake your confidence.
  6. Decide now that you won’t let recruitment change you in negative ways. Some get rejected and get bitter, and that clouds their perception of people, organizations, and universities for years to come. Some get accepted and immediately change their social connections, rearranging friendships, social engagements, or campus ministries to fit a new set of perceived expectations from their affiliation. Both responses are silly, immature, and honestly un-Christlike.
  7. If you are offended in the process, forgive! People are human and will make mistakes. Sometimes organizations collectively make mistakes, and this includes not only Greek organizations but also campus ministries. As a campus minister, I’ve had to apologize for harm done by organizations that I lead. Greek organizations will make mistakes and those mistakes will sometimes hurt people. If you are one of those people, talk to someone, reach out, and help leaders improve the process. If you are a Samford student, you can email to register your concerns. But know that if you refuse to forgive, the bitterness that builds in you ultimately harms you the most.
  8. If you get the exact bid you want and everything goes your way, congratulations! Now use your affiliation to do good. Be a loyal member, be humble, give to your philanthropy, support your organization, use your influence to make things better, and live your letters. Avoid petty rivalries, refuse to participate in unwise behaviors, and do not conform to the stereotypes that would reshape your fundamental identity. Represent Christ well to those in your organization and outside of it. Make the most of every opportunity the privilege brings you.

In conclusion, remember that Greek membership is only one of many opportunities to get involved on campus.  If you receive a bid, your affiliation with a Greek organization should add dimension to your campus experience but not be the only thing that defines it. If you fail to receive a bid or choose not to participate, there are still innumerable ways to enjoy your campus experience so that you should never feel left out or excluded from all that college has to offer. Greek or non-Greek, so much of college is what you make of it.


What I Put In My Syllabus for Freshmen

The following statement appears at the end of my syllabus for the course I teach freshmen at Samford University:

“You are here at Samford to be a student.  You are paying good money to be here, or someone else is, even if you are on scholarship.  Make the most of the opportunities this class provides.  I will probably not be the greatest professor you have. I will probably not be the worst either.  I will do my absolute best to teach, but what you learn is largely up to you.  You should not cheer when your classes are cancelled due to bad weather or illness.  Skipping class is wasting money, like not eating what you’ve ordered at a nice restaurant.  You’ve paid for these classes – you should get your money’s worth.  You should never whine or moan or complain about assignments, however long or boring or complicated they may seem.  Refuse to be wimpy students!  Learn everything that you can during this time in your life when your primary responsibility is to learn.  You may never have an opportunity like this again. YOLO.  Carpe Diem.”


How College Works – Faculty Connections are Key

Recently, the president of Samford University, Dr. Andrew Westmoreland, offered the following succinct summary of a book entitled How College Works, by Dan Champion and Christopher Takacs: According to their research, “A great college experience is built on relationships with two or three friends and meaningful encounters with one or two faculty members.  Everything else, according to Champion, pales by comparison.” Here are the book’s major recommendations for improving the learning environments at colleges, as summarized by Dr. Westmoreland:

1.  Deploy the best teachers for maximum impact.  He says that it is okay–even preferable–for good teachers to teach large classes because it improves the chance that all students will encounter good teachers, hopefully in their first semester. It is a mistake to offer small sections of first- and second-year courses, taught by bad teachers. The bad teachers should teach upper level courses where they will do less damage.

2.  Use space to help people meet. In an interesting observation, Champion says that long halls in residence halls with shared bathrooms offer the greatest chance that new students will develop friends. Apartment-style housing is not friendly toward friend development.  Spaces on campus should prompt “hanging out.”

3.  Use strategic scheduling to improve the odds for learning. The best teachers and courses should be placed in the best time slots. Champion calls for active management of scheduling by deans and department chairs.

4.  Help motivated students find each other. His suggestions here apply primarily to extra-curricular organizations, but he also offers the observation that an invitation to dinner at a faculty home is perhaps the greatest single factor in promoting long-lasting student satisfaction.

5.  Focus especially on students’ early careers. He offers nothing surprising on this subject to long-time observers of new student orientation, but he affirms a strong effort to achieve a positive welcome to the campus for all students. Also, learn their preferred names and call them by their names.

6.  Use the arithmetic of engagement. The arithmetic needs to be focused on connecting those few, key relationships.

I would like to add a personal comment with regard to number 4 above. This past spring, my staff implemented a Home Group program at Samford University. The idea is that groups of 10-12 students meet weekly in the home of a faculty or staff member to share a meal, Bible study, prayers, spiritual conversation, etc. The kickoff was tremendous with remarkable student participation and faculty support. This fall we anticipate nearly 30 groups hosted by Samford employees. We got the idea from a campus ministry at Pepperdine University, and would love for others to steal it too and report back about how it works.

Do you remember visiting the home of a faculty member during your university years? How did the experience shape your college experience?

Campus Ministry College

What Do Students Care Most About?

2011-10-22 04.15.37

I was reminded in a recent blog post by my son (read it here) that for students, college is about friendships. Professors want students to think high-minded thoughts, to probe the depths of intellectual inquiry, to increase in knowledge. Campus ministers want students to deepen their faith and their commitments to Christ and the Church. Parents want students to make good grades, gain a marketable set of skills, and get a job after they graduate. All good things, but students mostly want friends, at least at first. After they find good friends, then maybe they’ll want some of that other stuff too, especially if their friends want it. This means that for most students, friends can make or break the college experience. With this in mind, here are a few thoughts on college friendships for each of the players involved:

Parents – Talk to your students about finding the right friends. Consider Greek Life carefully and prayerfully, knowing that the choice to pledge could be the most significant decision your son or daughter makes. Think not just about the academic programs and job prospects that a university provides, but think about its campus culture as well. Get to know your student’s friends. Have them over, feed them, help do their laundry. You can learn volumes about your student’s college experience from his/her friends.

Professors – Your students care more about their friends than they do you or your class. They’re probably taking your class because a friend told them it was good. They’ll skip your class to spend time with a friend in a crisis, and they’ll be confused to learn this isn’t an excused absence. They will skip studying for a late night pizza, coffee, or Sonic run. Nothing you say in class will change this. Students who don’t find good friends tend to transfer to another school. And you were probably the same way when you were a student.

Campus Minister – Your events, programs, and activities should capitalize on students’ perceived need for friends. This isn’t pandering, it’s understanding and adapting to a culture, as you would in a missions setting with an unreached people group. Students will follow their friends to a party or to church, to a summer camp job or a summer missions experience, to a campus lecture or a campus ministry. To call this a “herd mentality” is to degrade this stage in a student’s life.

Students – If you leave home for school, and even if you commute to a campus near your home, your life is uprooted, upended, and upheaval is the result. You need friends, good friends, and quickly. Go out and find them, don’t wait for them to come to you. This will sometimes be uncomfortable and occasionally awkward, especially if you tend toward the shy side. Embrace the awkward – all new students feel it, and most older students too. Friend groups morph from semester to semester, so everyone is always making new friends. And most importantly, find the RIGHT friends who share your faith and your values, who want truly good things for you, who will challenge you, confront you, disagree with you, sharpen you, hold you accountable, and keep you from thinking that college is all about you.


Leaving Home for College: Part Two (for students)

You’ve just graduated from High School. You’ve probably attended college orientation, or will very soon. You’re now counting the days, maybe hours, until you move in and start your college career. I know you’re getting advice from every conceivable person, so here’s how to survive the next few weeks until move-in day.

  • Cut your parents some slack. Your parents are acting strange, looking at your old baby pictures, watching videos of when you were a child, and generally over-reacting to almost everything.  They are an emotional wreck, for some good reasons and maybe not so good reasons. They’ll chill out eventually. Probably. Hopefully.
  • Manage information overload. You’re going to get an awful lot of information over the next few weeks, including advice from mentors, important dates from your college, stuff you need to remember. Get a notebook. Write it all down. Keep in all in one place.
  • Get organized. Make a list of things you need, decide what you have, what you can borrow, and what you need to buy. Keep “to do” lists and check things off. Life is about to get stressful, and organization will minimize the chaos.
  • Talk to your parents about boundaries. I know they’re getting on your nerves, but you need to set some boundaries with them about how often they’re going to call, text, contact you on social media, visit, etc. Get on the same page with them. Be firm, but respectful, about your expectations.
  • Be smart with money. You need to understand the financial big-picture, where the money is coming from to pay for college, and how much you have to spend on necessities and luxuries. Your parents will expect you to be financially responsible, and you want to be, so get the knowledge you need to make that happen.
  • Take the time to say goodbye. Maybe you’re sentimental and maybe not, but either way, your life is about to change permanently. Whether or not this makes you sad to think about, say goodbye to life as you know it. Tell your teachers you appreciate them. Write a thank-you note to your youth minister. Say thanks to those friends who’ve been by your side through thick and thin. And avoid the temptation to spend all your time with friends. Express appreciation to your family members, who more than anyone, need some closure.

Leaving Home for College: Part One (for parents)

This is the time of year that students and parents attend college orientation, an exciting time for students but a tearful time for many parents. As a campus minister, I’ve spent over 15 years helping with college orientations and I have occasionally thought that parents were a bit melodramatic about saying goodbye. All that changed last year when my first offspring left for college himself.  I found the experience gut-wrenching, not because I was worried about him or his future, and certainly not because I wanted him to stay home. I just felt the grief associated with the end of that stage of our relationship.  So based on my experiences, here are a few things I’ve learned about saying goodbye.

For parents:

  • Let go. I know this is such a blinding flash of the obvious that nobody will say it, and that’s why I need to say it.
  • Don’t hover. Agree to mutually acceptable levels of contact by phone, text, social media, visits, etc.
  • Be patient. Your student is probably not as ready as he/she thinks. He/she will make some surprisingly silly mistakes.
  • Be realistic. Your student is probably more ready than you think. He/she will make some surprisingly good decisions.
  • Embrace this stage. An adult-to-adult relationship with your son or daughter is a deeply satisfying and rewarding thing.