Michael Hemesath

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Michael Hemesath

About Michael Hemesath

Michael Hemesath is the 13th president of Saint John's University. A 1981 SJU graduate, Hemesath is the first layperson appointed to a full presidential term at SJU. You can find him on Twitter [at] PrezHemesath.

The Accidental Mentor*

I first heard about Nancy a couple years ago at a Saint John’s senior dinner.  At the dinner, seniors that are so moved, get up and share the things that they are most thankful for about their SJU experience.  The lists usually include what you might expect: friendships, the monks, social times, great academic experiences, study abroad and relationships with faculty.

But on this particular evening, a senior included an unusual appreciation: “I am thankful to have met Nancy, the custodian on my freshman floor.”  Shortly after this dinner, I heard about a custodian in a frosh dorm who had purchased a dozen haircuts from the old Razor Hair Styling shop in Mary Hall and asked that they be given to random students, ideally freshmen, who seemed to need a little emotional pick-me-up gift–not necessarily because they were looking shaggy.

I realized this was the same woman the senior had praised.

I decided I needed to meet this woman.  It turned out Nancy was nearing the end of her time at Saint John’s, with a long-planned retirement coming this past spring, but we had coffee this summer, and I got to hear her story.

She told me that a number of years ago as she was preparing for her annual performance review she decided to add a new goal: to get to know the students on her floors better.  Nancy did just that during her remaining years at Saint John’s.

There was a young man from Bosnia whom she befriended who shared a Bosnian family wedding video with her.  Another young man visited her family farm where Nancy’s husband taught him to drive a skid loader.  The couple subsequently got to know this student’s hockey teammates and took a group of them out for dinner.  There were multiple students whom she helped with textbook costs, and she even chipped in on an airfare to a New York job interview.  Some of her Johnnies told their young brothers to look Nancy up when they matriculated, and she has attended several Johnnie-Bennie weddings of students she got to know.

Nancy had a policy that if you needed her to unlock your door after you wandered down to the shower without your key, you had to commit to saying “Hi” to her whenever you saw her.  Nancy was eating at a restaurant in St. Cloud with her family when an unfamiliar young man came up the table and greeted Nancy.  She did not immediately recognize him, as he was now 7 or 8 years older than when she knew him at SJU, but he told her she had let him into his room back in the day, and he was fulfilling his part of the bargain.

Most improbably, she developed a relationship with a Chinese student who was often awake in the lounge when she arrived early in the morning.  He told her of his loneliness and complicated relationships with his parent.  He surprised her by making Chinese tea for her one day.  She gently admonished him when he started skipping classes.  He took Nancy and her husband out for Chinese food.  In the end, this young man decided he needed to return home, but Nancy insisted that he text her when he got to Beijing to assure her he was safe.

In some ways Nancy is clearly exceptional—caring deeply for the young men on her floors and making the effort to reach out to dozens of them during her time at Saint John’s. But in other ways, Nancy is just like everyone in this room.  Each of us is capable of being a mentor to the students in our care, students who are all in need of human connections as they make their way through these important formative years at Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s.

Nancy did not use the term mentor, and I suspect she would not characterize what she did as mentoring, but I would beg to differ.  A mentor is one who cares about an individual student in the present and is concerned about that student’s future.  Research has shown that this simple human interaction is exceedingly important for the well-being of students on campus and for their thriving in the future.

I would hope that each of us recognizes our ability to be a mentor, but I worry that this is not always the case.

After a presentation on mentoring at the Liberal Arts Illuminated conference this summer I overheard a young staff person say, “I had not thought of myself as capable of being a mentor to students.”  In another context, when discussing our increasingly diverse student body, I have heard faculty wondering about the challenges of teaching and guiding these new students on our campuses.  One senior faculty member noted, “My experiences are so different than those of this generation’s students.”  Students themselves sometimes believe they must find an adult whose experiences have paralleled their own in order to connect.

We can sometimes think of mentoring too narrowly, focusing on the guru model which has students at the feet of an academic master.  While I certainly do not want to diminish our students’ academic needs, young people’s needs are typically broader and require only empathy and wisdom from a caring adult.

Fr. Don Talafous, Mary Hall, ca. 2001

Though they may sometimes be hesitant to reach out, all students want a connection to another person and to a community.  Faculty and staff at CSB and SJU have done this for years, and even with an increasingly geographically, racially, religiously and culturally diverse student body, we can all continue to provide that invaluable human connection, as Nancy did for so many students.

Clearly our 21st century student body is different, and they bring new and unique life experiences to campus, but that is true of every generation.  Yet for many of us in this room, we found mentoring, guidance and connection from what we surely thought at the time were unlikely sources.

S. Margretta Nathe, 1976

If the Benedictine monks and sisters, who publicly made a more counter cultural life choice than any faculty or staff member today can boast of, could serve as powerful and long lasting mentors for earlier generations of students, everyone of us is capable of connecting just as deeply with today’s students.

 

As you meet our students in your classes or offices or elsewhere on campus, just ask yourselves, “What would Nancy do?”  You might be surprised at the relationships you will develop.

Best wishes for the beginning of the school year.

*Presented at the CSB/SJU All-Community Forum on August 21, 2018.

By |August 30th, 2018|Categories: Higher Education|0 Comments

Football: Concussions and Character

Football players are back on campus at Saint John’s, thus signaling the official end of summer.  The imminent start to the football season has also raised perennial questions about football player safety, particularly around the issue of concussions.

Image of brain in human headThere was a little controversy recently at the Atlantic Coast Conference media days when University of North Carolina head football coach Larry Fedora said “he doesn’t believe it’s been proven that football causes the degenerative brain disease CTE and [he] offered a passionate defense of [the] sport.”

In this controversy, I found the medical issues, while important, less interesting than the defense of football Fedora gave.  He argued that to significantly change the nature of the game or to give up on the game altogether would lead to “the decline of our country.”

Fedora elaborated, saying:

A few years back, I had an opportunity to ask a three-star general, I had a question for him. I said, “What is it that makes our country, our military, superior to every other military in the world?” He was like, “That’s easy. We’re the only football-playing nation in the world.” He said, “Most of all of our troops have grown up and played the game at some point in their life at some level, and the lessons that they learned from that game is what makes this [nation] great.”

Denise McAllister, commenting on the controversy agreed, writing:

Fedora has a point. Throughout human history, contact sports have been a means to strengthen men to protect their homes, clans, tribes, and countries. Through rough play and facing the power of other men on the field, men were trained to be warriors — a clear advantage for any community that wants to develop strong defenses.

Young men were knocked around in game-playing to toughen them up for life as well as war. There wasn’t much concern about their welfare because the scrapes, bruises, and broken bones were deemed a necessity. Of course, past generations didn’t have the benefit of science to show the long-term effects of these activities, but I would wager that even if they did, those generations wouldn’t change their behavior. Contact sports had an important place in society.
….
Moms and dads in the suburbs who are pushing to end football at all levels or keeping their kids from playing any risky sport don’t experience the daily struggles and physical threats faced by past generations. They enjoy the luxury of flaccidity. They don’t value football and its risks because they have experienced no need of the particular lessons taught by football. They’re so removed from hardship that they don’t even see the value of climbing trees.

Regardless of whether one finds these national defense arguments persuasive, I would argue that Fedora and McAllister make a valid point about tradeoffs that is important to remember.  Life is filled with risks.  Once one makes the decision to get out of bed in the morning, virtually every decision afterward has risks.  Playing football is such a decision.

As a Division III institution, Saint John’s University’s football program does not have the public relations or economic impact most Division I programs do, but our players face the same risks of injury that other college players do.  Every player, possibly with input from parents or physicians, must decide whether the potential risks of short or long term injury—the costs—are more than offset by their love of the game and all it gives them—the benefits.

I certainly know Johnnie football players who have expressed concern about letting their sons play the game they themselves did.  By implication, these same Johnnies might have made a different decision for themselves if they had had current medical information available when they played the game years or decades ago.

But I know a lot more Johnnie football players who not only do not regret college athletic choices but would not change them for the world, and they delight in their young sons’ and current Johnnie players’ love of the game.

Gagliardi on the sidelines

This thought experiment is made more interesting at Saint John’s because of John Gagliardi’s forward looking practice methods that minimized the risk of injury in practice decades before that became fashionable.  Johnnie football alums with full information about CTE risks might rightly calculate the risk of injury to their younger selves or their sons or current Johnnies as relatively low because of John’s choices then – and growing influence now – but game day contact and injuries remain a risk under any practice regime.

These Johnnies, who would relive their football days in a heartbeat, argue that beyond their simple love of the game, football and John and Gary (Fasching) taught them life lessons that continue to pay off for years and decades after they hang up their helmets: teamwork, graceful losing, magnanimous winning, courage, perseverance, etc. etc.  In short, football helped form their character.

Life lessons can be learned in many ways, but I think it is safe to say they can rarely be learned cost free.  Football has provided many generations of American boys and men pleasure and learning.  While there can be little doubt that playing football carries with it risks, especially of head injuries, that are real and far better understood than ever, those risks have to be set off against the real benefits football provides those who play.

Parents must make thoughtful and informed decisions for their sons, and young men must make such decisions for themselves, but each decision is personal and the answer is not obvious.

Concussions and character are inextricably intertwined in this most American of sports.

Football sidelineApproximately 175 young men reported for football practice in Collegeville last week.

SJU opens against UW-Stout on September 1.

Go Johnnies.

By |August 17th, 2018|Categories: Alumni|1 Comment

Technology and the Value of Community*

Student with laptop in classroomLike most truly revolutionary changes, technology is changing the world and the institutions in it. This is at least as true in higher education as in any other part of society.

Probably the most noted change is the ability of technology to affect how and where students learn. Until very recently, the history of higher education has been the movement toward a more community based educational experience. The earliest European universities began as collections of scholars who settled in one geographic location for the efficiencies this provided students to gather for lectures and tutorials. Learning in community was begun.

As economies grew and the need for higher education expanded, universities became more centralized. They also began concerning themselves with their students’ needs beyond pure academics. Dormitories were built, cafeterias began offering meals, extra-curricular activities were added to campus life. Learning AND living in community became a more efficient way to educate great numbers of students.

In recent years, technology has provided a way of educating that does not require either living or learning in community. Distance learning, most commonly in the form of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), allows for the possibility of educational content to be delivered across great distances and asynchronously to individual learners. A good internet connection, in theory, can replace some – if not all – of the bricks and mortar campus experience. This technological reality has led some to speculate that soon the online world may literally cause the disintegration of traditional universities. Students will be able to pick the time, place and pace of their post-secondary education.

As distance learning has grown and developed, most of the debate about its merits versus traditional models have focused on economics and pedagogy. To me, however, there is an important and under-appreciated strength of traditional residential education that, ironically, is enhanced by the very forces that have given rise to distance learning. The technological revolution which has made MOOCs possible has also brought about changes in our lives and social interactions, especially among young people, that make continuing to learn and live in community more important than ever.

Students in control roomAs an educator, I see three developments that convince me that having our students live and learn together is of growing importance.

First, the social interactions of people, especially the young, are increasingly mediated by technology, leading to fewer personal interactions. We see children and young adults in virtually every public setting, walking or sitting side by side while texting, or in groups pulling out their phones every few minutes to check their social media accounts. We see it in college students gaming in their dorm rooms and bringing their media to classes. Simple conversations are often interrupted by the stream of information that flows from technology.

Second, technology allows and encourages young people with similar interests, social concerns, politics and worldviews to connect. Some of this ability to reach beyond one’s local geography is surely good—electronic pen pals around a shared passion. Yet it can also be provincial and narrowing. Technology allows all of us to be in self-reinforcing echo chambers, where we hear our own ideas and views repeated and reinforced, rather than tested and challenged, a process that is especially important as young people are developing their moral foundations. We begin to see those outside this circle, however defined, as “the other” and alien. We start to emphasize our differences rather than what we share as humans.

Third, there is growing evidence that millennials (loosely 23-38 year olds) and Generation Zs (loosely early teens to 23) are experiencing more isolation, loneliness and depression than older generations. The exact causes need further study, but Blue Cross Blue Shield researchers have found that depression diagnoses are growing rapidly among teens and millennials. A recent widely reported survey by Cigna found that young people were the loneliest among all the groups surveyed.

Graduates taking selfieAll these issues certainly need more research and those of us older than Generation Z and the millennials are hardly exempt from these concerns, but for educators, the focus is naturally on the experiences of recent graduates, current and future students.

I believe that the current model of undergraduate education which emphasizes learning and living in community (think institutions like Saint John’s, the College of Saint Benedict and St. Cloud State University), though developed for other reasons, offers some hope for those concerned with the social interactions and mental health of young people.

To end on a hopeful note, the Cigna survey reported that, “People who engage in frequent, meaningful in-person interactions have much lower loneliness scores and report better health than those who rarely interact with others face-to-face.”

Social beings benefit from social interactions and a residential university experience can provide a community to foster those interactions—in and outside of the classroom. It is not, as they say, rocket science.

*Published in the St. Cloud Times “To a Higher Degree” column on June 24, 2018