Dr. Malcolm Russell
What do I love about Union College? Oh, it’s true Nebraska offers clean air and surprisingly sunny skies, but it’s not the land of sea coasts, Rockies, or even the Great Lakes. Of course, as you know, Union is all about the people.
I witnessed this on my first adult visit to Union, arriving five days out of Michigan by bicycle with two friends. Despite our sweaty bodies and cycling clothes, we were welcomed, and shown the academic departments we wished to visit. People chatted, but did not stare: we were accepted for what we were, rather than judged by an arbitrary standard of appearance.
A much deeper understanding of what Union meant came during the job interviews in 2002. As I’ve sometimes mentioned, Sharon and I weren’t looking for a new job, but thought the search committee had to have another candidate. And when we toured the campus with Scott Cushman, we didn’t expect to be impressed by buildings. (You’ll understand well enough if you take away the Ortner Center, the facilities for IRR and PA, and replace the Krueger Center with Jorgensen Hall.)
But on Friday afternoon we stopped off at Campus Ministries to find a beehive of student activity: teams working on vespers, Sabbath School, a service project, next week’s chapel and no doubt things like V2 we didn’t understand. For us, Union became personalized in the spirit of those students, combined with the hospitality of George and Carol Gibson and the thoughtful perspectives of faculty and staff members.
Where did these community values come from? Union’s cultural stew is quite a mixture. Germans and Scandinavians from the north believe in hard work and self-discipline, combined with a reluctance to boast. Other Midwesterners extend friendliness to strangers that must stretch back to their ancestors’ feelings of living in an almost empty land, bypassed by those hurrying to California for gold. Whether on the wide open prairies or in the gorges of the Rocky Mountains, men and women are valued for what they do and the kind of people they are.
It’s no wonder Wyoming was the first state to give women the vote or that the Mid-America Union Conference initiated the current efforts to ordain women as pastors. This spirit of recognizing each other for qualities, rather than position or wealth, is precious to someone who has seen the poor despised.
During the last decade, larger groups of students from other cultures and places have added spice to the stew: Californians, Texans, Floridians, certainly, but also African-Americans, Hispanics of many homelands and international students with a strong African flavor. Their presence, here in one of the most solidly white states of American, enables Union to offer itself as a preparation for living in today’s global society. We enjoy it.
It’s a commonplace belief that visitors to campus are impressed by Union students. But what they may not realize is how deep student qualities go. I see another side.
One of the most difficult responsibilities of an academic dean is to handle students’ concerns when they perceive a class went wrong. But the complaints themselves are more often thoughtful and polite than angry. When one student or a small delegation stops by my office, one of the most common remarks is concern expressed to make things better for less fortunate students on that assignment, or those to come in later years.
So what do I love about Union? It’s a community that “Experiences the Spirit” in its faith. It recognizes academic quality, but adds a rare emphasis on character, civil behavior, service, and leadership.
As I bid Union students farewell, it’s with the hope that you, as alumni and perhaps as faculty and staff, will ensure that our college will bless later generations of students with the Union experience.