Loving our Questions and Living into our Answers.
Remarks by Erika J. Smith, Dean of the College
August 30, 2021
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
—Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
My mom sent me this advice by the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke when I was in college; when I so badly wanted everything to be resolved instantaneously; when I couldn’t wait to know what was “right,” and I couldn’t wait to get to what was next. But as Rilke tells us, we must remember—and eventually see what an amazing gift it is—to live our questions and even, as he puts it, to live into them.
To me, this is what it means to luxuriate in a liberal arts education: to live into our life’s questions. To allow yourself to be led from one inquiry to the next, as you make discoveries not just about an academic discipline but about yourself. This happens through informal conversations with ALL members of the campus community. Never underestimate the learning that will come from everyone here who is invested in your educational journey—from the friends you’ll make on the custodial and dining teams to the staff you will encounter in every department to the outstanding professors you will have in your courses.
When I’ve talked to people I admire, people who have achieved something special in their professional lives, they usually tell me that whatever elevated place they now occupy was unplanned. They also tell me that it was the broad reach of their liberal arts education that prepared them for all they would encounter, and equipped them to make connections and leaps across disciplines, departments, majors, minors, regions, countries, cultures, jobs, and even careers. This is what is in store for you, too. The trick is that you’ll need to be open, curious, engaged—and most importantly—patient along the way.
It has taken me from the time I entered college to now to recognize this; to see the breadth and depth that my liberal arts education (defined loosely and over a span of time) gave me. I want you to know that I believe you have even more to gain as you luxuriate in all that Connecticut College—and the incredible Connections program—has to offer. I’ll share a bit about my own journey to give you a sense of what I mean, and the incredible opportunity you’ve earned in your admission to Conn. And along the way, I’ll also talk about how you can make the most of this opportunity.
So let me begin with one of the greatest regrets of my education: stopping my language-learning. Unlike Ethan Cotler, Angelica Estrella, Tia Gooden, and Deysi Nazario members of the Class of 2025, who are coming into Conn already speaking at least two languages, or Laura Martin with whom I may have been able to compete in my knowledge of French had I continued my studies, speaking another language has now become part of my long-term retirement plan. For you, the books (quote) “written in a very foreign tongue” referenced by Rilke will be accessible, and you will be well-equipped to build relationships and bridges in an increasingly interconnected world.
While many schools allow students who have taken a language in high school to simply not continue learning language as I did, at Conn we want everyone—even multilingual students—to work at a language for at least a year. Why? Because it will help you unlock some of those rooms Rilke spoke of, which means opening doors for your future. I am so glad for you that you get to do that here, and I encourage you all to take advantage!
Rilke is also known for emphasizing the merits of solitude. On what is inside each of us individually, he says we should (quote), “assume our existence as broadly as we in any way can; everything,” he goes on to say, “even the unheard-of must be possible in it.” So, beautiful imagery about what lies within you alone, but there’s more. Rilke goes on to say,“you should not let yourself be confused in your solitude by the fact that there is something in you that wants to break out of it. This very wish will help you, if you use it quietly, and deliberately and like a tool, to spread out your solitude over wide country.”
So, if in the solitude there is unheard of possibility, and the very wish of connecting with others enables you to spread that sense of possibility broadly, it seems to me that there is, here in Rilke’s wisdom, a call for community, and a simultaneous call to bring your most courageous and your most expansive self to that community.
Returning to the narrative of my long-term Connections experience, is the observation that my own predicament in halting language learning might have been avoided if I had the type of advising team that you have here at Conn. I was a Mechanical Engineering major, and my “advising team” was a single professor of Biomechanical Engineering. I met with him exactly one time. I told him I was unsure whether I wanted to stay in my major. He told me to go back to my room, decide on my own what classes I wanted to take, bring back my study card, and he would sign it. It was the antithesis of the incredibly rich and multifaceted advising experience you will have.
Professors like Michelle Dunlap, MaryAnne Borrelli, and Kathy McKeon will help you find your way; student leaders like Dora Qian (Chian), Hannah Gonzalez, and Jacob Nozaki will tell you the real deal; of course your amazing class deans, Morash, Patton, and Melendez will encourage you, support you, think together with you, and show you yourself from different angles and vantage points.
While I had to collect my own mentors and advisors over time (which to this day include my college roommates, by the way), one of the beautiful aspects of your experience here is that the work of carefully constructing such a thoughtful, caring, and invested team has already begun for you! You even get advisers like Dr. Anne Vera Cruz, Dean Noel Garrett, and Director of Writing Summar West in the Academic Resource Center, helping you build your skills or Lori Balantic, Deb Brunetti, and Dot Wang in the Hale Center thinking together with you about your post-graduate life right from the very start. By now, it probably won't shock you to learn that I didn’t see a career adviser until my senior year when I was STILL questioning my choice of majoring in mechanical engineering.
Also relating to this theme of community, and to your Connections experience is your First Year Seminar. It was not until the tail end of my formal education, that I had an experience that I would count as especially similar to yours in this regard. What seems most analogous to me were the small classes I took in my doctoral program. They were multifaceted intellectual spaces that were supportive and sometimes crossed over into the co-curricular. Here, too, I connected with friends who continue to advise me as my college roommates do, so do ensure that you connect and engage. The level of coordination and dedication I see from the student advisers, staff advisers and faculty in these spaces is an extraordinary gift from which I hope you reap every rich reward possible.
With this observation about community, Rilke seems to create a little tension between the importance of solitude and the importance of venturing out to live your questions. As we often do in the context of critical analysis in the liberal arts, I’d like to step into the space of that tension for a moment with the next highlight of my undergraduate experience--when I studied away--as I am sure many of you will.
I traveled to Spain for three weeks during an intersession between the fall and spring semesters, feeling at once alone, being the first in my family to venture out in this way; while also reaping the rich rewards of living and learning--with a small cohort from my college--into the unfamiliar. It was SO important for my development for me to have that cross-cultural experience.
During that time, I got to experience the majestic Islamic architecture of the Alhambra, the breathtaking beauty of the cathedral de Seville, the historical ruins in Toledo, and the shattering vision of Picasso’s Guernica. I also got to experience a great many new joys--the collective wisdom of siesta when the entire town became quiet, that of eating tortilla sandwiches lovingly made by my host mom, of being introduced to Flamenco (and sangria), and of having a blast at the Three Kings Day parade.
Yes, I got the opportunity to see Spain, but more importantly, I got practice in de-centering my own assumptions, norms, beliefs, and cultural experience. These are skills and sensitivities that continue to serve me to this day, and will for you, too when you find the de-centering experience that is right for you. And hats off to Kei Yasuda, Victor Alayande, An Tran and all of our incredible international students from both the classes of 2024 and 2025 that are navigating this experience so beautifully. You should seek their guidance when you, too, decide to undertake this challenge.
In Connections-speak, these ideas around de-centering your beliefs and assumptions are also an aim of the global and local experiences with which you will engage. Not surprisingly, it was only late in college and into the years beyond that I started to have that kind of experience. Over a number of years, I became involved in mentoring programs, community advocacy programs, and organizing efforts. Hearkening again back to Rilke’s imagery of locked rooms, through these efforts, I was moved by my own realization that some rooms I have found myself in, and continue to find myself in are locked to others based on socioeconomic status, age, ability, gender identity and other factors.
I embraced my responsibility to look for light through a crack; find a way in, bring in others with me, and together, not only hold those doors wide open, but also take them off the hinges. The difference for you and me is that for me, these experiences were, for a time, extracurricular--not directly connected to my academic experience as they are for you. Once I completed undergrad and started working, I was able to choose a career path that centered these values. So deep has been my passion that these types of engagements were also how I spent my time outside of work. They have all kept me engaged in the community and world in critical and meaningful ways as your Connections foundation will for you as well.
The final stops on my journey that I will share with you relate to my Pathway and my animating question.
Thinking about the intention of your ConnCourse, I can say that a true interdisciplinary experience was not part of my education until grad school when I began to combine courses in philosophy with classes in policy analysis, and classes in sociology with classes in finance and statistics. I remember early on reading Dr. Prudence L. Carter’s paper on the Attitude-Achievement Paradox among Low-Income BIPOC Students. I felt myself light up when the theories presented put words and analytical frameworks to phenomena I knew existed, had myself experienced, but didn’t yet know how to describe. At the same time, I was working in higher education because I was wholly inspired by the students I met, their will to succeed, and their capacity for greatness in the world--exactly the same capacity you have.
That moment of synergy, that turn in the road in my education from vocational to liberal arts, the development of my capacity to view and critically engage with issues from various perspectives and lenses is the reason that this engineer turned social scientist is here quoting Rilke to you today.
It was the moment that set me up for the creation of my Pathway, which, if I had to name it now, would probably be called: Education (colon): Equity, Policy, and Administration. From that point on, I spent MANY more years reading and engaging in critical conversation around issues of educational equity right through to my doctoral program when I had lived my way into crafting my own animating question. My animating question was one about college persistence for young people in foster care, and I LOVED that question as you will love your animating question.
This process of getting grounded in an area, determining a question, joining a community in which that question gets answered, re-asked, and answered again in a different way, is exactly what you will do here at Conn, and it won’t take you (cough) years of formal education to get there. I’m SO excited for you to take this journey, and will support you in every way that I can!
In closing, I’ll share one more pearl from Rilke about stepping into this time of multiplying all the strengths, skills, and talents with which you have entered, through your experience at Conn. It may not all be pretty, painless, or easy, but it will all be worth it.
From Rilke, it sounds like this, “Everything that makes more of you than you have heretofore been in your best hours, is right. Every heightening is good if it is in your whole blood, if it is not intoxication, not turbidity, but joy which one can see clear to the bottom.”
My wish for you all is for boundless joy as you live into the next stage of your journey, and make more of yourselves than you have ever been before. Thank you.
(Remarks as prepared by Erika J. Smith.)