Convocation Encourages Students to Leave a Legacy

by Brook Gardner-Durbin

Legacy and purpose were recurring themes at the 2015 Freshman Convocation on Wednesday, Aug. 26. Nearly 4,000 students and community members took their seats in the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse to listen to a collection of accomplished women dole out a handful of inspiring life lessons

“Convocation was conceived as a means to get students rooted at MSU,” said David Singel, chair of the convocation committee and associate provost. “We learn in a memorable way about the value of education and about the importance of resilience and grit in those pursing it. It is also a great opportunity for the whole community … to show their support for our new class.”

He and the rest of the committee, composed of nearly 30 members of the MSU community, have a base budget of $50,000 but can supplement that with additional funds for special events. This year’s convocation costs are still being calculated and won’t be released until the end of the month, but Singel estimated the total cost would be around $70,000. Carmen McSpadden, director of the MSU Leadership Institute, said that the speakers’ contracts came to $34,000, including travel expenses.

Singel said that the convocation committee believes convocation is worth the cost because it helps “advance critical MSU objectives of student persistence and degree completion.” Singel added, “Extensive studies … support the notion that building bonds with entering students through events like convocation increases student retention.”

“Making the decision to attend MSU is the first step to leaving your legacy,” ASMSU President Gwynn Simeniuk said in her opening speech. “Students at MSU from every background and academic discipline are changing the world around them right now. They have done this by becoming engaged and owning it — by joining clubs on campus, volunteering in the community … they are the leaders of tomorrow who have begun leaving their legacy today.”

President Cruzado spoke following Simeniuk, emphasizing that the path to success is often lined with mistakes.

“You might think that your future holds a career in engineering, only to fall in love with contemporary Chinese literature,” Cruzado told students. “Do not be afraid to experience new things, even at the risk of failing.”

“I really liked when the President was speaking,” freshman Trenton Steach said after convocation. “A lot of people don’t realize that they have a lot of potential because they come from situations where they can’t see it, but like she said: at this university, it’s your chance to write your own story.”

The themes of legacy and potential culminated with keynote speaker Rebecca Skloot, author of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” Skloot, an award-winning nonfiction writer, spent 11 years researching the novel, which details the life and strange “immortality” of Henrietta Lacks. An African-American woman, Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951. While receiving treatment, she unknowingly had part of her cervix removed. The cells from her cervix were used to create an “immortal” cell line — known as HeLa cells — which have been used to aid medical discoveries all around the world. Lacks died a short while after her cells were harvested, never knowing the contribution she unwittingly made to the world.

Skloot became obsessed with discovering the truth of Henrietta Lacks in high school, but the road to becoming a published novelist wasn’t easy. Originally attending college to become a veterinarian, Skloot didn’t realize her passion for writing until her senior year of college. Due to what she described as “tunnel vision” — an affliction which many college students are familiar with — she rarely seriously appreciated classes outside of her major. Upon realizing she had a gift for writing, a few words from a professor aided her decision to leave school.

“He said, ‘Letting go of a goal doesn’t mean you’ve failed, as long as you have a new goal in its place,’” Skloot told students. “‘That’s not giving up, it’s changing directions, which can be one of the most important things you do in your life.’”

Skloot went on to detail the tumultuous experience of writing her novel. She had difficulty forming a relationship with Lacks’ family because they had lost all trust in anyone interested in the HeLa cells. As she put it, “I was just one in a long line of white people coming to them, wanting something to do with these cells.” Skloot eventually bonded with Lacks’ daughter Deborah, who had long wanted to learn more about her mother; Skloot had the answers she was seeking.

Skloot was then joined by members of Lacks’ family — Shirley Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter-in-law, and Jeri Lacks, Shirley’s daughter and Henrietta’s granddaughter — for a Q&A.

When asked what use of Henrietta’s cells had brought the Lacks family the most pride, Shirley said, “Henrietta’s cells have helped the entire world, not just a portion of the world, but the entire world … They’ve had a global effect on medicine and research.”

The event ended with a simple question: “What do you know now that you wish you’d known at age 18?”

“Everyone has a purpose in life,” Shirley Lacks said. “Henrietta didn’t know what her purpose in life was, and we didn’t find out her purpose until she passed away. We don’t know what our purpose in life is, [but] everyone has one.”