From the desk of President Leslie K. Guice

Dr. Pauline Leonard: Transitions Along Life’s Open Road

Aug 21, 2014 | Reflection

Summer Commencement 1

Summer 2014 Commencement

Summer commencement was held today in the Thomas Assembly Center where 290 graduates were awarded their diplomas and became the newest group of proud Louisiana Tech alumni. We were honored to have Dr. Pauline Leonard, Professor and Chair of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, as the guest speaker. Dr. Leonard and her husband, Dean Lawrence Leonard, were celebrating their 33rd wedding anniversary today and preparing for their retirement at the end of the Summer Quarter. They have both been tremendous leaders for the university.   Here are Dr. Leonard’s inspirational remarks:
Leonard, Dr Pauline

Dr. Pauline Leonard

Thank you, Dr. Guice. It is an honor to be chosen to speak at this important event. First of all, I’d like to recognize our special guests, our vice presidents, and all of the academic deans. Congratulations to each and every one of you graduating today for what you have accomplished. This is a momentous day of transition for you. As we all know, life is a series of transitions, some anticipated, some not, some positive, some not. It’s quite likely that you would characterize your graduation today as an anticipated, positive life event. It’s one that you have planned for and worked hard to achieve. It’s a time for you to be proud of yourself, for your family to be proud of you; it’s a savor-the-moment event. It’s also a time to reflect on what you have achieved in your life thus far and upon how you will transition into the next stage of your life. What will be that next stage? Many of you will be moving into your chosen career paths. Some of you may elect to pursue graduate studies. Then there are those of you who may take a “gap year” to do volunteer work, experience a different culture, or perhaps even learn a new language or some other skillset. Whatever the case may be, this is a time of transition for you and transitional experiences—both positive and negative, both anticipated and unanticipated—are typically characterized by a mix of emotions, emotions that can range from excitement to apprehension, from a sense of fulfillment and in some cases, perhaps even disappointment.  Whatever the nature of the experiences and whatever the emotions associated with these pivotal life events, they are glorious opportunities to learn and to grow. Much has been written about the stages of human development and life’s transitions. Since you are Tech graduates, I know that you have read and learned about many of the theories and concepts related to this topic. So, I am not going to talk about transitions from an esoteric or academic sense. I would like to humbly share a few transitional experiences in my own life and career—again some positive, some negative, some anticipated and some that have caught me completely off guard. When I reflect on these life events, I realize the tremendous value of each and every experience—even, and perhaps especially, the negative, unanticipated ones. Coincidentally, today I am reminded of one very important transition—since it is my wedding anniversary. Thirty-three years ago today my husband, Laurie—whom many of you know as Dr. Lawrence Leonard, Dean of the College of Education–and I were married. Now we know that marriage itself can be a huge change in one’s life. But just a few days after we married, we left our home and family in Newfoundland, Canada, for teaching positions in a remote community on the coast of Labrador, which turned out to be an even more challenging life and career transition, even though it was planned and anticipated.  The tiny village of Paradise River in 1981 was an extremely isolated community—only accessible by air in winter and by sea in summer. It was, of course, before the days of high-tech social media access, smart phones, and instant text messaging. In fact, there was just one phone in this community of 115 people—well 117 when Laurie and I moved in! That phone station, with its one phone in a small one-room cabin, was where many of the locals hung out during the day to catch up on the news from the outside world. So, somewhat like Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram today, there was little privacy in our communication with family and friends back home. There were other challenges for us living in Paradise River, one being the fact that there were no stores—of any kind. In fact, we had to purchase a 9-month supply of food and have it shipped in prior to the start of our school year. Do you know how much planning goes into grocery shopping for nine months? We did very well considering we were novices. However, I can tell you now with confidence that 150 lbs. of onions are about 50 lbs. more than needed for two people over nine months. Laurie and I taught in a two-room school. Laurie was known in the community as the principal and I was known as the principal’s wife. Being called the “principal’s wife” seemed a little demeaning to me, since I felt I was a teacher in my own right and would have preferred that as my professional reference. Moreover, I didn’t think I had much in common with the other “wives” in this isolated community on the desolate coast of Labrador. Well I was wrong. I soon became friends with one of the “wives” in this remote village, whom I had come to know as an intelligent and independent woman of Labrador. One of the most poignant memories of my time in Paradise River is of a beautiful, sunny, cold winter day when my Labrador friend and I, along with several other “wives” of the community rode our snowmobiles across the frozen bay from Paradise River to the closest town of Cartwright, 21 miles away. We shopped at the Hudson Bay Store, visited with people, and returned home the same day. It was an exhilarating day. In fact, I remember it as one of the top “all-girl” road trips of my life—and not only because I got to go shopping after months of absence from stores! I felt strong, smart, and resourceful as I travelled with these Labrador women who were able to navigate the potentially treacherous harsh Labrador climate, its landscape, and its icescape, so expertly and seemingly so effortlessly. And I learned an invaluable lesson about the importance of networking and making connections with people of the community in which I worked. Indeed, as Lucy Maud Montgomery’s delightful Anne of Green Gables character said, “Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think [and it’s]. . . splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.” Yes, it was a challenging year in many ways, learning the culture of this remote, isolated community, trying to be sensitive to, understand, and respect the values and behaviors of its people without compromising our own, as we fulfilled our responsibilities as the only two teachers in the school.  The insights I gained through that cultural transitional experience have informed much of how I have responded to similar situations throughout my life—whether it’s been a move to a new community, or to a new organizational work place, or even to a new country. I understand that despite differing cultural values, beliefs, and behaviors, oftentimes, if we approach relationship-building with a sense of dignity and respect for others and for ourselves, then that will be a huge step towards building shared understandings and community. Ultimately, Laurie and I not only survived that first year of our marriage and teaching career while living in Paradise River, we discovered some important things we did not know about ourselves, as well as about each other. And I believe that is the mark of what transitional experiences can do for us, at least if we reflect upon them deeply—that is, they can increase our self-awareness by helping us discover who we are and what we believe. And if we really look at the reflection we see in that mirror, we can also begin to assess whether the beliefs we espouse are in line with how we behave. Robert Starratt, a leading thinker on the topic of ethics and leadership, describes this as the “authenticity audit”, which is an essential process in the journey of leading an authentic life and career. Parker Palmer, who writes about teachers and teaching, but whose words can apply more broadly to professionals in all settings, underscores the importance of knowing our inner selves, stating that “the more familiar we are with our inner terrain, the more surefooted …our living becomes” and that our inner and outer realities should “flow seamlessly into each other” (p. 5). In other words, we need to be firmly rooted in a true sense of self — the inner journey — in order to do meaningful work — the outer journey. It has been said that it’s the unanticipated transitions, even the negative ones, that can provide the greatest opportunity for change and growth. You have great minds—after all, you are Tech graduates—and I wish you continued intellectual growth; however, I have become fervent in the belief that we must holistically tend to all aspects of our humanness—mind, body, spirit—not just in our personal lives but in our professional lives as well.  I think I have always believed that on an intellectual level; however, I internalized this belief and have tried to live it in a very intentional way only in recent years.  This brings me to two related transition events—one anticipated and the other not. Two years ago, as I was approaching my 60th birthday, I felt I wanted to mark this important event, this transition from the sixth decade of my life to the start of the seventh. I was in the process of setting six personal and professional goals when I was hit with a health challenge, an unanticipated event prior to my 60th birthday. Early in 2012, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  Of course, the news was a shock. I underwent treatment and experienced the range of emotions that most people diagnosed with serious health challenges of any kind would experience, I’m sure. And not unlike most people who face such challenges, I went on with my life, with the support of my husband, my family in Canada, as well as my Tech family here. While I resumed pursuing my six goals, I also gained a renewed appreciation of the interconnectedness of all dimensions of our humanness and of the importance of balance for maximizing holistic health and productivity in our careers. So what could be perceived be as a negative unanticipated life event has really helped me to be a stronger, healthier, and, I would like to think, wiser person in some ways. Recently I read a blog post written by a young woman with Stage 4 colon cancer. The post was entitled, “I Love Cancer”.  Her post reflected a positive spirit and served as a reminder to me of how ordinary people often demonstrate extraordinary courage and strength in the face of the unknown. We continually see evidence of this, at home and abroad, of people who, for example, in the face of natural or human-induced disasters, are able to summon the courage to move forward. Maya Angelou, the well-known wise American poet and author, once said that “courage is essential for practicing all other virtues”. And Robert Greenleaf, another wise and influential author wrote that “strength manifests itself in different persons in different ways”.  So while I can’t really say that I shared the same courage and the same strength of the young woman who wrote about loving cancer, I can say that I have tried to incorporate what I have learned from my experience into my life and into my work as a professor and chair of the Department of Curriculum, Instruction, and Leadership. And while I don’t fully subscribe to the notion that everything happens for a reason in the sense that that reason will mysteriously unfold and reveal itself to you, I do believe we can ascribe reason to our experiences. In other words, we are the authors of that reason by how we respond to experiences, be they negative or positive.  I think that is what Viktor Frankl, the renown psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, meant when he said that life is a search for meaning. Life and career are purposeful when we look for and discover the reason and meaning in our experiences and in what we do. However, there will be times that this process will require us to tap into our inner strengths and summon the courage to embrace the search. Transitions, even anticipated positive ones, can be bittersweet. Laurie and I are retiring from our academic careers and our positions at Louisiana Tech. Since our first year together in Paradise River, we have experienced many meaningful transitions through the professional choices we have made over the years.  During our 16 years at Tech, we have been entrusted with responsibilities and opportunities that have challenged us to find our respective strengths and to cultivate deeply meaningful relationships with our students and colleagues.  We sincerely appreciate the many empowering opportunities we have had to be contributing members of the Tech family. However, now we are ready for the next stage of our lives, which we are calling “Act IV”. We intend to become full-time RVers at the end of this month. We are excited about travelling the “open road” throughout the United States and Canada in our motorhome. We see this transition, not so much as “retirement” but as another opportunity for discovery, a chance to pursue our respective passions, and to continue learning and growing, holistically of course, and perhaps to explore and uncover other meaningful ways to contribute to this global community in which we live.
2014 Summer Commencement

Dr. Leonard giving Commencement Address

That is what I hope for you as you transition into your next stage—discovery, renewal, and growth. Yes, transitions such as graduation and retirement, while planned and typically positive experiences may also be bittersweet. For those of us who are moving on and leaving our Tech family, at least in a physical sense, we probably share feelings of excitement, anticipation, and optimism to travel that “open road”. However, your hearts, like ours, are undoubtedly filled with gratitude for having had the privilege of being a member of the Tech family. Once again, I congratulate each and every one of you for your achievements. As you move forward in life and career, I encourage you to keep your hearts open to making connections with kindred spirits, to conduct the occasional authenticity audit, to uncover your inner strengths as you unravel the meaning of your anticipated and unanticipated experiences, and to courageously lead meaningful and holistic personal and professional lives as you transition along life’s “open road”.