5 Characters in Search of Character
from the ACHS 1999 Annual Meeting in San Diego, California
Glenda Earwood-Smith, Alpha Lambda Delta
When I was in the sixth grade, I told my dad that I wanted to go to West Point when I grew up. My father laughed and gave me a hug and then explained to me that girls couldnt go to West Point. When I went to Auburn University - before Title IX - female students had to have higher ACT scores than male students because women were required to live on campus.
Today many of the obvious forms of discrimination are gone. Women can go to West Point, they can play sports, they can be and are doctors, lawyers, judges and even presidential candidates! Women make up more than half of the college population and I would speculate represent more than 50% of the membership in our honor societies. Women can do anything! But despite the progress women have made in the last few decades, there are still obstacles and challenges and sometimes omission. When I saw that this panel on character was scheduled to have four men and no women address the issue, I suggested that "another voice" be represented. From my experience, I am too often reminded that sometimes women and girls are left out of the conversation. I believe that if someone doesnt challenge when that occurs, then it will still be occurring 50 years from now. I recommended that Kay Wilson be asked to join this panel - but unfortunately Kay had some health problems which prevented her from attending this conference. So Mike Wolfe graciously invited me to participate which gave me some pause. In fact, in preparing for this session, I had a dream....
Mike Wolfe, Bil Johnson and Dorothy Mitstifer were killed in a car wreck and reached the Pearly Gates of Heaven together. St. Peter came out to meet them. Mike Wolfe went up to St. Peter and said, "St. Peter, I have tried to live a good life on earth. I was the Executive Director of an honor society and I tried to help my fellow man, and I tried not to cheat on my income tax." St. Peter said, "Yes my son, I know you've tried. There's just one more test-spell God." Mike said "G - O - D." Lights flashed, bells rang, and the Pearly Gates were open.
Bil Johnson then stepped up to St. Peter and said, "I tried to live a good life on earth. I taught college students English and Ive tried to live an honest life. I went out of town a lot and Ive tried not to cheat on my wife. I loved teaching college students and tried to set a good example for them, but I know I've fallen short in many ways." St. Peter said, "Yes my son, I know you've tried. There's just one more test-spell BOOK." Bil said "B-o-o-k." Lights flashed, bells rang, and the Pearly Gates were open for him to come in.
Finally, Dorothy Mitstifer stepped up to St. Peter and said, "St. Peter, I've tried to live a good life, but it's been hard. There was a lot of discrimination on earth, no equal rights amendment, women only earned $.59 for every $1.00 men earn. But I've tried real hard not to get down because of it" St. Peter said, "Yes, sister, I know you've tried. There's just one more test-spell CZECHOSLOVAKIA."
Now that Ive displayed some of my own character, now to the topic of character - "In order to lead others, one must learn to lead oneself."
This year we have had the poorest example of leadership from our nations capital because of leaders who could not lead themselves. From our president to the Republican nominees for Speaker of the House, we have had example after example of character flaws.
In the mission statements of our honor societies, all of us promote academic excellence. Many of us also promote character with phrases like: High standards of ethical behavior, a high order of personal living, devotion to truth, to develop meaningful goals for our lives, selected on the basis of character, integrity, breadth of interest and unselfish activities most of talk about the importance of "service to others"
At the risk of being perceived as too young and too inexperienced - after all this is only my third ACHS conference - my perception is that all of us could do a better job of promoting the concept of character. We are not perceived in higher education as being spokespersons for service and character development - maybe as recognizing academic excellence - providing good students with another line on their resume - but we havent done a very good job of being proactive in the character development of our members and helping them to influence the higher education environment where they learn.
And what about the role of ACHS? I spent a week traveling around southern California last January and I was surprised that almost no one in higher education that I talked to knew what ACHS was! They knew about Golden Key and they had heard about Phi Beta Kappa, and I suspect if I had visited community colleges they would recognize Phi Theta Kappa, but they didnt know what ACHS stood for or included. Perhaps, we have spent too much time congratulating ourselves while assuming that the rest of higher education knows what we are all about. Perhaps we have become a bit presumptuous believing that if we honor them for their academic excellence, they will come! Perhaps we need to do a better job of promoting honor societies and character and academic excellence. I am pleased to see the new ACHS brochure "A Matter of Honor" because it does do a better job of telling the story.
As honor societies, we have taken comfort in our Greek letter names - that having a Greek letter name evokes prestige and a sense of tradition. The reality is that todays college student is confused by our Greek letter names and believes that we are another fraternity or sorority on campus. Most of the entering freshmen today dont know the difference between Tau Beta Pi and Tau Kappa Epsilon. Todays fraternities and sororities are not famous for building character; they are better known for having beer busts, providing alcohol to underage drinkers, and hazing first year students - not the image of positive character building which we want to represent as honor societies. Maybe we need to do a better job of distinguishing ourselves.
But what is this concept of CHARACTER. How should we define character and how could we do a better job of promoting character development?
The root of the word "character" is the Greek word for engraving. As applied to human beings, it refers to the enduring marks left by life that sets one apart as an individual.
In my role as a volunteer, I serve as the President of the Girl Scouts of Middle Georgia. Girl Scouts try to develop character: The Girl Scout law is this:
I will do my best to be
honest and fair,
friendly and helpful,
considerate and caring,
courageous and strong, and
responsible for what I say and do, and to
respect myself and others,
use resources wisely,
make the world a better place,
and be a sister to every Girl Scout.
Now that actualizes CHARACTER for me and if we could promote these timeless values to the members of our honor societies, the world would be a better place.
In December of 1996, one of my friends Meg Suton was diagnosed with lyomyosarcoma, an extremely rare, but very aggressive cancer which is usually fatal within six months of diagnosis. At the time of her diagnosis, Meg had six tumors in her liver, three on her kidneys, and 16 tumors in her lungs. Meg began a series of extensive chemotherapy treatments because Meg is a fighter. Meg is a long distance runner; in fact, when Meg was 8 months pregnant, I ran a 5K with her and I was proud to finish close to her!
In April of 1997, the doctors told Meg that they had given her all the chemo they could and that basically there was nothing else they could do. Well, Meg, being the fighter that she is, told the doctors she wasnt ready to die and that she wanted to look for medical help from the best experts in the country. Well her doctors in Salt Lake sent Meg to the nations specialists in Los Angeles. There the doctors told Meg that some part of the chemo was working and that IF they found out which chemo was working, Meg could continue that part of the therapy and if there were any reduction in the tumors, they would perform two operations. One on her kidneys and liver and if she survived that and the chemo was still working, they would operate on her lungs. Well, amazingly, Meg had both operations and survived.
Last November, Meg discovered that she had a brain tumor and underwent a third major operation. After the operation, Meg could not jump, walk, or even talk, but Meg, being the fighter that she is, underwent physical and speech therapy and learned to talk again, walk, jump and even run. She is back at work and last weekend went snow skiing.
Now my point here is that Meg is a person of character. How did she get to be that way. How can we involved in honor societies inspire our members to live lives of persistence and integrity? How can we help engrave the values which will help them overcome the obstacles they will face ahead? Maybe the answers are in our rituals - our missions statements - our criteria for membership.
Maria Leonard, the founder of Alpha Lambda Delta wrote a Motto for Intellectual Living
Streamline: Your life by simplicity
Your work by endeavor
Your play by sportsmanship
Your mind by discernment
Your character by integrity
Your heart by loving Kindness
Your soul by radiance
Emerson said - "Who you are speaks so loudly that I cant hear what youre saying."
We must be certain that as leaders, we lead ourselves in the right direction and set an example for our membership and the larger higher education community.
I think we could all do a better job of promoting character and the world would be a better place if we did.