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ISSUE 117 VOL 7 PUBLISHED 11/7/2003

Reading, writing and lessons on life

By Katie Marshall
Contributing Writer
and Brenna Greenfield
Staff Writer

Friday, November 7, 2003

For the most part, life at St. Olaf whirs merrily along for students: the days pass, the leaves fall, the seasons change and life on the Hill remains essentially the same.

But there are times when a student is forced to look ahead and contemplate what the future may hold for him or her. Registration is one such time, for it brings with it the necessity of deciding on classes and trying to lay out a path that may someday lead to future contentment and success.

Most students realize that it is possible to go and live a fulfilling life after St. Olaf, but the thought of,“what will I become, and how do I know what to do?” can be daunting at times.

How does a person follow their muse, and still make a large enough salary to put food on the table? Four St. Olaf professors, who seem to have found a balance between monetary success and intellectual satisfacion, offered to share their collective wisdom for those among us who don’t yet have it all sorted out. Our professional panel: Joseph Mbele, associate English professor Peter Hamlin, associate music theory and composition professor Margaret Odell, associate religion professor Robert Nichols, history professor

On life and living: Q: Did you have an inkling of what you wanted to do with your life when you were younger? Mbele: I just think God arranges where your life will go. Wherever I am, I try to do my best. I wanted to be a teacher even before I went to school. I never thought of anything else. Odell: I didn't have a life plan. I think I ended up at college, teaching, because there was a combination of needing to do something that was familiar, that my family could understand,and needing to do something a little radical. Nichols: My first year at college, I was going to be an engineer because of Sputnik, and close the missile gap. All the engineering classes were closed when I registered, so I had to take this Western Civ class, but it proved to be really interesting. My first lecturer in history gave a talk on what you can learn from a single Egyptian coin. I was really impressed that there was an adult who could make his living thinking about things like that.

Q: What things in your life bring you the greatest fulfillment? Mbele: Doing research! I do research in folklore; every day, I think about doing research in folklore. Oh, it is a great joy. I go to Tanzania every summer to record stories. This is really my greatest passion, and I share it with students. Going to a place to record a narrative and knowing nobody else has recorded it; that brings a lot of joy. Hamlin: I enjoy everything about life. I actually do get up in the morning; I used to be more of a late sleeper. In the summer I revert to childhood because I don’t have a regular schedule, so I’m like a little kid. The sun is coming up and you hear the birds, and you just can’t wait to get out go out and play. Nichols: In the summer, we have a little summer place out near Seattle. I organize a little thing for my grandkids and grandnieces called the “Otter Club.” We try to go swimming every day, and every day they go swimming they get a sticker and we have a board to put them on. They get really fired up to do that; it's amazing the power of stickers with little kids. Odell: The Old Testament and its connections to the Ancient Near East, and the connections to artistic representations of God. It’s exciting to see ancient people trying to represent something, and also exciting to see how we as scholars and archaeologists discover things like this. That's what keeps me going as a scholar.

Q: What piece of literature or music has played a large role in your life? Mbele: “Oliver Twist” (Charles Dickens). Every Tanzanian school child likes “Oliver Twist.” Hamlin: “Aftertones of Infinity” (Joseph Schwantner). That piece got me to start thinking about getting into teaching and composing as a full-time thing. Nichols: “Ithaca” (Cavafy). Odell: The Bible. Different passages speak to me at different times. Once it was the story of the paralytic by the water in John. Jesus comes to him and he's lying by the door and he can't get in and he's been waiting there for a year. Jesus comes to him and says, "Do you want to be well?" There have been times when that has been the most important sentence in my life.

Q: How would you describe your worldview? Odell: I think that God is in the world working to make us whole. I think our responsibility is to participate in the world. Nichols: By the time you get down to the end of your life, it's really more important where you've put your boat in at different places, the kinds of experiences you've had rather than always being focused on some kind of career goal.

Q: What makes you such a happy person? Mbele: As a teacher, I'm really happy. I'm not going to be rich, but you know the joy of helping students grow intellectually, the joy of sharing with them what I think I know and just trying to inspire them. When you see them five years later, 10 years later, to know that you had a part in shaping them, there's a lot of joy in that; there's not money in it – it's more than money. These things make me really happy. Hamlin: One of the reasons profs are always so happy is that we really love our fields and in a way, our work is kind of a hobby. If I’m going to prepare a counterpoint class, I’ll go home and look at the pieces and play through it on the piano; it’s really fun for me.

Q: As you get older, have you ever found yourself yearning for the past or wishing you were still “back in the day?” Hamlin: When you get to each age point, more interesting things happen; I always felt like when I was four, that moment was the best, and then I was six, and that moment was the best. As long as I’m healthy, I’ll feel that way. I don’t have any feeling of “gee, it’s too bad I’m 52, I wish I was 16 again;” I like being 52. Odell: I'm happier now than I've ever been. Things have just really settled into place for me over the last few years. You come to accept who you are. You come to accept the contributions you can make and your limitations. You learn how to learn from mistakes and go on. All of those things have really come to me in the last 10 years since I’ve been at St. Olaf.

Advice for students: Q: Should students be worried if they are unsure about their future? Mbele: For students who are not sure, I want them to feel it’s OK not to worry. At some point, they will know. I tell them you choose classes you like, follow your inclination, and the same with jobs; it’s terrible if you have to choose a job because it pays well. You lead a miserable life making money, but you're miserable.

Q: How should a person choose a career? Hamlin: It’s bad when somebody says, “I think I’ll be an accountant just to make the money; I don’t really like it but I think I’ll just do that because I can find a job.” You have to understand that successful accountants really love accounting, they have this tremendous creative relationship to the field, they use their knowledge to make really interesting observations, they love it. And you don’t want to compete with somebody if you’re just doing it for a job. You won’t do well because the other people will be staying up all night because they’re so excited about it.

Q: Any thoughts on selecting courses? Hamlin: If you had asked me in college what my motivations were for taking certain courses, it would have been, “oh, this would be fun; I like this teacher.” I met my wife, actually, because we both had a common friend who said this one geography class was unbelievable: geography was completely out of the field for me. Odell: The best advice I ever heard is that each term is another shot at trying to find something that you like. So the best thing for students to do is to take the course offerings really seriously, as 12–week opportunities to get to see about something they don't know about, and find out if they would like it. If they find something that they like, take another course in that field. Find another place to do it.

Q: What should students at St. Olaf be focusing on right now? Nichols: What they're interested in: it's always good to shop around and find out what that is. I don't think it's a good idea for students to pursue a course of study that their parents want. You shouldn't disregard your parents, but you also have to find what you want yourself. Odell: Get involved in things they can really be passionate about. This is the only way they're going to find what they really like to do. If they're passionate, they'll invest all of their energy in doing something. If they're doing a political science major just because they think this will get them into law school they’ll probably be a mediocre political science major, possibly also a mediocre law student. The real clue is to find something you really love. Nichols: I guess I just feel like undergrad education is part of the journey. The going is more important than the getting there, so you should enjoy it. Students often don't enjoy it enough. Now of course, they are worried about their grades. After all, if you do want to go on, you shouldn't disregard grades. It seems to me it's worthwhile to think about what you're studying in relation to what resonates with you personally.

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