At the Princeton University graduation ceremony in early June where my daughter received her doctorate, there was an unanticipated highlight. The professor who many years ago was my undergraduate thesis advisor at Amherst College received an honorary degree. His name is George Kateb. Later in the day I caught up with him. After introducing him to my daughter Ty (“Professor Kateb, meet Dr. Wilde”), I thanked him for the impact he had—and continues to have—on my life…although it has been more than four decades since my college graduation, and he and I have had almost no contact over those years.
Later that week, I spoke to North Central’s College Scholars—the 20 seniors who wrote honors theses—and their faculty advisors, on the day before our Commencement. I made reference to the recent encounter with my faculty mentor: “I told Professor Kateb that when I interview prospective faculty members, I often say, ‘If you’re as good as I think you are, we can never pay you enough. You have to love teaching and know that an important part of your compensation will be the fact that 40 years from now there will still be people out there who will remember you and be grateful for the impact you had on their lives.’ And when I say that, I think of him.”
In a room full of North Central’s highest academic achievers and their families—listening to faculty mentors talk so proudly (and lovingly) about students and their projects—I thought about how different my life might have been…if, in my senior year, Professor Kateb had not been so patient with all my idiosyncrasies; if he had not engaged my mind at a moment in my life when I was doubtful about my ability to complete a major research paper; if he had not written effusive letters on my behalf that helped bring admission to graduate school and a fellowship to pay for it.
When academically ambitious high school students ask me why they should attend North Central College—a “small school”—instead of a big university with a more recognizable “brand name,” I think about one-on-one mentoring by full professors and recommendation letters written by faculty mentors who know their students’ potential better than those young men and women know themselves. It’s the difference between a liberal arts education at a great small college like ours and everything else.
So as you celebrate the achievements of some of our most outstanding students in this issue of the North Central Now, keep in mind the faculty and staff who were with these students every step along the way. And if you find yourself reflecting upon your own similar experiences at North Central 10, 20, 30 or more years ago, why don’t you let your mentors know how those experiences continue to resonate in your life. Don’t wait 41 years!
Harold R. Wilde
North Central Now, Fall 2008