The What Matters to Me and Why Dinner series began from a Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education grant that provided funding to start programs on campus that would encourage students to think about what mattered to them and the impact the things they do have. Initially, the series ran from Fall of 2014 to Spring of 2016. While the grant money has been used up, Student Senate, the Career and Internship Center and the PathFinder Program came together to sponsor another dinner on Wednesday, November 8, in Upper Baldwin.
About 40 students, faculty, staff and community members gathered for the event. Following a three course meal, Cliff Harris, chemistry department chair, spoke about what mattered to him.
“It’s important to me that you realize your full potential and that you work to make the world better,” said Harris. “Why? Because no one else is going to do it for you and because even a little bit of progress feels good.”
For Harris, this means discovering more about the natural world, improving our society’s sustainability, studying languages and cultures, being “transformed by music” and fighting “against the scourges of the modern world – ignorance, racism, sexism, gender discrimination, nationalism and greed.”
He went on to describe one of the times in his life he used his potential to make the world a better place. With the help of his friends during his undergraduate years at California State University, Chico, Harris began the college’s first recycling program. Nowadays, this might sound like it an easy program to start, but at the time there was a lot of controversy surrounding it. Particularly, the campus beautification committee thought that installing recycling bins around campus would make the grounds look ugly.
In response, the initial group’s members got their pickups and filled each truck’s bed with the campus’s trash and dumped it all in the middle of their quad. They then held a press conference in front of the massive trash pile pointing out that while the campus looked nice, they were making the rest of the world uglier. The next year, recycling receptacles were installed.
“Instead of be overwhelmed by huge problems, it is possible to decide they must be solved. And once you decide that, it’s a matter of gathering the wisdom and the knowledge and the people to solve them,” said Harris.
This applied to his work with Walk the Beat, a local fundraising event that promotes music in the Albion community and also raises money for music and literacy in the local schools. The event featured over 50 musical acts spaced throughout Albion. He emphasized that it was not just he who helped bring the event to fruition – it took many people.
“I gathered around me people that were interested in putting it together and asked them to help me. Someone asked me at one point, ‘So how do you get all these things done in time?’” said Harris. “Well, I think of things that I would like to see and then I start to organize them, and when I don’t know what to do or need something done, I make another friend and then I ask my friends for help.”
To get to that moment, Harris had to realize his potential much earlier. As a first-generation college graduate, he commented on how getting a Ph.D. in organic chemistry is far from what was expected. His cousins had asked him why he wanted to go to college and when he remarked it was to get a better job, they told him the gas station was hiring. While some might think they were joking, for his situation that was not the case.
“I had to take my own limitations about what I could do and set them aside,” said Harris. “I am still learning that I am limiting myself.”
Following his speech, facilitators at each table led discussions about what Harris had to say. This included connecting his story to the attendees’ lives by thinking about one thing they did in the past year and how they used their potential and knowledge to make a difference.
“Learn everything you can and then use all you know to make life better,” said Harris in closing.
Photo by Katie Boni