Marshalltown Community College
Commencement Address, May 2002

Warning:  Linda used Power Equipment in her commencement; thought to be a first at MCC

When I was 19 and in college I nearly failed physics. I didn’t see the beauty in it. What I saw was formulas with no context, no valid reason (in my mind) for being formulas. They had no relationship to the real world, at least not my real world. I was naïve. I have since changed my mind about physics, especially the physics of light.

I’m a biologist. That’s why I was loathing but required to take physics. Looking back, I regret not fully taking in all I could have learned. I wish had come to know light, energy, color, and heat, from that perspective. I wish I would have listened with my whole self, to feel what was being presented to me. To let the physics, what was in me, my surroundings become familiar to my conscious self.

What I did learn later about light was fascinating. The primary colors of light are red, blue, and green. Mixing pigment and mixing light generate very different results.  Red and green paint, for example, make brown paint, but red and green light make yellow light. When beams of light are mixed, an additive process occurs. The more we mix the different color beams, the closer they get to being white light. Light can be separated into colors, like sunlight through a rainbow. The colors are all still there and can be separated again, but together they are more than each is alone. I’ll prove it to you. Newton’s color wheel and the drill my father in law gave me for a bridal shower gift. Graduates get to see it first because it’s their day.

The students here at Marshalltown Community College are like the rainbow. This college serves a diverse community, not just one of different colors and cultures but of different experiences, some tragic, some triumphant and most just unfolding. I believe that it is this diversity that makes our jobs as faculty and staff both difficult and rewarding. 

It’s been a hard year here at MCC. What happened in New York rocked our sense of security and made us question our place in the world, for some it concerned us to learn how others perceive us. At MCC we had our share of personal challenges too. In October two of our faculty, Tom and PJ Colbert learned that their son had lung cancer. The three of them have been fighting it ever since. John Kwarkauf lost his father, Louise Meakins has had to deal with the loss of two dear friends to cancer, heart surgery for her husband and brain surgery for his son all at the same time. She would travel between floors of the hospital to visit each. This is what she did for spring break. I can’t imagine the stress. And yet here she is, smiling still. This was just what some of our faculty have endured. I so impressed with these people the courage it must have took sometimes just to get up, get to class and find the energy to teach, to still care that the students learned, that their students had something to take with them for the experience. 

When I came to MCC five years ago I had no idea what I was getting into. I believed that my job was to teach biology, just teach. Instead I have found myself listening to stories of incredible courage and terrible tragedy, sometimes from the same student. I have watched young men and women struggle with their life’s goal, seemingly aimless not knowing who they wanted to be. What a hard place to be, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. I have been privileged to witness those same students find their passions, to determine what it is they want their life work to be and then do it.

I have seen women who have freed themselves from hurtful relationships, suffered poverty, struggle to raise children and succeed, here. I can’t image doing what they do, alone. And yet they waltz into my office, smile and say “well, here I am all I have left is to get through your class Dr. Barnes? It’s my last one, by the way I hate science!” At least they’re honest. 

Some of our students are the first in their families to graduate from college. This too takes courage. There is no role model, no example of how to succeed. And yet here you are, graduating.

I have seen men come through our doors because life has dealt them a physical blow. One of our students was in a plane wreck. He lost his father and a year of his life in recovery. He tells me he’d never be here if not for that accident. He wouldn’t have had the courage to quit his job and start school. He also said he couldn’t have handled a large university, that this was the right place for him. He’ll finish next December, ready now for the large university. He wants to teach high school math. He’ll be good. I would be thrilled to hear that he was my child’s math teacher. 

Another student was struck with a debilitating physical handicap, a disease of the nerves much like multiple sclerosis. He would come to my class walking with a cane, sometimes in a wheelchair, and on bad days, not at all. But he made it, if it weren’t for the disease, he’d never have come here. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody, but I’m glad he’s here. And he’s graduating. 

There are many stories here and much courage, much light. I am proud to count the faculty among my friends and privileged to have heard and played a small part in your stories. The tragedies aren’t over, there will be more questioning, more difficult days, but you have found the courage to come this far and no one can take your degree away from you. Congratulations, bask in this light today.