“You are ready and the experiences, and adventures, and learning at this college will be unlike anything you could ever experience at any other institution of higher education on the planet” - College of the Atlantic President Darron Collins ’92, speaking at COA Convocation 2017.“You are ready and the experiences, and adventures, and learning at this college will be unlike anything you could ever experience at any other institution of higher education on the planet” - College of the Atlantic President Darron Collins ’92, speaking at COA Convocation 2017.

President Collins spoke before a full house in the Thomas S. Gates, Jr. Community Center. He was joined by COA alumna Aoife O’Brien ’05, who spoke about her COA experience, her professional path since graduation, and her career as a certified nurse midwife. The following is the text of President Collins’ speech.

So, here you are. The Thomas Gates Jr. Center, on the 38-acre Eden Street campus of College of the Atlantic; in a planning zone labeled as Educational by the town of Bar Harbor; which is one of four townships that make up the 108 square mile island we call Mt. Desert. 

A bridge, originally built in 1837, connects us to the mainland. A driver’s license may connect us to the state of Maine; a passport connects us to a nation; and our humanity connects us to the entire world. 

Think of all the journeys taken between your collective births and your collective arrivals to this country, this state, across that bridge, onto this campus, and into this room: 350 of you, from 45 countries and 41 states; 350 corporeal bundles of experience, of ideas, of passions, of knowledge.

College of the Atlantic students, staff, and faculty fills the Thomas S. Gates, Jr. Community Center for COA Convocation 2017.College of the Atlantic students, staff, and faculty fills the Thomas S. Gates, Jr. Community Center for COA Convocation 2017.

Then think of the 110 staff and faculty: similar bundles of experience, from all walks of life, and the longer journeys they’ve taken to share this room with you.

And think of this institution, apart from the people who make it up: think of the 46 year history, mission, and purpose of the College of the Atlantic.

When I imagine those three forces, those bundles of experience and this mission-driven institution converging here, on this day, and when I imagine the physical, social, and intellectual adventures that await us when we walk out those doors … it makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck.

That electricity in the air is what I felt as a prospective student visiting campus in 1987.

It’s what drives the faculty and staff and trustees and friends of this college here year after year to collaborate with you, the student body.

It’s certainly what gives me hope for the future in these uncertain times.

COA alumna Aoife O'Brien ’05 helps usher in the 2017-2018 school year with an inspiring talk about her path to becoming a certified nurse midwife.COA alumna Aoife O'Brien ’05 helps usher in the 2017-2018 school year with an inspiring talk about her path to becoming a certified nurse midwife.

And these times are uncertain. Around the planet, we find symptoms of a world out of balance. From military tensions on the Korean Peninsula, to the hatred put on display in Charlottesville, to extreme weather events in the US, India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, to an American Presidential administration that seems to thrive on chaos, it is easy to feel uncertain. Or overwhelmed. Or not effective enough. 

But I want to share with you the hope I have for our collective future. That electricity in the air I spoke of? I can still feel it right now, because I am 100% confident that you’ve chosen the best institution for these times. If you’re concerned – with ecological devastation, social injustice, inequity – if you’re concerned with these things, you’ve come to the right place.

And I’m here to tell you that addressing those issues begins right here, right now, and begins with the people surrounding you.

There’s an educational meme out there – some hard-nosed faculty member in a hard class saying, “see the person to your left, and to your right – one of the three of you won’t make it through this program, you best fend for yourself.”

Here? That person to your left and to your right? They are different; they are distinct bundles of experience with different dreams and different approaches to getting there. But in this college, they are you colleagues, they are your friends, and they are part of you thriving at this institution just as you are part of their own success.

College of the Atlantic alumna Aoife O'Brien ’05 humorously uses a couple of Barbie dolls to describe her work as a certified nurse midwife.College of the Atlantic alumna Aoife O'Brien ’05 humorously uses a couple of Barbie dolls to describe her work as a certified nurse midwife.We need not always agree. In fact, I can promise you that as we grapple with all the issues that pass through and affect this institution, we will actively and passionately disagree. But we begin any and all disagreement with respect and we begin with the notion that we are all in this together, champions of collaborative, institutional success.

I’m also hear to tell you that there is nothing soft, there’s nothing easy at all about developing this sense of radical empathy, this transcendence where you’re not just focused on your self, but focused on your self in context – thinking of that other is hard, brutally hard. Here are a few thoughts on how to develop this sense of radical empathy.

We’ve all been part of larger groups of human societies – families, clubs, athletic teams – for the next four years (or 3 or 2 or 1 depending on how close you are to graduation), spend time understanding yourself in relation to the institution we call College of the Atlantic.

But understanding in this context requires more than just thought. Part of what makes this institution different – and, honestly, better – is that you are required to help build the institution. When you graduate, one of the things, one of the skills you should leave with is an understanding of how institutions work and the ability to say “I have been part of designing and building an institution” – that should be part of your portfolio and that is one of the responsibilities of being a student here.

Some of the most important work we do this year will be the hiring of two new faculty members – in chemistry and computer science. Be a part of that process. We are also in the earliest stages of designing a new academic building and this term we will be selecting the architectural firm that will design and build that work – be a part of that process. Find one element of our governance structure and system that excites you and go deep.

“It is through this meshing, this at-times rocky blending of focus on both self and other, that we develop our true calling, and begin to lend ourselves to that noble occupation of working towards what we know is right in the world” - College of the Atlantic President Darron Collins ’92, speaking at COA Convocation 2017.“It is through this meshing, this at-times rocky blending of focus on both self and other, that we develop our true calling, and begin to lend ourselves to that noble occupation of working towards what we know is right in the world” - College of the Atlantic President Darron Collins ’92, speaking at COA Convocation 2017.

Next, understand how we as a college fit into our larger social and geographic setting. – in other words, come to know this island. It’s so, so easy to isolate yourself on our campus, but get out. There’s a trailhead into the park immediately across from the community garden; there are free buses through mid October; there are people with vehicles who will give your rides if you ask. Our island is an amazing place and an amazing community. Take one issue you come across in one of your classes and understand how that theme touches down in our community – meet one local person, understand their motivations as a human being, and be an ambassador of the college to that person.

Third, be “all in” where your work study job is concerned. In my view, the biggest threat to our world is our own gluttony, indolence, and our desire for immediate gratification. The sustainability we seek and talk about, as individuals, as a COA community, and as a world requires we buck this trend and will require hard, hard work. Understand how your ten hours a week helps this place function, how it affects the faculty and staff in a particular part of the college, and how it improves the educational experience of your fellow students. If you’re raking leaves, rake until the sweat flows down your back but rake with purpose; if your re-shelving books, do it with precision and with gratitude; if you’re in the kitchen, crack those eggs with love.

Aoife O'Brien ’05 pursued midwifery at College of the Atlantic while also learning to throw pottery, sail the Caribbean, speak Spanish, interpret dreams, develop film, and derive medicine from plants. In 2009, she began at Columbia University and went on to earn bachelor's and master's degrees in nursing and became a Certified Nurse Midwife.Aoife O'Brien ’05 pursued midwifery at College of the Atlantic while also learning to throw pottery, sail the Caribbean, speak Spanish, interpret dreams, develop film, and derive medicine from plants. In 2009, she began at Columbia University and went on to earn bachelor's and master's degrees in nursing and became a Certified Nurse Midwife.

Finally, seek out someone with an opinion radically different than your own – a student, a faculty member, a staff member, someone in the community – sit down for a cup of coffee in TAB and work through it … not via email, not via Facebook or text, but where you can see the veins bulging in their temple as you describe your position on nuclear power, your loathing of Ursula K. Le Guin’s fiction, or why you think cruise ship based tourism is a pathway to Nirvana. In these times, this kind of a suggestion is almost a platitude, but it’s a platitude because it’s easy to suggest and very, very hard to see through. Try it.

In developing this radical empathy, I’m not suggestion your coursework is secondary (it’s not – it’s primary – attack it with everything you have) nor am I suggesting you lose focus on yourself or give up your individuality or are responsible for other selves at the expense of your own. For those of you in the core course – see page 134 of Nick Sousanis’ “Unflattening.” It’s about meshing and merging your bundles of experience to create a richer, more diverse, stronger, better fabric for everyone. It is through this meshing, this at-times rocky blending of focus on both self and other, that we develop our true calling, and begin to lend ourselves to that noble occupation of working towards what we know is right in the world.

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I am so excited you are all back here on campus. We had an astounding summer here at COA. But it was incredible only because our success and achievements during the summer mean we are now better able to cultivate your capacities as students and as stewards of our planet. 

You’ve been getting ready for this experience for a long, long time – through your life and through your OOPs trip, and through your orientation here on campus.

You are ready and the experiences, and adventures, and learning at this college will be unlike anything you could ever experience at any other institution of higher education on the planet.

This is the right place for you – to grow as individuals and grow as part of a community. I’m honored to be a part of your experience here. Now let’s go do this …