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Aug. 30, 2017

Chris Long: Be resilient, like a tree

Aug. 27, 2017

Christopher P. Long is the dean of the College of Arts and Letters. This month marks the beginning of his third year as dean.

Dear College of Arts & Letters Class of 2021,

Welcome to Michigan State University!

As you embark on the adventure of discovery and growth that is a liberal arts education in the College of Arts & Letters here at Michigan State University, I invite you to consider for a moment what we might learn from a peculiar tree you will encounter on campus.

You can’t miss it — there just to the west of the stone water trough and fountain, which was a gift of the Class of 1900, between the MSU Museum and Linton Hall, the oldest academic building on campus and home of the College of Arts & Letters dean’s office. You’ll recognize it immediately, peculiar as it now is, having somehow survived a very brief but violent storm in the summer of 2016, yet still standing there, defiantly, with one branch, now full of late summer leaves, gracefully balanced off of what remains of a once formidable trunk.

This resilient tree, the #ResilientTree, embodies qualities we might all do well to emulate as we continue the educational journey that shapes our lives.

Frank Telewski, professor of plant biology and curator of the Beal Botanical Garden and Campus Arboretum, tells us the white oak is more than 347 years old. That puts it here long before the land was cleared and granted to the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan, when indigenous peoples inhabited the area on the banks of the Red Cedar River. Its now shattered trunk speaks insistently to our shared broken history rooted as it is in the subjugation of the indigenous peoples who nurtured the land that seeded its original growth. The tree requires us to remember that history, which continues to be taught in our American Indian and Indigenous Studies program.

Immediately after that July 2016 storm, the tree seemed irrecoverably lost. But where many of us saw only destruction, Professor Telewski saw life, and soon enough its damaged portion was removed, and the tree continues to grow.

This singular tree is a paragon of resilience I hope each of you will come to emulate as you experience setbacks along your educational journey. A good liberal arts education challenges you to stretch yourself beyond the limits of your known capacities, to risk new ideas and experiences that will shape you as a person. Failure and setback are inevitable dimensions of the learning process, and when you encounter them, remember the #ResilientTree.

Consider that its deep network of roots on this campus empower it to persevere, connecting it to a broader history and a brighter future as it bodies forth in ways that inspire each new generation of students to embark upon an educational endeavor that will be transformative if you are resilient.

Consider too, on this late summer day as you embark upon your adventure here at Michigan State University and begin to grow roots on this beautiful campus, how the tree seems to ask each of us something like what Mary Oliver asks at the end of her poem, The Summer Day:

     Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
     Tell me, what is it you plan to do
     with your one wild and precious life?

This is the question of a liberal arts education, and each of you must now find a way to your own answer.

The faculty and staff in the College of Arts & Letters have made it our life’s work to help you along the way; but it is your “one wild and precious life,” and a tree’s resilience will be needed as you grow into the person you will become and determine what you will contribute to the world we have inherited.

May your roots grow deep.

Welcome home.

Reprinted with permission from the College of Arts and Letters