Barak, Goodall, Grosvenor, Bush ...
Speakers spark debate,
critical thinking at Elon


By Jennifer Guarino

Amanda Strandquist has always considered Jane Goodall one of her heroes. When the renowned primatologist spoke on campus last spring, Strandquist could barely contain her excitement. She was so moved by meeting Goodall that she spent last fall in Africa studying the environment. "Jane Goodall began her work in Gombe (Africa) at a young age, with very little science background, yet she made some of the most amazing observations about primates," says Strandquist, a junior and an environmental studies major. "(Her speech) was probably the most inspiring I have ever heard because it focused not on scientific goals, but on following our dreams."

After hearing Goodall deliver the Convocation for Honors address, Strandquist says she was more determined than ever to pursue a career in environmental education.

Sparking that kind of connection is exactly what Elon administrators have in mind each year when they bring some of the world's most prominent leaders and scholars to speak on campus. Yet it's more than exposure to leading scientists and former presidents and prime ministers that makes these visits so special; it's the common intellectual discussion that occurs in classrooms and throughout campus as a result.

Steve Braye, associate professor of English, says these events help bring the campus community together to debate important issues of the day. One of those issues is race, which was the subject of the March 13 address by Cornel West, a Princeton University professor who discussed his best-selling book,"Race Matters."

"It's a centering that we don't always get," Braye says. "Someone like Cornel West gets us focused on issues that we weren't thinking about. The issues can give us a common dialogue."

In 14 years as Elon's director of cultural programs, George Troxler has arranged the visits of some of the biggest names in art, science, literature and politics. During the past two years alone that A-list has included Benazir Bhutto, former prime minister of Pakistan; Ehud Barak, former prime minister of Israel; Lech Walesa, former president of Poland; Queen Noor of Jordan; and former President George H.W. Bush.

"Exposure to world leaders is an important part of a liberal arts education," says Troxler. "Someone like Jane Goodall challenges us to be of service, to be involved. And a challenge from Jane Goodall to do something is really special."

Each year Elon selects speakers who can offer new perspectives on timely issues and provoke discussion. For example, in January 2002, Barak spoke during some of the fiercest fighting between Palestinians and Israelis. At the 2002 fall Convocation, Bhutto made a plea for democracy around the world on the eve of controversial elections in her homeland.

"What are the burning issues that we are facing as a nation that we would like to have addressed on our campus?" Troxler says. "After September 11, we are interested in a perspective that we were not before."

Eight days after 9/11, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian David McCullough spoke at Elon of America's resiliency and ability to endure hardship. Several weeks later, Walesa reflected on the terrorist attacks in his address at fall Convocation.

The topics speakers discuss often become fodder for lively classroom discussions. Associate Provost Nancy Midgette can't recall a speaker who has not generated that kind of engagement. "Students have an opportunity to see and hear from someone who has something to say of relevance to one or more classes they are taking," she says. "Our faculty are very adept at shaping assignments and discussion around the issues that speakers bring."

Much of this activity occurs in The Global Experience course, which is part of Elon's liberal arts curriculum called General Studies. When Bhutto visited campus, Braye accompanied his Global Experience class to an informal question-and-answer session with the former prime minister. The students had researched the political struggles in Pakistan and were prepared to ask insightful questions. Having a front-row seat to high-caliber speakers is a moving experience for students.

"It's difficult to explain, but students act differently after they've seen and heard these people," says Braye, who directs the General Studies program. Like Bhutto, many speakers hold question-and-answer sessions before their major address.

"It's one thing to sit in an audience of 500 people and listen to a speaker," Midgette says. "It's quite another to be in a group of 30 people and actually have your own specific question answered."

Senior Samiha Khanna lived in India for a year and has followed Bhutto's political career. She was particularly touched by Bhutto's message and the fact that she was the first female leader of a Muslim country. "There is such conflict between India and Pakistan and being able to see her on neutral ground allowed me to see her for who she is, a courageous woman," Khanna says. "She shows such strength and to catch a glimpse of her extraordinary life is something I'll never forget."

Khanna says she can envision telling her grandchildren about seeing Bhutto and Goodall at Elon. "Hearing about an issue we need to be aware of from a person who works for that cause is so much more powerful than reading about it in a book," she says. "Those lessons will stay with you a lot longer."

For students, the message they have received from these leaders is clear. "It doesn't matter where you start or how unconventional your ideas are," says Khanna, "you can make a difference if you believe in your cause."

(Reporter Jennifer Guarino is a May 2003 graduate of Elon.)



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Last Modified:  7/21/03
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