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Friends and community members of the University of Portland — hello.
We find ourselves now in a very different world than when we began this year and this semester. By no choice of our own, we’ve been thrust headfirst into a crisis that has shaken our lives in countless ways. Our community feels scattered. The ways of teaching and learning we have become so familiar with seem unrecognizable. At a time in our lives when choice and opportunity should abound, we are hard-pressed to choose what we want for ourselves. In many ways, it seems, our lives are not ours to live; our world feels as though it’s been hijacked by uncertainty. We are only beginning to see a flicker of light at the end of this dim tunnel. While the state of our campus is currently scattered in the midst of anxiety and confusion, we’ve not yet lost that which makes UP exceptional: our profound sense of resilient hope.
Hope is the light that guides our journey at and beyond the University of Portland. It is the watchword of faith that marks our formation as Pilots. Hope is the horizon we strive to meet as we leave this campus to champion justice for a world that cries out in desperation for it.
I ask you to look back on your time on The Bluff, surrounded by caring friends and joined together in teaching and learning. Try to find one moment that captures the very best of what our school community could be. I want you to think about that light – that light of hope that binds our community on The Bluff together as one. We saw this light radiate last year in chapels and memorials for Owen Klinger. That spark of hope is there, already burning; I challenge you to fan it now and ignite your resilience in all you do during this crisis. This kindling hope that binds our community on The Bluff is the same one we carry home during this unsure time. With it, we are reminded of this indelible truth: When we lean in with our hearts full, when we act in service to others through unparalleled compassion, we not only preserve our sacred community – we expand it.
Why must we choose to hope? Why must we choose to set sail on the breaking waves of crisis before us with little more than our spirit, and each other? We choose this so that we may light the path for others, so that by inspiration, we can be beacons for a world too often darkened by injustice. Now more than ever, our steadfast resilience makes this possible; it’s a tribute to the spirit of our campus and a reminder that there is no storm we cannot weather.
With hope as our polestar, we can look forward to the horizon with as much conviction as we look back on our shared accomplishments. The challenges we’ve encountered this year have been met with even stronger successes.
For the first time, our community turned its full attention to recognize the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Thanks to the committed work of student, staff and administrative leaders, this celebration through service invited us to engage with members of the broader Portland community. It challenged us to face the racial injustices that continue to pervade the African American community in Oregon. Most importantly, it charged us to use our privileges and education to never stop fighting inequity. We can never forget that to be on the right side of history — the side of freedom and justice — we must share a tireless will to fight for change.
Thanks to the commitment of the American Medical Women’s Association, President Tori MacDonald, and Senators Kila Ung and Drew Jones, our school has taken the first of many steps toward promoting menstrual justice. Months ago, Fr. John Donato and I coordinated a plan to begin a collaborative Pilot program that provides free, accessible menstrual products on campus. Although its implementation is postponed until the fall term in the wake of the current crisis, the swift work of Ms. MacDonald, the Office of Student Affairs and the ASUP Senate ensured that the adoption of the “Pilots Matter, Period.” program will be a powerful first step to improve equity on this campus for years to come. I want to thank Tori and these senators for their dedication to creating lasting, grassroots change at UP.
We ended the fall semester with a historic increase in the annual Student Activities Fee. This was an unquestionably controversial vote, begetting a rich debate among every student. The campus-wide discussion exemplified what we should strive to cultivate around future issues. Healthy deliberation brings essential, fresh ideas to the table; it curates a semblance of real democracy, engaging new voices; it is agency in action. The landmark decision to increase the semesterly budget to nearly $450,000 will vastly reduce club and organization budget cuts. Evidenced by the recent fall budgeting process, students will be more equipped than ever before to carry out their mission and improve our shared experience. In response to the COVID-19 crisis, I asked our Senate to pass a bill that extends unused line items from this semester into fall as a one-time buffer for the student groups impacted by the pandemic. These historic financial changes will undoubtedly empower student leaders to make future activities at UP unforgettable.
As we look back on what we have accomplished together, we cannot afford to become complacent. We must remind ourselves of the agency we have to enact change on The Bluff and beyond. During this presidential election year, we must never forget that civic inaction is not just complacent, it’s complicit. In the American college tradition, we should strive to be a crucible for political discourse. No classroom or news article can cultivate this; it must evolve from platforms by and for students. Therefore, I implore all of us to engage with political clubs and activities that — in the UP custom — explore every dimension of the issues. We are in an age when politics and policy are personal and contentious, but we cannot shy away from this. We can build political empathy. We can ignite a conversation that precipitates into action. This kind of potential, however, begins here — on campus. Recent ASUP elections indicate the work we still have to do to shake this complacency. Thanks to the dedicated work by the recently-petitioned Senator and Elections Chair, Nate Thomas, our elections were successfully conducted in the heat of the COVID-19 disruption. Notwithstanding, we saw the second consecutive year of more uncontested positions than ever before in recent memory. This is unhealthy to our student government. It cripples the quality of representation and undermines the virtue of advocacy. I’m confident that our leaders next year will build upon our progress and take UP to greater heights than ever. However, we cannot sit back and lose interest; we cannot continue to divest; we cannot afford to be complacent. It’s my goal that every student at this university can find something — some policy or program or practice — that must improve and know that they are the one to improve it.
This year has demanded that we prove our resilience too many times. It’s challenged our capacity to grieve together; it’s dared us to adapt to an entirely new world that changes daily. Every trial has tested the permanence of our spirit. We’ve faced the grief of losing a student, friend, and fellow Pilot. We’ve faced violence against members of our own community. We’ve faced the disruption of our fundamental way of life: traveling home on a day’s notice, restructuring our learning routines, and sacrificing the most precious traditions of college.
We have had to prove our resilience too many times, yet we’ve braved each of these trials with resolve.
We draw strength not from each other but with each other. We mark the best moments of college with the memories spent in community together: late nights studying in the library or a dorm basement; even later nights hoping, fearing and dreaming about the future; a Mass that fills our soul just enough for the long week ahead; the weekly soccer match with new and old friends that fills the air with cheers of Pilot pride. These are the moments that come to mind that invigorate our spirit and compel us to keep going — to keep hoping.
To the class of 2020 — I share your pain. No four years could prepare us to suddenly let go of the closure we deserve to our college career. Without warning, we had to change course in our final months. What was just recently a limitless landscape of the future — the culmination of years of tireless work — soured quickly into a haze of uncertainty and anxiety. Make no mistake, however: The fog will lift. An abrupt conclusion and virtual commencement will not be the memories we fondly recall of the University of Portland. Our time here is much more than what this virus has made it. Without a doubt, we should grieve this loss, because although small in contrast to the danger of this crisis, it is our right to carry the tradition of Pilots who have come before us and those who will follow. Despite our unfair sacrifice now, I pledge to you that I will work beyond graduation to ensure that our future celebration is of the caliber and quality becoming of the class of 2020.
We will be changed by living through these challenging times. Like never before, we will prove our self-reliance. We’ll find that we have needs we never knew we had and strengths we’ve never thought to use. The current crisis and this rigorous year have contested our aspirations and dared us to dampen our resolve. We will persevere through this challenge, as we have through every other, with more clarity in our minds and hope in our hearts than ever before.
Much like the rapidly evolving world around us, we must continue to change in order to thrive. We come to the University of Portland to grow as a whole person. Our minds immerse in the fundamental questions of this world. Our hands are strengthened by service, advocacy, and the pursuit of justice. Our hearts are imbued with a mission to love — to build connection. This holistic growth cannot stop with us alone; it must permeate our institutions, our campus. Winston Churchill once said that “to improve is to change; to perfect is to change often.” We may only ever strive for perfection, but we are more than capable of improving. My administration embarked on this journey one year ago with a challenge to the entire student body: take ownership of your time at UP. In this last year, we have reimagined the role of student government on this campus. We’ve equipped ourselves not just with the tools to improve our campus policies, but with a renewed attitude to do so boldly. We have redeveloped our legislative process. Fulfilling my promise, I’ve led a student commission to contribute to the development of a new student center. We have passed legislation that addresses issues from campus sustainability to eating disorder awareness and prevention. We’ve held new and classic events with unprecedented attendance. I am proud of the character and tenacity of this student government – yet these accomplishments are a small drop in the bucket. There is much work on the horizon left to do.
I’m concluding my time in office, in the same way, I began: with a challenge. To our campus decision-makers and leaders — enlist the passions and energy of students through and beyond ASUP in the pursuit of improving The Bluff we all call home. To students — seek to build faith in the potential of student government and never stop asking for more from your leaders. We all have a role to play in continuing the success of the University of Portland and preserving the wellbeing of her community. Now, more than ever, let us muster the hope that unites us and press on through this crisis. It’s with unending gratitude that I conclude my term as your president, confident that UP’s best years are still ahead. In the midst of this unmatched crisis, we remain steadfast in our purpose. We have known the need for hope. We have felt the resilient power of hope. In this hour and each after it, my friends, we will see how we ignite the rest of the world when, together, we dare to hope.
Nick Owen is the ASUP president and can be reached at email@example.com.