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What I Learned at Siena

Dear Deborah,

Last week, I had the great pleasure of visiting Siena College, a liberal arts college founded by the Franciscan order near Albany, New York. I was there to receive an honorary degree, but I soon realized that I was there to learn about the remarkable culture of this close-knit community. When I asked students why they chose to attend Siena, each one immediately responded, "because of the sense of community." Faculty members echoed the same sentiment.

The more I learned about Siena, the more I understood its commitment to service, especially to those who are most vulnerable. My fellow honorees were Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health, whose research has been so important in battling AIDS, malaria, and other diseases, and Ralph Perez of CREATE, an agency that assists people in dire need of food, shelter, and medical support in West Harlem. I felt humbled and unworthy to receive the same honors as these two champions of goodness.

Stephen Archer, who gave the commencement address on behalf of his class of 2011, exhorted them to model their lives on St. Francis, "to find and embrace the 'leper in our daily lives.'" He said, "I'm not just talking about working in soup kitchens and volunteering in shelters. While those are tremendous services, they are the obvious ones. We need to see beyond those, see opportunities where others don't and can't because they haven't grown in the Siena culture."

He spoke of teaching others to "care about more than just a positive bottom line ... not seeking the work that brings about the most money, but the work that brings about the most good." He spoke about simple acts of everyday kindness, about reaching out to those who were excluded. He talked about future teachers who would show their students that "school is as much about building a positive community and caring for one's peers as it is about formulas and research papers."

Father Kevin Mullen, the president of the college, who is a Franciscan priest, spoke eloquently about the college's belief that learning must deepen our caring for others.

I was indeed moved by my exposure to Siena. And when I came home, I reflected on a blog I wrote recently about my visit to Rhode Island. In that blog, I wrote harsh words about state Commissioner Deborah Gist. On reflection, I concluded that I had written in anger and that I was unkind. For that, I am deeply sorry.

Like every other human being, I have my frailties; I am far from perfect. I despair of the spirit of meanness that now permeates so much of our public discourse. One sees it on television, hears it on radio talk shows, reads it in comments on blogs, where some attack in personal terms using the cover of anonymity or even their own name, taking some sort of perverse pleasure in maligning or ridiculing others.

I don't want to be part of that spirit. Those of us who truly care about children and the future of our society should find ways to share our ideas, to discuss our differences amicably, and to model the behavior that we want the young to emulate. I want to advance the ideals and values that are so central to the Siena community: compassion, responsibility, integrity, empathy, and standing up against injustice. When Father Mullen presented me with my degree, he said that I am "now and forevermore a daughter of Siena." Although I am Jewish, not Catholic, I will strive to live up to that charge.

Diane

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