Trinity graduate Marguerite Kirst Colston ’89, vice president for constituent relations for the Autism Society of America, gave the following keynote address to the new Phi Beta Kappa initiates and their guests at the induction ceremony on May 7, 2009. Colston, who was inducted into Trinity’s chapter in her junior year, majored in economics and Latin American studies.
Because the Universe is Random: How Liberal Arts, Faith, and Phi Beta Kappa Can Guide Your Journey Through Life
Marguerite Kirst Colston ’89, Phi Beta Kappa ’88
May 7, 2009
Good Afternoon. First off, I would like to offer my personal congratulations to all of the new members of Phi Beta Kappa. Your election to this honor society reflects your scholarly achievement, broad intellectual interests, and good character. I’m sure I speak for the Trinity community, your families, friends and all Phi Beta Kappans when I say that we are very proud of you and all of your accomplishments.
I was honored when Dr. Farnsworth asked me to deliver this short address to you all, because being Phi Beta Kappa has truly been one of the highest honors I carry with me through life. She asked me to talk to you today about how my liberal arts education helped me through my varied 20-year career, and so I’ve come up with a not-so-scholarly title for this talk of “Because the Universe is Random: How Liberal Arts, Faith and Phi Beta Kappa Can Guide Your Journey Through Life.” Now, I’m mindful that this title sounds very much like “Oprah” to a group that is used to Socrates and Sartre, but if you’ll indulge me, I hope to share the tremendous tools this society, and this University, gave me to prepare me for my life journey.
First, let me tell you the importance of what you are being honored with today. Phi Beta Kappa is a REALLY big deal out there in the world; honestly, it is. All former (and the current) living US presidents were Phi Beta Kappa, Nobel prize winners, top scholars. And people actually know this. When you put it on your resume – and that is a must – it is continually striking to me how almost everyone looks at you differently and listens to you more intently. It is always mentioned in obituaries, and as I get older, the significance of that grows. I found out its meaning through the most important way: my mom. I am the oldest of 6 children in an Irish Catholic family and possibly the last generation of Americans whose parents never looked at my homework. While my parents were very proud and supportive of me, and my dad was my biggest cheerleader, my mom had 6 kids and bringing home straight As was pretty much expected but rarely applauded. No cheers, no special treats, just expectations. As I recall, I must have been elected to Phi Beta Kappa in my junior year because I had just arrived home in Houston, TX, after my study abroad year when Dr. Farnsworth sent me a letter (no emails then) to inform me that I had been elected. I don’t think I even knew what it was, so I went up to my mom and said, “Hey Mom, I just got elected to Phi Beta Kappa. Is that good?” To my absolute amazement, my mom actually jumped up and down and screamed “Oh my God, oh my God, you are Phi Beta Kappa!” about 5 times, hugged me and then said, “I stood over your crib as a baby every night and told you that you would be Phi Beta Kappa some day, and you are!” and ran out of the room to call the family, leaving me stupefied, a little scared, and in total awe that this must be SOME HONOR! And it has certainly turned out to be. The other message I got is that actually, infancy is apparently the best time to get messages across to your kids, a technique I’ve employed with my own, and yes, I whispered to my daughter that I hoped she’d be Phi Beta Kappa too.
So, how has it served me? Well, in Greek, Phi Beta Kappa means “Love of learning is the guide of life.” According to the website, the ideal Phi Beta Kappan has demonstrated intellectual integrity, tolerance for other views, and a broad range of academic interests – also the traits of a liberal arts education. I left Trinity in 1989 with a pretty clear idea of pursuing a career in international finance and development, interspersed with masters and a possible PhD in economics and ultimately a turn at the Federal Reserve or the International Monetary Fund. Any of the professors here can tell you, I was pretty clear. And I started out that way, working with international banks and stock exchanges, getting my degree from SAIS, and traveling the world. All of the tools of my liberal arts education served me well, and actually allowed me to compete directly in business and grad school with the best of them – I could think, I could analyze quickly, I could find the right sources, and above all, I could write clearly and comprehensively.
And then, nine years ago this week, my son Camden was born. I had a gorgeous daughter already, so my message has nothing to do with having kids as a random event. It is actually the best event to ever happen to me. But Camden was born with a myriad of mysterious symptoms, was in intensive care for weeks, in and out of hospitals, diagnoses, service navigation and the like. Every month for three years, I learned of a new condition he might have and nothing made sense. Then, when Camden was 10 months old, my husband left us. Six months later, my mom, who had moved to this area to help me, nearly died of a strange bacterial infection and was hospitalized for six months with four major operations and recovery. I had left my job a month after Camden was born, and a year later, I was a single mom, with sick dependents, and no job.
Clearly, this was not in my plans leaving Trinity. In reading extensively during those days to find meaning in these events – because that’s what people tell you: there’s meaning in this sadness, it builds character, God picked you for a reason, etc, etc – I read St. Augustine, Thomas Merton, the Dalai Lama, everything. But in a small book entitled “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” by Rabbi Harold Kushner, I read that in Judeo-Christian tradition that I come from, the universe is considered random. God doesn’t deliberately manufacture pain or evil, it happens… and it happens as part of the human experience. But what God gives us is the grace to handle the sorrow, the pain, and the randomness. And grace is what we do with who we are, how we believe, and what talents we have compiled.
So, what did I have? As it turns out, a lot. I had faith, and I had my family and I had a liberal arts background that enabled me to chart another path. If I had been exclusively finance or business, my options to find a job in a matter of weeks would have been challenging. My life circumstances weren’t set up for international jet-setting and bank restructuring in Panama anymore. But I could think, I could analyze quickly, I had tolerance for others and their ideas, I could write and I loved learning. And, I had Phi Beta Kappa on my resume.
A day after my husband left, I opened the Washington Post, and saw an ad for deputy director of communications for the International Foundation for Election Systems. Now, in a singly focused academic career, there is nothing that would have made an economics major think about that job. Moreover, we economists tend to not think much of democracy in general. But, they wanted someone to take the message of how building democratic societies and freedom was critical to human rights, human development, and ultimately regional and international stability… and boy, that was like writing a paper for Dr. Farnsworth. I got the job immediately and spent five years working for a Romanian dissident exiled by Ceaucescu who was now bringing the democracy he fought for back to that region, building a communications and research division of 14 staff, founding a magazine that Richard Holbrooke wrote was the most thoughtful publication to teach people in dictatorships the path to freedom, and managing the entire media campaign for the first Iraq elections.
I am now in another major industry switch, as the vice president for constituent relations for the Autism Society of America. The shift from foreign policy to domestic health agency makes no sense, really, unless you are a liberal arts person. But I got to take my skills into a cause that supports my son and my family, and also selfishly has really fed my love of learning. And again, what is it that gets me hired, helps me contribute to organizations, and prepares me for whatever curve ball comes by? I can think, I can analyze, I can find the source, I tolerate the opinions of others, I love learning, and I can write. And whether that is in finance, in democracy, in medicine, or who know what next… I do that because I am a Phi Beta Kappan from Trinity.
And now you are too. Now, I hope that the randomness of the universe affects you in different and much more positive ways. But do know that as a Phi Beta Kappan from Trinity, you leave here with tools of faith, of family, of intellectual integrity, and of a love of learning that will serve you in unique and wonderful ways. God bless you and congratulations!