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408 End Whitworth Education But English Professor Extols The Virtue Of Lifelong Learning

Professor Leonard Oakland urged Whitworth College’s 408 graduates to never stop their pursuit of knowledge.

“We have more to grow,” Oakland told a commencement crowd Sunday in the packed Spokane Opera House.

Oakland spoke in a new tradition at Whitworth. Graduates are selecting their commencement speakers from the faculty, a practice started last year.

An English professor and jazz show host on local public radio, Oakland is a popular figure on campus and is known for his impassioned lectures. A student once described his speaking style as being at war with every piece of furniture in the classroom.

Sunday’s delivery was no less passionate - though maybe not so animated.

Quoting from Aristotle and poet T.S. Eliot, Oakland extolled the virtue of lifelong learning.

“Today is not an end,” he said. “The most important education, the real learning, goes on for a lifetime. We have given you the best we know of ourselves and our disciplines, but we know we haven’t given you enough.”

War in Bosnia, hunger in Latin America, troubled inner cities and racism - these are the kinds of problems to be faced as the third millennium approaches, he said. “Ours is a hurt and broken world into which you go this afternoon.”

Some class members may become famous writers or ground-breaking scientists, but others will be called to the equally important work of helping the poor and abused, he said.

One of them is Michelle Sanders, a graduate of Whitworth’s teacher-training program.

Sanders said before the ceremony she wants to work with teenage mothers in a Christian ministry near her Portland home.

College wasn’t something she had planned when she was younger. She wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps as a truck driver, but after he died, she embarked on a painful voyage of self-discovery.

“I never thought I would go to college,” she said, “but now I’m thankful I did.”

Cindy Vazquez, a middle-aged mother of two, tells a similar story of turning personal pain into success.

She left a troubled marriage two years ago after raising a family and enrolled at Whitworth to become a counselor for battered women.

Credits she earned in college some 20 years ago helped her get her degree. Now, she’s planning on continuing her education in a master’s degree program and working as a bank teller to pay her way through school.

Her bank-teller training came in a six-week community college course she took while going to Whitworth.

“At first, it was real scary,” Vazquez said. “Who’s going to hire an older woman? But in a lot of businesses, age is a plus.”

College, she said, “is exciting for people who want to grab ahold of life and go.”

Sunday’s commencement included the usual formal trappings, such as music by Whitworth’s choir and wind ensemble and the prayers expected at the graduation ceremonies of a Presbyterian college.

In an ecumenical gesture, Whitworth bestowed an honorary doctor of divinity degree on the Rev. Bernard Coughlin, who is ending 22 years as president of Gonzaga University, a Catholic Jesuit institution. Coughlin will become Gonzaga’s first chancellor in September.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo