President David Mulroney with students following Invocation

The Two Habits of Highly Effective St. Mike’s Students

Invocation address by President David Mulroney, Convocation Hall Sunday, September 3, 2017

Dear Members of the Class of ‘21,

I’ve been looking forward to this afternoon for some time. While it is a very early and very welcome opportunity to meet all of you, it also gives me the chance to address a major missed opportunity.

Each year we spend a lot of time and effort organizing a meeting with an entire cohort of our student body, a meeting at which useful advice is freely dispensed. The meeting for your cohort will happen in this very building in the spring of 2021.

There is no mystery here. What I am talking about is your Convocation, when we all gather together to celebrate your graduation, which is another way of saying your departure from the University. That’s when speakers bestow on you all kinds of advice that, while undeniably useful and certainly well meaning, would have been helpful a lot earlier. Four years earlier to be exact.

So let me try to address that problem right here and right now. I am going to share with you, under two very broad headings, some advice for making the most not just of your undergraduate life, as important as that is, but also for those wonderful future years that stretch out beyond it.

I want to reflect a bit on what might best be called, and I am taking a liberty with a book title here—something you should never do—the two habits of highly effective St. Mike’s students.

In doing this, I am reaching far deeper than my experience as President. I’m reflecting on my own experience as a student at St. Mike’s. Full disclosure, the advice is a little dated. Next year, 2018,  is a big year for me, representing my third and final year as President of St. Mike’s, the 40th anniversary of my marriage, and the 40th anniversary of my graduation.

Although that is undeniably a long, long time ago, I am reasonably confident that the two habits I want to highlight are still relevant.

They are certainly not unrelated, although they address different levels of student experience. One belongs to the day-to-day, practical, “how to” level of student life. The other is more essential, we might even say existential, and relates to the business of life itself.

When I was a student (now that’s an ominous beginning) there was a well-worn but popular aphorism, frequently and wrongly attributed to the Buddha. It said: when you are ready, a teacher will appear. Over-used though it may be, the saying is actually true in terms of the two habits or life-lessons I want to cite.  That’s because both are lessons that a university can and should teach you, and because you will never be more open, ready and receptive for them than you are right now.

USMC students entering Convocation Hall for Invocation

So, let’s get started. The first habit of a highly effective St. Mike’s student, or U of T student, or student at the university of anywhere, is managing your time in ways that contribute to your development as an educated person. This isn’t just a matter of self-discipline, although self-discipline is a big part of it. You’re about to be given more freedom than you’ve ever had before. Use it well.

If you go to your classes, do your readings, get an early start on projects, you’re setting yourself up for success. If you don’t, you will be amazed, and dismayed, at how quickly you can fall behind. I learned to manage my time when I was an undergraduate, and I have been applying those lessons ever since. I can’t tell you how much that self-discipline has helped me in my career and in my life.

But you are managing your time for a reason, and that includes creating the free time (emphasis on the first word) to think and reflect, to explore new ideas, to cultivate new interests and to see new things. The fact that by managing my time I give could find the freedom to grow and develop, was a revelation to me, and remains a gift that keeps on giving even as I get older. When I was an undergraduate, I promised myself that no matter how busy my life got, I would literally make time for reflection, for reading, for new experiences. Ultimately, I took a year off from my studies to travel around the world, a decision that had a profound impact on my future.

Years later, when I was Canada’s ambassador in Beijing, that life lesson kept coming home to me. I came to appreciate that my most valuable young Foreign Service officers were the ones who were willing to challenge the received thinking in Ottawa, who were inclined to get out of the embassy to meet people and see things and enrich our Canadian understanding of China. And when I travelled, I would do battle with my official minders to secure the free time to visit a local museum, to meet a poet or film maker, or to visit with a struggling religious community. I wanted to understand China on my own terms.

So, habit one: Take charge of your own education. Manage your time to enhance your development as a truly and fully educated person.

Habit two: be prepared to ask the big questions. This isn’t so much a matter of managing your time as it is of managing your life itself. And, again, this was something I first struggled with as an undergraduate at St. Mike’s, and something that I have been struggling with since, to my great benefit.

Asking the big questions used to be the sine qua non of a university experience. I’m not sure that’s true anymore. There is a tendency now to shy away from the big questions, or to assume that they can’t be answered. Students are left to sort things out as best they can on their own.

That’s where St. Mike’s is different. We offer incoming students many things: a first-class education, and a warm and welcoming community among them. But as a Catholic university, we also offer an invitation to what will amount to a 4-year conversation about the big questions, starting with this one: what is it to be a human being fully alive?

Students listening to speakers at USMC’s 2017 Invocation Ceremony

We’re going to ask you to consider what constitutes the good life, what makes us happy as individuals. Together, we’ll explore how to live in a community, how to respect others, how to respect ourselves.

Don’t expect this to be delivered to you fully worked out, or presented as an ultimatum. What you will get from us is a gentle but persistent invitation to talk about living a life that is happy and healthy, about being open to the best in you and in others. We actually believe that the answers are available to us, that they are quite literally, reasonable. But some assembly is required. When it comes to these existential questions, the mental effort is itself important. We all need to work a bit, to debate and to discuss, to think and to reason.

Of course, at St. Mike’s we also believe, and this is the really good news, that help is available to us, divine help. When Catholics talk about “invocation” they normally mean something even bigger and more ambitious than a meeting like this—as big as it is. They mean asking for divine assistance, welcoming the Holy Spirit into our lives

Before our Chancellor, Cardinal Collins, hands out diplomas to students in our graduate faculty of theology each November, he says the following prayer:

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in them the fire of your love.

Let us invoke that same wonderful assistance today.

Successful students learn how to manage their time, which really means taking complete charge of your own education.

But St. Mike’s offers something more. We’re also going to invite you to think, and think hard, about managing life itself, living it fully, with all its challenges and opportunities, to become the people we were born to be.

Welcome to the conversation.