I graduated from Colorado School of Mines (CSM), a state university, which currently educates about 6,000 undergraduate and graduate students per year. When I attended CSM during the late 1970s, it was half its current size. The only degrees offered were in mineral engineering and basic sciences like chemistry, physics, and mathematics. Most engineering students attended large universities which have many diverse departments. CSM is like pulling the engineering school out of a major university and making it a stand-alone university. Walking around campus, it has the appearance of a liberal arts college, but the culture is technology on steroids.
Looking back on my decision to attend CSM, I must be candid that the school’s location was the principal reason I went there. Nestled at the foothills of the Rockies with dry, cool air, it was an enticing location for a teenager who lived on the Texas Gulf Coast with its oppressively humid environment. I was also fond of smaller schools since I grew up in rural Texas towns. My limited research showed excellent career opportunities upon graduation, provided one completed its difficult curriculum.
Unlike liberal arts colleges, engineering professors do not normally form mentoring relationships with their students except possibly during graduate school. My professors kept office hours to help with problem solving and I occasionally visited them for guidance on homework assignments. You were not assigned an advisor since most courses were required and students generally did not care about their few electives. Career guidance emphasized summer employment in your engineering specialty and senior year job interviews. I wasn’t invited to professor’s homes and didn’t socialize with them after class. Life was very ‘black-and-white’ during my four years at CSM. I did learn to work extremely hard to master my engineering studies which made me more disciplined, a trait that has served me well since I departed.
There was one professor who did take an interest in me: Dr. Woolsey. He taught Operations Research to mainly graduate students. He was highly intelligent, but also practical since he grew up in rural Texas. The reason I got to know him is that he attended my church and offered me rides on Sunday mornings. We went to breakfast before worship and chatted about life in general. He loved to talk, and he loved students. I was invited to his home and grew very fond of his family. Even though we had a friendship, he was an honest straight shooter. My academic skills were not of the caliper he desired in his graduate students, and when we discussed my post-graduate education, he advised me to obtain an MBA at another university. He died in 2015 after a distinguished academic career.
In Mitch Albom’s book Tuesdays with Morrie: An old man, a young man, and life’s greatest lesson (Broadway Books, New York, NY, 2017), Albom writes about his visits with his former professor, Dr. Morrie Schwartz, American professor of sociology at Brandeis University, who is dying from ALS. Albom and Morrie rekindle their student-professor mentoring relationship during the final days of Morrie’s life. Morris is still the teacher: “So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they’re busy doing things they think are important. This is because they’re chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.” (page 43)
I can relate to Morrie’s statement during my study of vocation in the latter years of my life. Morrie is dying but is at peace with himself and still devotes himself to teaching. “Once you learn how to die, you learn how to live.” (page 82) When I was younger, death seems so far away and unimportant. I was too busy to reflect upon my mortality and the meaning of life. I just wanted to experience life at full speed. “People haven’t found meaning in their lives, so they’re running all the time looking for it. They think the next car, the next house, the next job. Then they find those things are empty, too, and they keep running.” (page 136)
As I reflect during my sixth decade, I see failures along with a few successes. Many of my failures were due to immaturity in my early years: youthful indiscretions, impatience, lack of vision, and materialism. “None of us can undo what we’ve done, or relive a life already recorded. But if Professor Morris Schwartz taught me anything at all, it was this: there is no such thing as ‘too late’ in life. He was changing until the day he said good-bye.” (page 190)
Dr. Woolsey veered me away from my studies just to chat one-to-one. We spoke informally about religion, technology, career, Texas, and family. He was able to respectfully uplift and challenge me. Although he was lightyears ahead of me intellectually, he told me about his struggles during his youthful Texas upbringing.
Mentors are so important during all stages of life. One of my mentors is Scripture which reveals so much truth. Yet, following obediently can sometimes be very difficult and we all need God’s grace when we fail. God’s truth continually molds and shapes me with a telos towards the New Creation. It also keeps me reflecting and changing, something Morrie advocated until the end of his earthly life.