Friday, September 4, 2015

A boy soldier brings stories that are medicine

Ishmael Beah captivates students at an ASU forum
I have come to accept a new standard of measure when it comes to communicating with today's university student. It can be posed in the following question:

Are you better than a smart phone?

It's a daunting task. Think about what is relevant and exciting and engaging via a student's smart phone feed and then consider the content you are about to present.

What wins? Your lecture or digital social media?

Image courtesy
That conversation played out in my head during fall convocation at Appalachian State University. It was my seventh convocation. The speaker each year is the author of our university summer reading book, chosen as a common theme for all freshman.

Not all prior convocations were necessarily well received. Authors sometimes seemed less than committed, or quite brief. Student attendance was sparse. It was more an exercise in formality than a christening of an academic year...with a message.

The 2015 convocation was a new game, a new paradigm and yes, the speaker on this day was much better than a smart phone. He captivated a full auditorium and carried the crowd of students for over half an hour. In an era where student attention spans can snap around five minutes, this author brought his A game and it showed.

It should be noted this author and speaker had a unique story. His insights were built through special circumstances. This convocation author had been a boy soldier who killed to stay alive.

Some of the detail was startling. About how oral tradition and story telling can be medicine. How we can examine tragic events to find learning opportunities. How soldiers universally hold one set of standards - how to eat, where to sleep, and who must be killed in order to survive. How his migration to America brought a self-imposed code of silence, an insulation to protect against stereotypes attached to children who fought in war.

Some of Beah's comments were funny, but only in a bittersweet way. At one point in his university education, wealthy classmates took Ishmael to upstate New York for the weekend. Their choice of play? Paintball. A story ensued and you might imagine who wins.

Beah was thoughtful, humble, authentic, transparent and sometimes controversial. His words and actions greatly affected our students. He supported and helped us by bringing social debate, to heighten experiences. BEah prompted students to ask "what if?" or "what would I do?"

If stories are medicine, Ishmael Beah's words brought balm to sooth the wounds of war. And for that, we are grateful.

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