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Opening Convocation, BTFO blend new and old

By Chris Meserole '09 M.Div., '10 S.T.M.

FacultyFresh faces and familiar smiles. As YDS opened its doors for another year, each were in full supply.

So many new and returning students were on hand for Opening Convocation ceremonies, in fact, that it quickly became a standing-room-only affair. And for good reason: the main speaker was Bruce Gordon, professor of Reformation history and author of a highly acclaimed new biography of John Calvin.  He did not disappoint, delivering an impassioned address that for many almost certainly surpassed even the lofty standards of the annual event.

Blending humor and gravitas with ease, Gordon spoke at length about the nature of truth and history, and the relevance of each to divinity school today. "Lux'' and ''veritas," Gordon reminded his audience, exist not only "on cups and shirts," but also in the common purpose of divinity students and professors--for "what unites us must surely be the truth."

Yet the truth, of course, is famously elusive, forever offering only tantalizing glimpses before retreating from full view. Accordingly, Gordon warned the packed hall in Marquand against settling for easy answers or platitudes—which he characteristically dismissed as "verbal junk food"—but instead to be prepared for the many challenges that truth will present. "We shall not spare you difficulty and controversy," Gordon assured the students before him, for "faced with the question of truth, we find ourselves challenged on every front." Nonetheless, all is not lost, particularly in a divinity school. Therein teacher and student, as Augustine once noted, "are bound together by a commitment to the truth"—and it is that commitment that ultimately stands out.

Gordon's address on the many truths of history surely bore a special relevance for the many students who had recently attended YDS's annual, week-long Before the Fall Orientation, known as ''BTFO.''

Organized by Kate Spelman M.Div '11 and Sandra Vasqez-Lopez M.Div '10, this year's BTFO packed over seventy panels, gatherings and events into a mere five days.  Eighty-eight percent of the incoming class attended.  Assisting Spelman and Vasquez-Lopez was a flotilla of returning students, sporting blue T-shirts emblazoned with ''BTFO.''

PetersonFrom panels on "The Academic Culture at Yale" and "Additional Resources for the Competent but Nervous" to the open house for "Divinity Farm & Sustainable Living" to gatherings tailored toward "Second Career Students" or "The Young and Partnered at YDS", there was something for everyone.

One of the sessions was the "Voice and Voicelessness" panel on August 26, featuring Dean of Academic Affairs Emilie Townes, Associate Professor of Hebrew Scriptures Carolyn Sharpe, Associate Professor of Religious Studies Shannon Craigo-Snell, and Associate Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling Kristen Leslie.

For Townes, the belief that God might be speaking through her students is cause enough to grant their words due consideration. "When I stop listening," Townes noted, and when "I stop being willing to recognize that God's revelation hasn't stopped speaking, then I am no longer a seminary professor, even a believing Christian. I am status quo. And we are not called to be status quo."

Craigo-Snell mirrored Townes's statement. Because God uniquely informs all our perspectives, she argued, we are not only called to be mindful of all voices, but to actively seek out voices different from our own. Consequently, she encouraged the incoming students to "make sure you take classes with people who look different than you, who think differently than you."

LathropAnother revealing panel was "Tricks of the Trade: Students Guide to YDS," also on August 26.

Featuring second-year students Bryce Wiebe M.Div '11 and Denice Kelley M.Div '11 as well as several members of this year's student government—including President Delfin Bautista M.Div '10, Vice President Geoff Parker M.Div '10 and Secretary Ellie McCormick M.Div '11—the panel was the ultimate "how-to" in life at YDS.

When it came to academic life in particular, there was no shortage of wisdom. "Choose your schedule wisely," McCormick warned. "If you look ahead and see that you have four 25 page papers due on the same day, you may want to change up your classes a bit." Kelley echoed that sentiment. Above all, she noted, "choose classes that are diverse in their expectations of you."

Yet the tone of the panel was more uplifting than dire. "Don't be afraid to ask for help," Bautista insisted. "Professors are demanding, but they're also very gracious."

Likewise, Wiebe, who also heads up this year's Community Life Committee, stressed that his peers are a great resource for help and support. "You're going to be in class," he told the fifty-odd students in attendance, "and half the people around you are in training to be professionally kind. There's no need to be stressed!" As the audience laughed, Parker underscored Bryce's point. "Basically," he pointed out, "asking someone for help around here is doing them a favor."

The initial response to BTFO was overwhelmingly positive. Overall, the panels and events were "very informative," said Smoot Carter M.A.R. '11. "It really helped us transition into this year. We could feel overburdened without orientation, but they're getting us thinking about how to become effective students and enjoy ourselves at the same."

For his part, Dean of Students Dale Peterson could not have been more pleased. "This year's BTFO was an outstanding success," he noted.  "The coordinators, Sandra Valdes-Lopez and Kate Spelman, planned and presented a thoughtful, enjoyable, and informative program.  They provided the backdrop that enabled new students to meet one another and begin forming community among themselves and with returning students, staff, and faculty.  And the entering class was absolutely wonderful -- they were gracious, supportive, and open throughout the week, and present for all of the events in an encouraging way."

For Valdes-Lopez, too, the week went off as well as could be hoped. "People have been overwhelmingly kind with their words of appreciation and gratitude," she said. And it isn't hard for her to understand why: "Our returning students gifted our first years with both the wisdom of their experiences and the reality of their struggles. I'm extremely grateful."

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