An honest letter from a member of the Class of 2020 on the lessons that he learned while an undergraduate.
Dear member of the Class of 2024,
Hi, I’m Trent. I will graduate college in just a few weeks with a B.A in Political Science and a Minor in Religious Studies. I am sure that you are an excellent student that excelled in high school – be it academics, athletics, clubs, or a combination of all of the above and more. I am sure that you are so ready to be done with high school, and I don’t blame you. I am ready to begin my next chapter of life at graduate school. I know this letter is a bit long, but I encourage you to read the whole thing. I am so excited for you, and I hope it is as great as you are imagining.
It was for me.
Yesterday, I was informed that to top off my college career I would be given two prizes that would’ve normally been awarded at Honors Convocation. Before I was notified, I frankly had no idea what Honors Convocation was, nor did I know what either of these awards were. But when I looked these up, I shed some tears. I was so honored and enormously thankful. Suddenly I was quite upset that Honors Convocation was cancelled, but I was filled with a sense of pride that I haven’t felt for a while.
The first award was The Robert Harbison Bible Prize. Apparently, it used to be an award given to the senior who scored the highest on a test of the Old and New Testaments, back when W&J was a religiously – affiliated school. As a now secular institution, we don’t all take a test on the Bible as a senior class, so the award is given to the senior with high academic achievement in Religious Studies.
The second award is The Coblentz-Silliman Leadership Prize. According to the catalogue (which I also barely knew about), “This award is derived jointly from an endowment by Mr. and Mrs. George W. Coblentz in memory of their son, and from a similar fund provided by the Board of Christian Education of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. It is presented annually to a student, selected by the College officers, who has been a leader in College activities, a good student, and who has exerted a distinct Christian influence on classmates.”
The thing about these awards is that I never sought out to have a high GPA, and frankly I don’t. I think I will graduate with a little over a 3.0. I worked hard, however, to get that 3.0 while maintaining a job for most of college, active participation in multiple clubs, fulfilling military service in the Marine Reserves, and an active social life. I sought out to be a good student. I (mostly) turned in my work in on time, I didn’t skip many classes, I put effort into the things I wrote and did. I made some excellent grades and some really poor ones. But In the end, I guess it paid off, since I managed to graduate after only 3 years, and now I am headed to grad school. I don't regret my 3.0. I am proud of it.
Towards the end of my college career I began to think heavily about how I wanted to leave the institution. In fact, I went to the Dean’s office hours (a practice I suggest, if available) and lamented on more than one occasion that I would not be able to see through many of the things that I had worked so hard to start. How was I going to be remembered?
A good student.
A distinct Christian influence.
If that is my legacy, I am glad. In fact, there is nothing more honorable to me, no higher goal, than to be known for those three things alone while at college.
Member of the Class of 2024,
Seriously think about what you want to be known for. Think about the person you want to leave as. College is not just about grades. To be clear, you need to graduate - that’s why you’re paying money for this, and don’t settle for anything less than the best you can put forth. But the life-transforming experience is what you are paying for. The wisdom of your professors, not just their wisdom when regarding their subject of expertise, but their wisdom regarding life, is what you are paying for (which sometimes includes decades of guiding students in your shoes). You cannot interact with others in the way that you can at college anywhere but there. You cannot search within yourself to fine tune your person to the excellence that the world demands without the help of others guiding you, something that college is literally built to do.
There is a class at W&J where the first question a professor will always ask is, “Why are you here?” When students answer, “To learn!” or “Because it’s required,” he answers in a drawn out, “wrong.” He never gave us the answer he was looking for, but I think I know what it is. You are there for others. You are there to become a person to make the world a better place. There is no optimism in this statement. It is a difficult and heavy burden to be an educated, free-thinking and capable person. Whether you are pursuing education in fine arts, STEM, the humanities, a skilled trade, or anything else, your burden is the same. You are there because you have been given the privilege to make humanity better by expanding your mind and heart through the experiences you gain.
So, when you get to college, take classes that will push you and challenge your worldview, not ones that will solely boost your GPA. I took a seminar on interfaith leadership and now I am planning on making that part of my career. Join clubs that will allow you to flourish in your interests and lead you on incredible adventures. I joined Greek life and made friends I plan on maintaining relationships with forever. Try new things. I found out I really like the rice and bean burritos at Taco Bell.
Do things outside of class that make you a better human being for the sake of the world.
I want to say this to the Christians, especially. I was a Christian influence who helped Muslims and other religious minorities on campus gain a platform. In fact, I and some of my peers started a whole club dedicated to bringing people of different faiths together, inherently giving people platforms that didn’t before. I showed them love like Christ would. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever witnessed. I was a Christian influence whose best friend on campus was a transgender student. I was a Christian influence who stood up for others, ran for local office, was not afraid to be in the middle of controversy or debate, and tried my best to emulate Christ, even though I frequently failed. I found a church with a loving, authentic Pastor and congregation and took students to them often. They learned my name and cared for me and my friends, knowing that I had little money or time to give them. The Pastor announced something about W&J almost every week. Find that in your college town. Don't run away from your faith because you feel like it will hurt you socially, because it will hurt you internally. I think that other students recognized something in me (I call it the Holy Spirit) and were not afraid to ask tough questions about my faith (that sometimes I couldn’t answer). They were not afraid to come to me with problems. My dorm room was a place people could take a breath. Telling others about Christ is trying to live a life like Christ.
I was not the best student, just a good one. But God was able to equip others to educate me. I wasn’t the best Christian, but God made me an example to others. I wasn’t the richest, the most popular, the most liked on Instagram or retweeted on Twitter, but God made a leader out of me. If God can work through me, God can work through you too.
To the Class of 2024,
Put forth a good effort. Don’t get discouraged. Make the world a better place.
Trent Somes, III
W&J Class of 2020
I wanted to take this opportunity to recognize the educators that made me who I am. Thank you for emulating Christ in your actions by giving living your life for the sake of others. I am eternally grateful for your passion for young people.
Hawaii Baptist Academy Elementary School:
The educator who taught me how to write
Level Green Elementary:
Trafford Middle School:
Penn Trafford High School:
The School Board, especially Dr. Harris
My football, wrestling and rugby coaches
My college professors, especially Dr. DiSarro, Dr. Misawa, Dr. Olga, Dr. Guinn, Dr. East and Dr. Knapp
Educators Outside of the Classroom:
Marie Middlebrooks, now teaching those in heaven who never had the chance to finish their Earthly education
Elizabeth Middlebrooks Somes, my mother and lifelong educator, now at TMS
Pastor John, the pastor who helped me realize my call
Pastors Michael & Pat, the pastors who pushed me seek it in new ways
Pastor Kelley, the pastor who made Washington my home.