Read the 2018 Presidential Address Here!

Helen-Margaret Nasser

Presidential Address

Providence, 2018

Good afternoon. It is my honor to speak to all of you today.

I have had the pleasure of speaking with many of you and hearing your presentations. I am delighted that so many of you were able to apply our conference theme to your research.

Our conference theme: “The Renaissance of a Lively Experiment: Seeing Anew” goes back to Roger Williams’ foundation of Rhode Island as a colony for all faiths – a controversial and risky idea at the time. 

What is great about experiments, and as scholars you all know this, is that you do not always know the outcome of your work. Only after trials, tests, research, revisions and questions, can you see the result of your experiment. Not knowing the answers before you start – not knowing whether you will succeed or fail – does that change your desire to conduct that experiment? 

An experiment is exactly that- something you’re trying. We don’t always get it on the first try! Now, there are plenty of philosophers and scholars with profound and great perspectives on failure, but I’ll give you something that is a little different. That powerful message of determination is echoed in a children’s book I was reading to my niece a little while ago. Rosie Revere the Engineer. This little girl loves to imagine and invent machines and contraptions. One day, when her flying machine took off and quickly crashed, people around her laughed at her and she got discouraged. Her aunt then steps in with these powerful words: “Your brilliant first flop was a raging success! Come on, let’s get busy and on to the next!” She handed a notebook to Rosie revere who smiled at her aunt as it all became clear! Life may have its failures but this was NOT it. The only true failure can come if you quit.” 

I understand that failure can be scary. There is a lot that is unknown about life. There is a lot of uncertainty. When I started college, I was met with two failures right in my first semester. The first was trying out for the swim team. While I had been offered scholarships for swim teams in the United States, Canadian school do not recruit their athletes, they want you to try out. So, I tried out for the swim team and after a week of tryouts I found out that I didn’t make the team. I swam competitively since I was 7 years old and didn’t know what to do with myself.

My next failure came when I failed calculus in college. That failure was such an embarrassment and I was so ashamed. It was so unlike me to “fail.” So much so, that when I told my parents about it they started laughing because they thought it was a joke. I had to stop them and tell them I was serious.

At 18, a freshman in college when I am supposed to “figure out life” I was faced with two big failures. When I failed calculus I realized I needed to find a better fit- and failing forced me to reassess what I was looking for in a major: it was through my failure that I discovered international development studies and political science as a double major and took on French as a minor. Looking back, I can tell you that even though that F still haunts my transcript, it was one of the best things that ever happened to me because from that failure I found my path. 

As for the swim team, it did not take me too long to make up for the loss. I joined clubs and ran for officer positions, I became an RA, and I met my boyfriend who is now my husband. My life would have been very different had I spent 4 hours every day in the pool. I will always wonder how fast I could have been, but I think I would wonder more about what I might have missed. 

When you think about it, it is kind of crazy to pick a major and plan for a career at 18 years old. Some of us pick a path and stick stubbornly to it even if it does not fulfill us, some of us do not get a chance to wonder why we are doing what we are doing or think that we reach a point where it is too late to change our minds. 

How many of you entered college undeclared? How many of you changed majors? How many of you have no idea what you want to do after you graduate? For those of you who raised your hand I am here to tell you that is all ok! For those of you who didn’t raise your hand – that’s cool – but either way you should be asking questions and doing research to find or to reaffirm the path for you.

Now that I told you I majored in political science and international development studies, you might assume that I am a college professor now. I am actually not- I am a full time administrator. How I ended up in higher education is a long story- less about failure and more about taking a risk and trying something unexpected. Never would I have thought I would be able to meet my career goals of working with people and making a difference in the world by working in a college. But, I am so grateful all my twists and turns have led me here.

Three years ago, there was a call for nominations for a Vice President for the Northeast Regional Honors Council. I thought I would be considered inexperienced but I knew I could do the job! I decided to take a chance and throw my name into the running. I was so happy when I learned I was elected! Now I stand before you as the NRHC President and it is really an honor to serve you, represent you, and learn from you. I am very grateful for the team of board members from whom I have been able to learn from and to collaborate, innovate, and create. Thank you for your support! 

To our students- you inspire us every day. Your risks and lively experiments are going to make an incredible impact on this world- so don’t give up! Don’t quit! And yes, fail! 

The sooner we can embrace failure and reject aspirations for perfection, the sooner we will be able to cherish every moment and revel in our lively experiment that are our lives. 

Thank you!