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Commentary: Seasons of Change

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad

Spring traditionally marks the end of the school year and a time of transition.  My oldest, Willow, who I swear was just born yesterday, will be graduating from high school in a few short weeks.  In the fall, her younger sister Maren will be beginning her senior year at that same school. 

Those first several years of parenting seemed like a never-ending winter.  Michael and I were both sleep deprived, struggling to make ends meet, and trying to figure out this parenting thing on our own.  But sooner than I could have imagined winter turned into spring and our children are nearing the time to move onto the next stages of their lives. 

Last Sunday, as I watched the latest episode of Game of Thrones with these two lovely young women, the reality that our tiny family as we have known it for the last 18 years is about to change really sank in.  I wanted to freeze that moment in time, but then I quickly realized what I really want for these young humans is to be able to do is master the art of dealing with change with grace, strength, and dignity. 

Fortunately, they have been surrounded by a community of people who when faced with unwelcome change continuously rise to the occasion and deal with difficult circumstances with a level of grace and dignity that is nothing less than astounding.  The individuals honored at the annual College of Arts & Sciences award ceremony I attended last week provided yet another example of the caliber of people who make up our community. 

For the record, the introvert in me hates these kinds of events, but I am glad that I attended this one.  I was duly impressed by the outstanding faculty we have at WIU, their dedication to their profession, and their students. 

However, what captivated me the most were those who were honored whose contracts have been recently terminated.  Many of these individuals have dedicated their entire working lives to this institution and were recently fired not because of negative work reviews, but because of a failure of leadership.  

Some of these individuals, mostly tenured faculty members, have had a long night to reflect on what the future holds.  Others have had less time to clear out their work spaces, complete to-do lists, and reflect on relationships developed over decades of work at WIU. 

These individuals are not only award-winning faculty members, but also essential support staff with institutional knowledge that will be difficult to replicate.  They include gardeners who have tended to greenhouses that house countless plants for use by Biology and Agriculture faculty, the caretakers of the Psychology Department’s Laboratory Animal Care facility, and those who know the multiple procedures that need to completed in order to be reimbursed for travel, request supplemental pay, and countless other things that most of us have no idea how to do. 

In the comments made on their behalf, and sometimes by the individuals themselves, it was apparent that these people loved what they did.  Working at WIU was not just a job but was part of who they are.  More importantly the way in which they responded to the sudden terminations of their working lives are a reflection of their personal values.  Their beliefs (or ideas that they hold to be true), values (what is important to you), attitudes (how you treat others), and behavior (how you act) were reflected in the fact that despite their current circumstances, they continued to show up to work every day and be present for those who depended on them and their expertise.  Rather than looking at their circumstances with bitterness and anger, collectively their dignity, strength and grace have shown all of us that an exit means not only the end of something, but it is also an entrance to somewhere else and a new future. 

As Littlefinger said to Varys in Season 7, Episode 4 of Game of Thrones, “Chaos isn’t a pit. Chaos is a ladder.” 

Thanks to all of my colleagues for showing us how to gracefully climb towards the future. 

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.