Spring 2010

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A Thousand Worlds. Please travel, says Geography Professor Stephen Cunha.  Just don't forget to write.

This is a condensed version of the closing lecture delivered by Professor Stephen Cunha to his popular Cultural Geography class each spring. Cunha was named HSU Scholar of the Year in 2009.

TODAY WE CONCLUDE WITH SOME THOUGHTS ABOUT YOUR FUTURE. This requires sharing a deeply personal experience. Although peripheral to our class, it produced some clear thinking.

The isolated Obi Hingu watershed in the Pamir Mountains is a roadless Shangri-La with small villages perched above a swift river. I was in Tajikistan, in Central Asia, in 1992 working on a grant for the United Nations University to assess the suitability of the Pamir Mountains as a potential national park and Biosphere Reserve.

On this day I traveled alone, separated from our party by 40 km.  Near sundown I noticed movement on the low edge of the canyon some 75 yards distant. The first thought was “animal,” but a second glance revealed a human, crouched low to avoid detection.

The next instant a bullet entered my groin, followed by the unmistakable sound of firearm discharge. I screamed in Russian, “No, ctop! Ya emaet dva sine. “ (No, stop! I have two sons). While struggling up a hill a second bullet lodged in my shoulder, and several more passed near my head. After cresting the top, I opened my pack to remove antibiotics and gauze, and noticed my entire crotch soaked in blood.

I escaped by rolling down to the river and swimming an icy current too strong for my assailant. While exiting the water a final bullet whizzed past my ear and pierced a birch tree. A night of cold marching, interrupted by bouts of lost consciousness, brought me to the safety of Tajik villagers who cared for me as one of their own.

THIS IS WHERE ALL OF YOU COME IN. For two days while lying in a mountain hut, bleeding, physically spent and waiting to die, I experienced a quiet and deep satisfaction with life because of three things: a loving family, an excellent university education and the many travels that had shaped my thinking. Of these, we can’t always choose our family, but know that you hold complete sway over the other two.

College is an investment of time and money that endows your future. Not just because of starting salary, but also in the way it grows your inner self. The mind once stretched does not return to its original shape. You are what you know, and as this changes so do you.

An education fosters genuine belief that the world is harder to understand than it first appears, and that intellectual humility is a vital grace. It teaches us about our own strengths and weaknesses, the subjects that fascinate us and the skills we should have the courage to improve. It asks us to shape personal answers to what ethical obligations and limits we should observe in a free society, and how these might change over time and space. This is not easy. The enduring rewards of higher education follow sustained effort, intellectual discomfort and sacrifice – they do not come before.

To deepen your studies, I also urge frequent travel in order to reap what Mark Twain makes clear:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Homebound types have but one world, while travelers have a thousand. Travel broadens and textures the mind. It allows a person to develop empathy for the millions engaged in more difficult lives. Abandoning routine sharpens the senses. One never forgets the monsoon rain…birdsongs in Halong Bay…Alaskan bears up close…Arabian dust…Patagonian wind…the Yangtze…Alps…Serengeti…and generous strangers in far away places. By raising the flat map to life, travel inspires us to care about the planet, and nurtures global citizenship.

I HAVE A FEW REQUESTS. First, please send along one postcard. Prior students mailed these from around the world. They are fine reading and will be good company when I’m in a rocking chair, too old for travel.

Secondly, please say hello if we meet in some far-off place. The refreshments are on me. We can share travel tips and recall our time in Arcata.

And finally, draw upon these inspiring words attributed to Goethe: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.”