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Kathleen Brinegar Delivers Opening Convocation Speech

As part of NVU-Johnson’s annual Opening Convocation event, where students, staff, and faculty gather to welcome the incoming class and celebrate the opening of a new academic year, a professor returning from sabbatical is asked to address the campus community. For the 2018 Convocation event, Johnson’s first under the Northern Vermont University name, Associate Professor of Education and Associate Academic Dean Kathleen Brinegar shared her thoughts on the importance of balance in a successful life. Her remarks follow. 

Convocation Presentation 2018
Kathleen Brinegar

Balance is not a privilege: It’s a necessary part of being human, and therefore it’s not just for those we consider privileged. 

I’m happy and honored to be here to welcome the first EVER incoming class of NVU- Johnson. The wonderful thing about being the first class is that you get to set the tone for all of the classes that follow. You get to help define what NVU-J is and what its values are. 

Given this, I’m going to suggest a focus. I’m going to suggest that as a campus we begin our first year at NVU focusing on balance. Hence the title of my presentation: Balance is not a privilege: it’s a necessary part of being human, and therefore it’s not just for those we consider privileged. 

Most of you have people in your lives who have already told you to study hard and go to class. Instead, what I want you to think about is what strategies do you have for taking care of yourself when things get challenging, for advocating for your needs, for supporting your peers, and of course, for having fun while successfully completing your school work.

I’ve just returned from a sabbatical. For those of you unfamiliar with what it is, after teaching here full-time for a certain number of years, faculty can apply to be away from campus for a semester or a year to pursue an academic or creative passion without any other interruption. 

While on my sabbatical I needed to learn how to bring more balance into my life. I needed my academic/working self to learn how to make time and space for my other identities. I loved my work, but I lost sight of the fact that I am also a mom, a partner, a sister, a daughter, an athlete, a reader, an outdoor enthusiastic, and so many other things. And this wasn’t an issue that stemmed from here. I had never really learned how to be balanced. Even during college myself, which I do look back on fondly, I recognize that I was either over-committed and stressed, or quite frankly I was lazy and barely left my apartment.

During this year away from campus, I was working on a book that focuses on the theme of equity and identity in educational spaces, mostly related to middle schools, but much of it applies to my work here as well.  

In exploring the notion of equity one of the things that continually struck me was my own privilege as someone who had paid time to pursue my passions– yes, I was working- I finished my first book, became the editor of an academic journal, I did some educational consulting in the Bay Area of CA and locally in VT. But these were all things outside of the scope of my day to day job and they were my choice to engage in. I didn’t do them because I had to to pay my bills, or put food on my table, or because I was limited by my education or told I had to because of my gender, etc. I did them because they made me happy. 

And as I dug into my equity work I became more and more aware of the ways that our culture reinforces this notion that leisure time, or the ability to pursue your passions, or time for reflection, or balance, is a privilege as opposed to just something that all people are entitled to. 

We see this in the educational system in that children experiencing poverty are often in schools where the focus is on rote memorization and compliance, while children in wealthier communities have more time to explore the arts, physical education, and engage in critical thinking– things associated with wellness and exercising your voice.

And I think that there are systems, policies, and procedures here, and in higher education in general that perpetuate this notion that balance has to be earned. That it comes only after you’ve studied too hard, worked too many hours,, etc. ect. before you are justified in earning the opportunity to find balance……and in this system, some people, for a variety of mostly systemic reasons, never have the opportunity to find it.

So my message for everyone here today, particularly the incoming students, (but certainly faculty, staff, etc can learn from this message as well) is that these next 2, 4, or 6 years of your life are yes about pursuing your academic dreams and goals, but they’re also about becoming your best selves, the people that you want to be when you finish your education– and as you develop into these people you will form ways of thinking and being about who you are, what you deserve, and what you’re capable of that can help empower you to lead a balanced life into the future.

So, I’ve developed a list of 8 strategies to help you maintain balance while pursuing your studies.  

1) Take stock of what takes space in your life

I’ve worked here long enough to know that so many of you have so much on your plates already. 

Who here works addition to being a student at NVU? Who engages in athletic pursuits- organized or other? Who care-takes for children, parents, or other family members? Who serves or has served in the military, or has immediate family members who serve? Who engages in artistic endeavors– music, art, theatre, creative writing?

Share this information with your professors and advisors. I want to know, and I know my colleagues do to, what you have going on in your lives so that we can support you and help you maintain balance. 

And remember that your professors and faculty members have outside lives, too.

2) Make time for the things you love that have nothing to do with those other roles. 

Find ways to access them. If you don’t know how– ask. 

3) Don’t hesitate to ask for help. 

Oftentimes our mainstream culture sends the message that asking for help is a sign of weakness, but I can’t think of anyone who has achieved any of type of success without it. So let’s change that message. It’s a lot easier for one of us to be vulnerable if we all agree to be.

4) Make space to learn things completely unrelated to your academics. 

For example, I learned how to do this. Does anywhere mountain bike– it’s REALLY hard. And honestly I can’t decide if I love it or hate it, but I’m working on it…

And this…It took about 6 kids on 6 different occasions to get to me even that far in my flossing skills. 

5) Take a risk. Make an idea a reality. 

I am an introvert masquerading as an extrovert. One of the things I always wanted to do was put a book together focused on supporting students with marginalized identities, but I wanted it to be a collaborative project. So one day at a national conference, I got up the courage to approach these two in the picture and individually asked them if they would be interested in doing the book with me. Here we are 3 years later with the book finished and we now co-edit an academic journal together (and are just good friends).

6) Turn a hobby into something you share regularly with others

Last June a group of educators and I were talking about our love of young adult fiction and we all shared a focus in our work on social justice. So we started meeting once a month to talk about YA books and before we know it we had a Twitter following and we now gather with educators from Middlebury up to Burke monthly. 

7) Make a must-do someday list and work toward making that a reality…even if it takes years to come to fruition. 

8) Support each other. You are the class of 2022. Together you will do great things.

I believe that together, we can set a tone of balance and a focus on each of us becoming our best selves.