As part of the fabric of our culture, colleges are in the news for all kinds of reasons, such as successful academic programs, awards, athletics, and service. Additionally, the most recent narrative of the past several years, often illustrated with egregious exceptions, questions whether college is worth it at all, counting the costs of college as if they were solely a return on economic investment by measuring the aggregate and average salaries of graduates in some mind-numbing, number-crunching formula. And of course, there is often talk about the supposed noise or nuisance of students in the community, especially in the fall and late spring.
Colleges are charged with promoting the common good by fostering positive and mutually beneficial relationships with their local communities. Happily, the relationship between Keystone College and the three counties (Lackawanna, Wyoming, and Bradford) and four municipalities (Factoryville, La Plume, Fleetville, and Towanda) in which we are located has been strong and productive when it really counts. Since our founding in 1868, thousands of students from these communities, and others, have earned their Keystone degrees. Many local community leaders have also served as active alumni and members of the Board of Trustees. More recently, collaborations on sidewalks, sewers, electrical improvements, street lights, Christy Mathewson Days, Homecoming celebrations, and more than 24,000 hours of volunteer service each year by the Keystone community have helped cement these positive relationships and foster the common good.
All of the principles and practices of the common good between Keystone College and our neighbors were held up to the highest standard recently when we lost two of our students, Michael (Jake) Burkhardt and Tashandra Burton, to a tragic automobile accident. Several other Keystone students were seriously injured, as well. Although words are always insufficient and hollow in the face of such loss, our college community came together under the dark sky in our Student Life Quad to pray and extend words of comfort and gestures of support, friendship, and shared tears. The Fourth Century poet, St Ephraim the Syrian, believed that tears were sacred. I think he was right.
And as the darkness was gradually illumined by the lights of hundreds of candles, and we joined together to sing “Amazing Grace,” in the back of the crowd stood thirty firefighters and EMT responders who had walked in uniform up the hill from the Factoryville fire house to stand in support and solidarity for our students and for the common good.
At the conclusion of the service, I extended my gratitude to them for their special and unexpected presence. One man responded, “No thanks needed. Those kids were part of our family. They are all part of our community.”
To me, those few words spoke volumes as we extended and received comfort from each other during the most difficult of times. That tragic night, we were able to reaffirm that pursuit of the common good forgets the occasional noise or nuisance of living in community and binds us together at the worst of times, to be our best selves, when it really counts.