Reflections on Entering the DEL-MEM Program

“People just need to change the way they look at things.”

-Shunryu Suzuki

“Whoa! When did grad students get so young?” I kept the question to myself as my cohort and I found our place at the back of the Love Auditorium for the orientation session with Dean Chameides. Posing the question as if the age of incoming grad students had somehow changed relieved me of considering my own age, nearly double the average of the majority of the attendants, primarily residential Master of Environmental Management (MEM) candidates. The reality is that I am an old guy now, comparatively speaking. Looking into the sea of bright eyes, I hoped that they would change the world in all the ways that their youthful idealism inspires. Their energy was palpable. I still feel it.

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My cohort of fourteen students was returning to school after working in various environmental fields for years. Together, we constitute the Duke Environmental Leadership (DEL) MEM class of 2015. Though not the traditional path of our younger friends, still something stirred in each of us to continue our formal education in our “advanced” years. Within each of us flickers some of that flame that burned in the rest of the audience. Being in Durham, back in the classroom, and on campus during orientation week, added more fuel to my own little fire. I returned home with some of the idealism of my youth rekindled, tempered by experience.

“In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities….”

-Shunryu Suzuki

How did I get here?

After college I considered pursuing a graduate degree, but didn’t. I was lured by the money and the feeling of getting started proffered by a career in environmental consulting. Each new work project added experience and cash, and took me farther away from a graduate degree. I grew accustomed to the lifestyle provided by my career, bought a house, and took regular vacations. Yet the desire to return to my education never left.

Years ago Michael, my hippie friend and mentor, first shared the concept of the beginner’s mind at a time in my life when I was learning a lot about the world and my role in it. Michael practiced a “qualified” Buddhism, and shared insights with me during our adventures in the mountains. This one stuck with me better than any of the others. It wasn’t just the setting that made it memorable, although it should have been enough since we were camped on an isolated glacier deep in Alaska with the impressive vertical wall of Mt. Huntington as the backdrop. Being in that immense place made it easier to feel like a beginner. What made this lesson stick was my own resonance with the philosophy. I knew I wanted to travel through life with the beginner’s vision. Overall, the experience gave me a principle that would guide my life.

West Fork of the Ruth Glacier, AK
West Fork of the Ruth Glacier, AK

To me, the beginner’s mind means realizing that the more I know, the more I understand that I only know a (very) small sliver of all there is to be known, that any of my assumptions could be incorrect, and finally that continued learning helps me navigate this world more adeptly. To me, participation in the DEL program is a natural means of keeping me on the path of the beginner’s mind.

The DEL-MEM program allows the flexibility for someone like me to return to school mid-career without unacceptable interruption. I attend classes online for a few hours a week, and structure my (formerly) free time to complete the readings, assignments, and discussion board contributions. The quality of the program?  Superb. The professors and curriculum are top-notch. My peers amaze me with the knowledge and experience they bring to discussions. The new technology utilized by the program makes information amazingly accessible. I never thought that I could learn so much from so far away, or benefit from the close relationships with such a diverse group.

“Each of you is perfect the way you are…and you can use a little improvement.”

-Shunryu Suzuki

Does the beginner’s mind mean that you can’t act for fear of doing the wrong thing? I don’t think so. We figure out what makes the most sense and that’s what we do. We realize that we may discover the evidence that makes us want to change the way we do things or the way we see things. It correlates beautifully with the scientific approach. If a theory withstands scrutiny, we put a little faith in it and begin to use it to order our universe. Once better evidence occurs for a different theory, we change and do something different. The beginner’s mind means being open and eager for that possibility.

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Now that I’ve completed my first semester, my feelings about the DEL program validate my decision to return to formal learning. The program, the faculty, and the other students broaden my perspective with each interaction. The new precepts apply directly to my career and my interests. I spend my waking hours contemplating new ideas whether I’m engaged in school work or not. I wish that I could report that approaching the program with the beginner’s mind restored my youth (and my hair).  Suffice it to say that the DEL program increases my fire by reminding me of my novice nature.