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August 23, 2010
By John Trent
Forty-two years ago, as he entered college, University of Nevada, Reno English Professor David Fenimore never expected to be where he was on Friday morning.
Fenimore, one of the campus’ most respected instructors and advisors, stood on a stage in Lawlor Events Center, delivering a lively and inspiring keynote address during the 11th annual New Student Ceremony.
“I was one of the shy, sheltered kids from the suburbs,” Fenimore said of the beginning of his college career at the University of Pennsylvania. Fenimore was one of only 63 students in his high school graduating class. By contrast, one of the first lectures he ever attended at Penn was in a huge lecture hall filled with more than 350 students.
“I was the kid who sat in the back and didn’t raise his hand,” Fenimore said.
And yet, 42 years later, Fenimore told the University’s Class of 2014 that from such a painfully awkward start, with more than a few changes of direction along the way, more than a few good things had occurred in his life. A noted playwright, performer, writer, Fenimore, who has taught at Nevada since 1989, has also received the University’s Undergraduate Advisor Award for his unique and effective way of influencing students’ lives for the better.
Forty-two years ago, however, the odds of an award-winning career as an English professor seemed far-fetched. Fenimore originally enrolled at Penn as an engineering major. Soon, though, he discovered the value of listening to his heart. He played organ in a high school garage band, although, admittedly, “I was pretty bad.” In addition to music, he knew he enjoyed reading and writing. He took a chance at Penn and decided to host a midnight jazz show on student radio, WXPN, the non-commercial University of Pennsylvania underground radio station.
“But it changed me,” he said of his decision to major in English and to stretch himself by taking piano jazz over computer engineering punch cards, to read Kurt Vonnegut instead of worrying so much about thermodynamics. “I flunked thermodynamics,” Fenimore said, drawing laughs and smiles from his young audience, which also included parents and relatives. “It was that change of major that changed my life.”
Throughout his speech, Fenimore stressed the value of change. He cited a Yale University study that showed the average college graduate changes “careers, not just jobs, three times” during their lifetime.
“If you were an average freshman in 1980, how would you know that the hottest jobs today would be on the Internet?” he said. “How do you prepare for jobs that you don’t know exist yet? The future is a moving target, so you want to move, too.”
President Milt Glick, who spoke before Fenimore, seemed to echo many of the same themes. Fenimore talked about his involvement in academic and social life in college, and partaking in road trips with his faculty mentor at Penn, the acclaimed novelist John Edgar Wideman. They were experiences, Fenimore said, which reinforced the notion that, “How this English major thing is pretty cool.”
Glick sounded the same message.
The college experience, Glick said, should be a time to “come to understand that excellence never idles. For you to achieve excellence, you must cultivate it and reach out to it; it does not invite you in. … Use your time wisely at Nevada. Use your time to become involved. Let this involvement become your center of gravity while you are a student at Nevada.”
They were words very similar to Fenimore, who noted at one point that gaining knowledge, “It’s not easy … Knowledge isn’t a download … vision isn’t an upgrade piece.”
Glick drew applause from the gathering, the first time when he noted that the University earlier this week had learned it now ranks as a first tier school in the 2011 U.S. News and World Report “best colleges” rankings – the first time in the University’s history it had been ranked in the first tier. “Being named to the top tier reflects the quality of what we offer, the students we attract, the quality of our faculty and the graduates we produce,” Glick said.
He also received applause when he mentioned the events of Wednesday evening, when the University accepted a bid to join the Mountain West Conference in intercollegiate athletics. “For our students, it is yet another acknowledgment that you are attending a university with a nationally respected sports program,” he said.
During his remarks, Fenimore offered the students what he called “Top 10 Ways To Get The Most For Your Money” while in college, adding with a wry smile, “Well, your parents’ money, anyway.”
Fenimore, his pleasant, effortless delivery taking on a magnetized pull with its mixture of humor and seriousness, advised the new students to:
Fenimore, who said at the beginning of his speech that although he is a child of the 1960s he rarely “plays” the ‘60s card – by the way, even following the extraction of four wisdom teeth, he did actually attend Woodstock – could nevertheless not resist quoting one of his favorite artists near the end of his remarks.
On a morning when the Class of 2014 took the Nevada Oath, learned the alma mater and would spend the rest of the day in various orientation activities – including discussion groups for the Warren St. John book, "Outcasts United" for the Summer Scholars book program – Fenimore’s quote of “a certain Bob Dylan” rang especially true.
“If you’re not busy being born,” Fenimore said, waving to the Class of 2014, “you’re busy dying. … You, Class of 2014, are among the lucky few to have the chance to change, to start a clean slate and to stretch yourself. Forty-two years from now, where will you be … who will you be?”