The Benefits of Being a Laurentian for Life

By: 
Deena Giltz McCullough
Class of: 
1984

When St. Lawrence asks me to participate, my motto is to say yes as often as possible.

I think very deeply about the commitment and the impact of what I can offer. I don’t know how to do anything half baked – it’s just not in my DNA.

I am a Laurentian for Life. I take it very seriously and think you should, too, right from the beginning.

St. Lawrence has that “special sauce”. For me it is the soul of this university; unpretentious with a capacity for deep engagement, critical thinking and lifelong learning and genuine empathy for others. There is an interconnectedness here that if we didn’t know better, might be construed as incestuous given all the generations that have attended St. Lawrence.

I want to share with you three of my favorite SLU stories that have touched my life and made real to me the power of being a Laurentian for Life.

The first story is a lesson in learning and self-compassion.

My second semester at St. Lawrence I got my very first 53 on a test ever. It was Calc II and I had skipped Calc I as I had taken the class in high school. It was a bad plan and I was horrified. On my next exam, I earned a 100. I figured it out by asking for help from my professor and studying differently.

I learned a lot from failing, hard work and finishing even the toughest of classes. Everyone should have such an experience. It’s humbling and humanizing. While I had loved math and still do, I needed more engaging and creative classes which I found in both sociology and fine arts. I know you will be blessed to safely fail here, too, and develop critical thinking skills that are essential in life.

The second story is about the true meaning of empathy and second chances. A few of you may have heard this before if you attended or tuned into the first TEDx at St. Lawrence last fall.

It is in my family’s DNA to volunteer in my community. Up until 2005, I felt more obligated than passionate about the organizations I served. In the early 2000s, I received a letter welcoming me to St. Lawrence University’s Alumni Executive Council. I was certain it was another activity my father had signed me up for as, other than an annual contribution, I had little involvement since graduating in 1984.

The opportunity turned out to be pivotal for me as my oldest son had died suddenly a year into my term on council and in my grief-filled state, I knew that I could not be the volunteer they needed me to be. I sent a letter of resignation; a resignation that was thoughtfully rejected with an invitation to take some time, come back when I could. They must have seen something in me that I didn’t see in myself.  My confidence was badly shaken and I felt very lost in the world.

When I did return I was gently welcomed and allowed to focus on projects we were working on for the benefit of the university and future Laurentians. As I started to open my eyes more and get out of my head and feel with my heart the community support around me, I realized it wasn’t just me. The multi generations of St. Lawrence University alumni coming together for a common purpose made us all feel valuable and special. With mentoring and support, my confidence slowly returned. Ultimately I went on to lead Alumni Executive Council. Sometimes we need extra support when we are down and I hope you give that to each other and look for ways that you can encourage participation and welcome others into your organizations.

If we can truly care and look out for others, we can make the St. Lawrence Community a better place to live, work and play.

The final story is a coincidence of what a small community St. Lawrence is.

My junior year, I studied abroad in Denmark and took the second semester off to travel all over Europe & Egypt. Hint: Don’t miss the opportunity to study abroad. Returning to campus in June to start a summer class, I was leaving lunch at Eben Holden Dining Hall. I can still remember the warm summer air outside (yes, it is actually summer in Canton sometimes!) and a man ran out of the dining hall and right up to me and asked if I knew Dodie Potts.

She is my mother.

He had dated her in college and lost touch. I asked what he was doing now and learned that he had divorced. He asked for my mother’s phone number. Immediately I got very protective. My parents were happily married (my dad is also a SLU grad) and selfishly I wasn’t interested in anything coming between them or us. I agreed to call my mom and ask her permission which she readily provided. She said they had a lovely conversation, adding that she could have married Alan and I would have been known as Deena Eccelson vs. Deena Giltz, which is silly because we all know about DNA, though there was no worry about a split with my dad. Whew!

I know that you will be touched by the interconnectedness of the St. Lawrence family and it will show up in the most interesting ways. Trust me - it will find you and you don’t even need to try that hard.

And that, my newest friends, is what it means to be a Laurentian for Life.

Fail safely. Allow others to care for us. Be open to new experiences.

Find out what the “special sauce” is to you, add your own ingredients and enjoy the ride. 

-Deena Giltz McCullough ’84, Past President Alumni Executive Council 2010-12

(Note: This post was originally a speech Deena gave to the Class of 2020 at their First-Year Convocation on February 21, 2017.)