For me, walking from the PSU to Strong Hall can become monotonous. You look around, maybe make eye contact with a stranger, and spend the rest of the walk dwelling on how cold, or hot, or windy it is. But one week a semester, when the flags are flying, I have something to look at and think about. I look at almost 200 flags and think about how each represents a country full of people, just like me, who have a story to tell, just like me. If we had it my way, the flags would be out every week.
For full disclosure, I have not always considered Public Affairs a passion of mine. It was not one of the reasons I decided to come to Missouri State, and I certainly didn’t expect to be in the position I am now where I work with it on a daily basis.This is my sixth semester on campus and my third spring semester. With the spring semester, I instantly think of the Public Affairs Conference. What a privilege it is to go to a university that hosts a conference of this magnitude. I went to my first session two years ago during my freshman year to fulfill a requirement from a program. It was a panel discussing religion, rights, and where the line is drawn between the two. There was a panelist from a scholarly perspective and a panelist from foreign country offering a different perspective. I was surprised to find that there were two panelists who did not at all consider themselves to be experts in religion but instead who were engaged citizens with a story and a perspective unique to them. This Public Affairs Conference is full of experts, but the discussions take place in an effort to promote conversation and bridge gaps for those of us who are not experts.
I was given the opportunity this week to shuttle panelists from their hotel to the PSU for the conference. In the short drive across Springfield, I was able to learn about the conference from the perspective of a panelist returning for his second time. According to this panelist, the detail that separates this conference from other conferences around the nation is the fact that each panelist is hand picked. Speakers aren’t able to apply or register to speak this week; if they are here, they were chosen to be here. It also sticks out that when speakers are chosen and agree to come for our Public Affairs Conference, they have no idea what their topic will be. I love this because it doesn’t allow speakers to only speak on a topic where they may be the most comfortable. It gets the speakers out of their comfort zone a little bit, and as an audience member, you can feel this dynamic. The panelist sets the tone with this authenticity and the audience follows by engaging in an educated discussion.
In every session I have sat in on over these three years, whether the topic is Religion, Freedom of Choice, Sustainability, or Hunger and Poverty, there seems to be a common theme. The panelists give a statement that ranges from very informed to very passionate and opens it up to Q&A. Students and citizens ask questions looking for straight answers only to be disappointed when they are told there is no straight answer. Instead, these panelists engage in a discussion about circumstances, empathy, ethics, and self sufficiency.
There is a reason these speakers are chosen to be here. They’ve made an impact on this world in their chosen field. They are well versed, educated, and practiced. They may be authors, professors, physicians, or politicians, but I always leave reminded that they are people. They have opinions, values, morals, and stressors. They were once students who were unsure about their future, or young adults who made mistakes. They will tell you that they are just people who followed what they cared about, and treated people like people.
Public Affairs has taught me that the only thing separating us from making a change is a little bit more questioning, a lot more listening, and a fair share of humility. Meaningful conversations shouldn’t be limited to one week a semester, so I’m glad Missouri State does its best to facilitate these conversations.
I may not have come here for the Public Affairs Mission, but it certainly is one of my biggest takeaways. There’s always room for empathy, compassion, and dialogue, and those don’t have to stop when the flags come down.