When I decided to change careers, Diane Olson asked what I wanted to do. I said I wanted to return to the University of Minnesota and complete a Ph.D. in psychology. Diane said, “No you don’t. They probably won’t let you in because of your age (47 at the time), and if they do, they will drive you nuts. You want to go to Union.”
I set out to learn about The Union Institute. I learned that Union had been the learning model for the 21st century for more than 40 years. Targeted for life-long learners in mid-career, Union offered an accredited program of distant learning that allowed people around the world the opportunity to create a program around their unique interests and experiences. I submitted my application to the Union Institute and College and received a letter from the local faculty member, Michael Patton. An excerpt:
I’ve just read your Union application. I found your story riveting and your vision inspiring. There’s no question that you’ll be accepted. Your application is one of the strongest I’ve ever read.”
Union provided me with a series of adventures and “mini-journeys” that expanded my awareness and connected me with people both similar to and different from me.
The first of these adventures was a 10-day entry colloquium held at the Biosphere II near Oracle, Arizona. Twenty learners and two faculty members from across the United States came together at this mystical place on the edge of the Coronado National Forest that provides a home to a biosphere within a biosphere.
I felt vulnerable and intimidated. Twenty-six years had passed since I had graduated from college. I didn’t have a master’s degree. Did I belong here? I thought of leaving but couldn’t. I was committed to my vision. My new colleagues — artists, writers, teachers, psychologists, philosophers — had experienced life, were each wounded in their own way, were on the creative edges of their fields, and inspired me with their idealism. They welcomed me into their worlds, and their worlds felt natural. I went through my fear.
A feeling of community formed quickly, and the days were intense and powerful. I was at the right place. The learners formed relationships and shared their lives, hopes, and dreams with one another. I met people who would play an ongoing role in my life as friends and teachers.
The time flew by. Soon it was time to say goodbye to the courageous people I met who took the risk to live their passions ─ with no guaranteed outcomes, and many with few resources. Learners and faculty had a powerful closing ritual. We planted new desert growth and took a small piece of the desert home. Extraordinary people connected with themselves, with each other, and with nature.
Some months later, I attended a five-day seminar on the Harlem Renaissance in, ironically, Plantation, Florida as part of my Union program. The Harlem Renaissance was a period of great creativity in Harlem that began shortly after World War I and continued into the 1930s. When the seminar convened, I looked around the room at the participants: one black man, three or four white women, and about 15 black women. I was the only white man. Two black women led the seminar.
I asked questions about the black experience after World War I and often blushed of embarrassment at my ignorance. I heard black women describe how black men, still dressed in their military uniforms, were lynched and burned in the South after World War 1. I asked, “Who were the people who did these evil things?” The angry black man said, “They were people just like you. They were white Americans, and their behavior was acceptable in their communities.” I had heard these stories before, but hearing them from a black man and black women made the descriptions devastatingly real. As a white man, I felt ashamed of my race.
This seminar was powerful. I listened, watched, and learned as these world-wise women, artists all, talked of their families and communities and of the meaning they found in the sufferings of their race. One of the instructors said I was the bravest person in the room for being there. I don’t think so. I think each of the women there lived more courage every day than I had ever been called to do.
The seminar was painful and humbled and inspired me. I learned about and felt the depths of humanity — from pure evil to nobility — in this real experience. The women demonstrated in their lives the importance of history, culture, and selfless service. Sometimes we find ourselves in the presence of others who elevate us by their substance, credibility, and essential goodness. I am a better person because of those noble and lion-hearted people. No one invited me to lunch or dinner over the five days, but I felt intimately connected to these teachers and one joined my academic committee.
I spent 3 ½ years with Union. It was a peak experience in my life.
Excerpt from Learning to Live: Essays on Life and Leadership