By Anne Marie Amacher
The Catholic Messenger
DAVENPORT — Rachael Suddarth decided to measure her success by shoes. The St. Ambrose University assistant professor in speech-language pathology used shoes as a metaphor in her convocation speech to new students Aug. 23 in the university’s Rogalski Center. After her speech, Bishop Martin Amos blessed the students and Sister Joan Lescinski, CSJ, the university’s president, gave the charge to the students (challenge). She sent them out to search for “truth and commitment to social justice and service that defines us as truly Ambrosian. I challenge all of us to engage in that search and to keep in mind our brothers and sisters throughout the world who thirst after peace and justice.”
Suddarth recalled her high school days when her counselor encouraged her to apply for a full-ride scholarship to Washington University in St. Louis. He was confident she would be selected. “I knew my family did not have $50 for a college application, so I did not apply,” she said. When her counselor learned the reason she hadn’t applied, he was taken aback. He told her he would have paid the fee or asked the university to waive it. “I didn’t even know those things would be on the table so I did the best I could with the limited information that I had,” she said.
Instead, she applied to Truman State University because the application was free. She was accepted and received a full-ride scholarship. “I was ready to go. But being accepted, and having your costs paid for, does not mean you know how college works. I felt overwhelmed and scared. I was alone and there were few students who were like me.”
Suddarth said her first assignment was to give a speech about her hometown. “I was excited; I could do this, and I was a debater, a good debater. I am from Kansas City, Mo., and we often told jokes about Johnson County, which was immediately over the state line in Kansas. So I decided to open my speech with a joke. What is the difference between a porcupine and a Johnson County driver? The porcupine has pricks on the outside. I thought this would be good for a chuckle, a good way to break the ice, but no, it turns out my professor, Dr. Gooch, was from Johnson County. Whoops!” The Ambrose students and faculty gasped and laughed. “I was horrified, horrified and mortified all wrapped up together. Needless to say I was a bit uneasy around Dr. Gooch for the rest of the semester. But I respected her so much. I wanted to be like her,” Suddarth said.
In college she and her fellow students talked about the professor’s shoes. “She was smart and poised and passionate and she was my role model in many ways. Now in my mind I wanted to grow up and have Dr. Gooch shoes. My measure for success was having Dr. Gooch shoes. … Not her particular shoes, but what those shoes represented to a girl who grew up poor and who struggled to understand the middle-class structure of college and the culture of college-educated adults in general.”
She hadn’t known many people with a college degree except her pastor, pediatrician and school teachers. She thought she only had three career choices, so she selected teaching. As an undergraduate at Truman State, “you couldn’t pick education as a major; you had to complete a bachelor’s in a liberal arts field and then complete an additional year for your master’s in education.”
Suddarth planned to be a special education teacher, but had to choose a different major and selected communication disorders. “I had no idea what it was but it had the word disorder, so it seemed as good as any other.” She loved the coursework, critical thinking and caring about other people and decided to be a speech-language pathologist. “I started college with one idea about who I was going to be – a teacher – and ended up somewhere else.”
College gave Suddarth an opportunity to explore and become who she is today. She tried different foods in the cafeteria. She tried different courses such as jazz and horsemanship. “But the class that I was most uncomfortable with was ballet. All of the other students had some experience in dance, and I was fulfilling my duty to the liberal arts. To be a well-rounded learner I should try something that is an art and that I know next to nothing about. I was terrible at ballet but I learned about me. I took this class and it helped redefine me. It helped me become.”
Suddarth told the new students that their time at St. Ambrose is an “unprecedented opportunity to learn from all of the diversity you are surrounded by. Never in your life will you have an opportunity to stay up every night until 4 a.m. talking about the world and dreams and struggles and heartache. Learn from each other. The diversity in this room is huge. We often think in terms of color, but diversity is so much more. Look for that diversity; find opportunities to know someone new. Don’t just groan when a group project is assigned. Find it an opportunity to learn more about them and more about you.
“All of your experiences join together to create you. And after you become, keep becoming. Don’t stop — keep becoming. Dr. Gooch’s shoes were my measure for success, and when I graduated with my Ph.D., my advisor, Elena Plante, gave a speech about having me as her student and at the end of it, she mentioned how great my shoes were.”