“Senior Voices” Address by Ben Shiling ’12

Ben Shiling ’12 delivered a “Senior Voices” Address May 26.

Hi, my name is Ben and I am an English major. To many, my parents included, this was a deliberate choice to either a) bank on grad school for a “good job,” or b) become an English teacher. Period. English major did not say to them “this is a man with a diversified future.” I was asked recently “what were you planning on doing with that” at a job interview. Ah! The life of a liberal arts graduate! We are a disreputable bunch, misfits, iconoclasts, destined, as Whitman proudly boasts, “to lean and loaf at our ease.” Well, it’s not that easy, but it is fun.

My story is largely one of making mistakes and getting out of holes I dug for myself. I needed lots of help to do this. My parents, a few friends, some providential support and even more mistakes gave me strength to eventually enlist in the Marines at 20, earn a degree from community college and succeed here at Wesleyan.

Upon arriving at Wesleyan, I realized three things. One, I was scared. Two, I belonged here. and Three, I had a lot to learn. I was more afraid of research papers than of convoy security on top of a Humvee in Iraq. It was terrifying, but easy to accept since I had no choice. Coming to Wesleyan was different.  I had made a choice to come, and the choice involved abandoning other choices that seemed more secure job wise. It was like jumping out of a plane with a parachute but no idea how to pull the chord. I was giving up, piece by piece. My wife and my two little girls kept me anchored, my friends in my recovery program from alcoholism kept me sane, and my parents kept me out of poverty while I looked desperately for a job.

I was terrified because I could see myself really screwing this up. I became quite emotionally fragile, anxious and, as my wife will attest, quite grumpy. Having responsibilities was daunting enough, but fulfilling them requires somewhat more commitment. I was so scared at first that I started on ADD medication to avoid the same mistakes I had made in high school, only to find myself a grouchy, unpredictable lout. As I became more comfortable, I came off the medication and found a more balanced approach to both life and school. I have been in school for most of my life, so, in a way, school is my life, and life is my school.

The second thing that I noticed was that I belonged here. My hard work, life experience, academic devotion, my nerdiness and genuine interest in learning about the world and its people fit me squarely in my comfort zone. I also learned about the things outside my comfort zone, like Marxist theory, and feminism, and Marxist feminism. In my class discussions I found that my opinion was valued and respected, even though I frequently had no idea what I was talking about.

Finally, I learned that I had a lot to learn. Academically, I had to learn how to read and write at a much higher level, two things that I had previously felt quite secure in. Professionally,I had to learn how to relate to people at Instructional Media Services, an environment that has helped me as much personally as it has professionally. Personally, I also started learning how to deal with simultaneous kids, marriage, homework and work work and the stress that comes along for the ride. I have a suspicion that this learning thing is a lifelong process. Oh yeah, I learned that senior year in college is quite different from senior year in high school. Especially my wife having our third baby at home during my final semester’s midterms. That was, uh, distracting.

My wife and I homeschool our now three children, are well along the way to completing a strawbale house, and beginning a life outside of school, for now. It has not been, and I imagine will not be, an easy task but the combination of the skills I have learned from failing miserably and persevering, and from succeeding at a shifting array of goals and ambitions, I feel confident, humble and excited about the future ahead. My Wesleyan experience will remain a mainstay in my life’s tapestry, alongside the Marines, recovery, family and my future vocation. What a ride! As Hunter S. Thompson said, “I had witnessed the start of the race. I was sure of that much. But what now? What comes next?” I can’t wait to find out.

Thank you for your time, and I hope you are as excited and relieved as I am. Have a wonderful weekend!