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‘You belong’

Closeup of Associate Professor Melissa Parkhurst at a podium during WSU's 2021 convocation ceremony.
Associate Professor Melissa Parkhurst

Melissa Parkhurst reflected on the past year and a half and collected her thoughts.

“These freshmen and sophomores have lived through challenges, uncertainty and now, in many cases, are traveling long distances from home where they’re not sure what to expect or what they’ll find,” said Parkhurst, an associate professor with the School of Music who delivered the faculty keynote address at the Pullman convocation. “I thought about that and how we should welcome them and help them realize that while they may at times feel all alone, there are so many ways WSU is here to support them.”

A theme took shape: You belong.

Parkhurst used her faculty keynote address to not only welcome incoming students, including the sophomores who spent their freshmen years online, but to drive greater recognition of the many ways WSU and the Coug family is there to support and help them in their journeys. “It can take a while to learn about all these services,” she said, explaining she’s a Faculty Fellow in WSU’s LIFT program, implementing research that shows a student’s sense of belonging can determine their levels of academic achievement and graduation rate. “I wanted to make sure they knew to look.”

The speech that followed was so powerful the WSU Insider received several requests to publish Parkhurst’s keynoter in its entirety.

It’s reprinted here.

Welcome, Cougs, and congratulations. You made it here! In the past 18 months, you’ve likely experienced distance learning, times of great uncertainty, and social isolation. You’ve survived something hard, and now you have the strength that comes with that. You are entering a world that’s been interrupted, and now you have the opportunity to create something new.

You belong here. This is your place, your university, and we are all stronger because of your presence. And our job, as faculty and staff, is to help every student here find their sense of belonging and what they need to succeed at WSU. This is your university, and we’re here to help you make the most out of your time here. We want every student to be seen and heard, valued, included, and welcomed.

You’ll soon be presented with a dizzying array of choices, every day: what to eat, what to read, watch, follow, post, support, say, believe. These are all invitations to belonging. And sometimes, we scroll, click, and post to feel like we belong. But we don’t need to do that.

Belonging is our true nature—it doesn’t even depend on things being the way we want them to be. It’s not necessary to achieve (some definition of) success, behave like everyone else, have the perfect partner, be the perfect size or shape. And…we don’t even need to feel belonging to belong. It’s the fundamental nature of reality right here and now, when we feel it, and when we don’t.

There will be times when you feel like everyone else knows what’s going on, and you don’t. This is normal. You belong.

There will be days when you see your friends’ photos on Instagram, and it feels like your life can’t possibly measure up. Insta is not real life. You belong.

You might be the first in your family to attend college. And this is a powerful thing! You belong.

You might have days when you don’t feel like going to class. Go anyway! And remember that you belong.

And today, even as you’re finding your feet here, getting to know the campus and how you’ll spend your time, we can help others remember their belonging. When you see someone from class or from your residence hall eating alone, ask if you can join them. Don’t wait for them to ask, because they might be waiting for you!

Maybe you’re an introvert like me, and it feels awkward to approach someone. But! we have more to fear from our inhibitions than from our vulnerabilities. We have so much to gain when we let ourselves be vulnerable. We could think of it as practicing “assertive friendship.” You can be the one who issues the invitations, who reaches out first. This is how healthy circles of community happen. And this is how we belong.

You have a wide support network here, with many services to nurture your academic development, your mental and physical health, and your basic needs for community and social bonding. The faculty, the staff, and the friends you will make are here to support you. And home is just a phone call or text away.

As new as college seems right now, it will become a second home for you. You’ll have ice cream or Cougar Gold cheese at Ferdinand’s. You’ll visit the grizzly bears. You’ll attend a football or soccer game, or go stargazing at Observatory Hill, or watch the Lentil Parade, or go to the farmers’ market. You’ll find a favorite desk at the library, or your regular table at the Hillside Café. You’ll try some activities in your residence hall and you’ll meet new people. You’ll choose the activities that speak to you—because no two people are the same—and little by little, you’ll come to have roots here.

My wish for you is this: May you stay open and seize the opportunities for new experiences. In your time at WSU, may you find “that place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Where the things that bring you joy can also serve the world around you. So: Welcome, Cougs! We are so happy to have you joining us. Each of you brings something unique to the Cougar Family and we are all stronger because you are here.

Go Cougs!

At WSU, Parkhurst has brought cultural literacy and awareness to thousands of students across the university. Her courses provide ethnically diverse musical experiences, with performances and lectures from guest artists and hands-on workshops.

Scholars nationwide have sought and recognized her expertise:

  • She is a fellow for the WSU’s Center for Arts and Humanities, completing the project, “Field Recordings of Nez Perce Singers”.
  • Her acclaimed book, To Win the Indian Heart: Music at Chemawa Indian School explains the power of music to connect families, tribes, and communities.
  • Her co-edited anthology of songs and oral histories, Nimiipuum We’nipt: Songs of the People (forthcoming), gathers teachings and essays that build understanding of Nez Perce cultural traditions.
  • Parkhurst serves as President of the Association for Faculty Women.

In addition, WSU has given her top honors:

  • She is the 2021 awardee of the WSU Faculty Diversity Award, recognizing her among the best of the best at the university.

Central to her work is the concept of “personhood”—that the people about whom she writes and teaches are complex human beings.

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