Message from Mesopotamia

The King of Babylon was angry. He had been ill and had not received the ancient equivalent of a get-well card from the Egyptian Pharaoh. He dictated an angry letter to his scribe and dispatched a messenger to Egypt. This letter, preserved on a clay tablet from the Amarna archives dating from about 1350 B.C.E., tells us much about the limitations of ancient geographical knowledge but even more about human nature and our tendency toward self-absorption. “I did not send you get-well wishes,” Pharaoh Amunhotep IV replied, “because I did not know you were ill. And I did not know you were ill because Babylon is a good long distance from Egypt.” The story has a happy ending. The King of Babylon checks with his messenger, discovers that “Babylon is indeed a good long distance from Egypt” and sends another message telling Pharaoh that he is forgiven.1

Photo of President HelmThis story came to mind recently when I received my own message from Mesopotamia – e-mail from Ben Hardin ’04, now stationed with our troops in Baghdad.2 I spoke at Ben’s commissioning ceremony on campus last May and handed him his Muhlenberg diploma a day later. Ben’s e-mail was typical of the man who grew to maturity on our campus: warm, upbeat, optimistic, dedicated to his comrades and his mission, but eager to know if everything was faring well with his alma mater. I was deeply touched by Ben’s message – there he was, amidst considerable danger, asking if everything was okay with us! It prompted me to reflect how great this College would be if every alum demonstrated such concern for Muhlenberg.

Of course, communication is a two-way street, and despite the vast improvements in the speed and convenience of communication over the last 3400 years, those of us who live and work on this beautiful campus can get so wrapped up in our daily efforts to make Muhlenberg better that sometimes we forget to get the message out to the far-flung members of the Muhlenberg family. Perhaps it is no wonder that we do not hear more frequently from many of them! My quarterly essays in this magazine, as well as my road trips to visit alumni and other Muhlenberg stakeholders around the country, represent a modest effort to address this responsibility.

So, what shall we converse about today? As the College prepares for its re-accreditation process next year, the concept of “outcomes” is very much on our minds here on campus. When talking with members of the Muhlenberg family, I often speak of training students for “lives of leadership and service” – are we actually accomplishing that mission?

There is powerful evidence that we are not just accomplishing it, but excelling at it. Some of the evidence is anecdotal to be sure. It is hard not to be impressed by our graduates in the military (Ben’s was only one of several commissioning ceremonies on campus last year), by accounting majors that get snapped up by Deloitte Touche and other top accounting firms well before graduation, and by seniors completing their certification for careers as public school teachers by student teaching in the community. But there is statistical evidence as well. In 2004, an enviable 86% of our pre-med graduates were accepted into competitive medical schools, including the University of Pennsylvania, the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, the University of Pittsburgh, and Thomas Jefferson Medical School. More than 580 Pennsylvania physicians received their undergraduate science training at Muhlenberg, 123 of these practicing right on our doorstep in Lehigh County, and, of course, these numbers represent only a fraction of the total number of Muhlenberg-trained science researchers and health professionals who serve our community, our state, and our country. Acceptance rates to law school are equally impressive.

In my travels, I constantly meet alumni who are thriving as artists, journalists, mental health professionals and leaders in the worlds of business and finance. Invariably I discover that these accomplished individuals are much more than their professions – they are liberally educated women and men who relish life and the world of ideas and are deeply engaged with their communities. Each of them carries something of Muhlenberg with them – no matter how far from the campus they may be. An institution that can produce people like this – people like many of you who are reading this essay – must be doing something right.

I have said before that Muhlenberg’s continued success requires your participation. This is true even if you find yourself as far away from ‘Berg as Egypt or Baghdad. How can you help? First, return to campus for a visit and see for yourself the impressive things that are happening here. Second, even if you cannot get back to Allentown, brag about Muhlenberg to friends and associates – at least three times a day, six days a week (on the seventh day you may rest). And finally (and most important at this time of the year), support the College philanthropically.

Your gift to the Muhlenberg Fund supports all of the powerful outcomes I mentioned earlier. Our country’s future soldiers, doctors, teachers, business leaders, and all the other fine graduates that serve our nation in so many ways, cannot be trained without your assistance. Fortunately, you do not need to know cuneiform or hieroglyphics to get in touch with us. The phone, the web, and even the postal service will do just fine. Have a great summer!

Peyton R. Helm
Muhlenberg College

1 A. Leo Oppenheim, Letters from Mesopotamia, University of Chicago Press, 1967. pp. 113-115
2 For Ben’s safety, I have not used his real name.

The Last Word


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