LACEY - Colleges and universities nationwide host "Last Lecture" events, in which faculty members are challenged with the question, "If this were the last lecture you ever gave, what would you share with students?"
Ian Werrett, an associate professor of religious studies, took the podium Wednesday at Saint Martin’s University’s Trautman Union Building to give his answer with the presentation “Engaging the Other: The Power of Active Listening.”
“Hopefully, it won’t be my last lecture at Saint Martin’s,” he joked.
About 100 people – mostly Werrett’s colleagues, students, friends and supporters – attended. It was the second year the university has held a Last Lecture event, and organizers hope it will become a springtime tradition.
Werrett was chosen by a student vote. The event was sponsored by Saint Martin’s Faculty-in-Residence Program and the Associated Students of Saint Martin’s University.
“Last Lecture is actually proof that Saint Martin’s students have a voice and have a choice,” said Sharon Taylor, an associate professor in psychology and community services and faculty adviser for the series.
Werrett’s fans described him as personable, engaging, knowledgeable, passionate and someone who makes learning a joy, said Alyssa Nastasi, the student chairwoman of the Last Lecture series.
Several students described the professor the way Saint Martin’s graduate Ande Dunn, 23, did: “He reaches out to every student in the class, and you feel like he is having a conversation with you,” she said.
Taylor said Saint Martin’s Last Lecture series was modeled after Carnegie Mellon University’s program, which became nationally recognized in 2007 when Randy Pausch, a computer science professor with terminal pancreatic cancer, presented “The Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.”
Pausch’s charismatic speech was viewed by millions over the Internet and inspired Pausch to co-author a best-selling book. He died less than a year after his Last Lecture.
Werrett, a 1996 Saint Martin’s graduate who has studied, spoken and written extensively on the Dead Sea Scrolls, talked about the importance of active listening in an increasingly global society.
It’s a skill often used by counselors, conflict-resolution specialists and diplomats, and involves body posture, eye contact, being mentally present and staying engaged in the conversation, he said.
But it wasn’t a typical lecture; during the presentation, Werrett told childhood stories and wove personal details in about his life.
Among the tidbits he shared: He’s an only child and has dual citizenship in America and England, where his dad’s family lives. He grew up in the Bay Area and has traveled extensively.
Werrett discovered a love for history as a child visiting Windsor Castle and other famous landmarks in the United Kingdom, Spain and France.
“It made history real in a way that it wasn’t in the classrooms,” he said.
His parents took him to numerous museums, but the one that changed his life was a King Tut exhibit. To this day, just talking about the golden death mask gives him goose bumps, he said.
“It is absolutely mind-blowing,” he said. “It floored me as a child.”
And that’s when he said he learned the importance of listening “to artifacts, texts and the world.”
Werrett also talked about people in his life who had the most impact on his profession, including four mentors he met at Saint Martin’s as a student: Gloria Martin, professor of English and director of the writing center; David Suter, professor of religious studies; Father Kilian Malvey, a monk at Saint Martin’s Abbey and the chairman of the Religious Studies Department; and the late Les Bailey, a longtime English professor.
Bailey was such a Britofile, Werrett said, he swore he heard him speak with a British accent at times. But his classes were memorable, Werrett added.
“You sort of forgot you were in class,” he said. “He made it real. He brought it to life.”
And Malvey’s ability to listen to a person – instead of trying to work on a computer or multitask – also helped guide Werrett’s life.
“When you walk into his office, you are the only thing that matters,” Werrett said, his voice cracking with emotion. “That is a gift. I know of no person who does that better.”
After the lecture, Werrett was presented with a one-of-a-kind trophy – a hand-blown glass vase created by junior Robbie Coyer, 22, a business administration major.
Coyer described Werrett’s lecture as “fantastic.”
“He’s just awesome,” Coyer said. “I learned a little bit more about the guy behind the lecture.”
Freshman Hailey Hema, 18, said Werrett’s talk made her think about ways she could communicate better with friends and family members in Hawaii.
“It just makes me want to call home right now,” she said. “And get in some words.”