An alumnus returned this week to give the keynote address for our Challenge Week series on corruption in government. But this is not someone who popped over from across the state or even across the country. This alumnus flew 23 hours from Macedonia to be our guest expert. A native of this young country (which became independent from the former Yugoslavia in 1991), he works with a U.S. government agency there to foster democratic development -- something very hard to do in a transitional state where corruption is an ever-present reality and threat.
What's remarkable to me about this particular person and their return to our institution is not his expertise nor his current position of responsibility. It's the fact that his route through life took him to Conway, Arkansas for four years, where he was a fixture in the Honors College socially and academically, and occupied positions of leadership in student government as well. That contingency is what led him back here, and surely for many people it's the one discordant note in his vita. Eastern Europe, Washington D.C., Lisbon, Paris, Germany -- all these locations make sense. What the heck is Conway, Arkansas doing there? How did we become the fortunate recipient of this remarkable person's time and energy for four years, when in so many ways it seems so unlikely?
Everywhere I go I find people who have Arkansas connections, and it never ceases to surprise me. I suppose that's because I lived right next to Arkansas for eighteen years, in Tennessee, and never found a reason to set foot in the place (or even allow it to cross my mind, to tell you the truth). Yet here we have a hotbed of interesting theological thought, with one panel in the Open and Relational Theologies program at the recent AAR meeting dominated by Conway residents, three to one. I meet people all the time who have lived in the state, have family there, know its ways and its colleges and its business and its politics.
All this helps me to feel confident -- and pass the confidence along to my students -- that their home state and my adopted one is not a backwater or an also-ran. People everywhere have been touched by it. If a Macedonian trying to guide his country into open and transparent government has reaped benefits from time in Arkansas, anything is possible.