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First Lecture 2016

The Lecture

Every year, one faculty member is chosen by Westmont's President, Dr. Beebe, to give what is known as the First Lecture during Orientation. The First Lecture was inaugurated in 2008 and serves as a transition between a high school and college learning environment.

The LectureR

M Nelson headshotThis year's distinguished faculty member who is facilitating the talk is Dr. Mark Nelson, professor of philosophy.

Mark grew up near Chicago, graduated from Wheaton College (B.A., Philosophy) and the University of Notre Dame (M.A., Ph.D., Philosophy). Before coming to Westmont in August, 2006, he taught at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, the University of St Andrews in Scotland and the University of Leeds in England.

He is married to Pauline, and they have three daughters, a dachshund and a cat. He still has opposable thumbs.

Interview with Dr. Nelson

Q: Most impressionable memory of your first year in college?

A: During New Student Orientation, I remember feeling terribly self-conscious in the new clothes my mother had bought for me, and hoping I would fit in. They took us out for an evening cruise on Lake Michigan, and this girl I had just met bounced up to me and said rather brightly, “Why are you all dressed up?? You’re the only one here who’s dressed up!” and then bounced off again.

At the first floor-meeting in my dorm, I remember looking around the 50 guys crowded into our hot, stuffy lounge, thinking, “I will know these people very well in 9 months, but right now I do not know any of them. Some of them will be my closest friends, but I have no idea now which ones those are!”

Also during Orientation, my college had this program where all the new students got invited to a faculty or staff home for Sunday dinner. Whoever organized mine had a quirky sense of humor, because when we went around the table and introduced ourselves, my group included a Hal Seed, a Debbie Twig and a Larry Grow. (Get it??)

Q: How can students apply “The Great Divorce” to their Westmont career?

A: One of the book’s central ideas is the moral and spiritual significance of character, and how it is shaped. The kind of person you ultimately become will depend crucially on the innumerable choices you make, the things that you focus on, and the loves that cultivate. Ralph Waldo Emerson saw this, too: “Sow a thought and you reap an action; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.”

Q: Where is your favorite place in Santa Barbara? Care to share your secret spot?

A: Oh absolutely! East Beach Grill for pancakes. Forget the omelets, but their buttermilk pancakes are the best! And it’s so close to the water that I have actually seen whales spouting while I was eating my breakfast. But don’t tell anybody about it. I don’t want word to get around.

Q: What is your advice for First Year Students?

A: #1 Most college students are sleep deprived. I don’t have many regrets, but if I could do college over again, I would sleep more. My freshman year I woke up every morning tired and my eyes hurt.

#2 I would encourage students to be better about asking professors for help. I wasn’t shy, but it just didn’t even occur to me that I could ask my professor for help if I didn’t understand something. Go to office hours.

Q: What stood out to you the first time you read “the Great Divorce”?

A: No spoilers, but the book is a fantasy, and I love fantasy. It paints a picture of Heaven and Hell, and I thought that was cool. And it was a plausible picture that explained these two concepts in way I’d never thought of before, and helped answer some worries I’d had about the injustice and arbitrariness of Heaven and Hell. Also, I had been put off by the title, because I thought it was about marriage and divorce, so I was delighted when it turned out to be a story, and a fantasy story at that.


The Great Divorce In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis's classic vision of the Afterworld, the narrator boards a bus on a drizzly English afternoon and embarks on an incredible voyage through Heaven and Hell. He meets a host of supernatural beings far removed from his expectations, and comes to some significant realizations about the nature of good and evil.