First-Year Speaker and Author Eboo Patel Extols the Virtues of College

Patel, of Chicago, is a Self-Described Social Entrepreneur

Although Eboo Patel was invited to Trinity to address the Class of 2017 because its members were required to read his 2010 book, Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation, his remarks Friday had little to do with his book. Instead, he devoted most of his speech to extolling the virtues of college – especially a liberal arts education -- and urging the students to maximize every opportunity afforded to them, just as he did 20 years ago.

“I think college is about three things,” he said during his remarks at the Koeppel Community Center. “The first is finding out what’s meaningful to you. The second is developing the skills to build a life around those things. And the third is learning how to spread those things. In other words, college is where you discover the intersection of the inner world and the outer world. “Some people call that purpose, and the classic line on purpose is by [writer and theologian] Frederick Buechner: ‘Purpose is where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep needs’.”

In introducing the first-year speaker, Homayra Zaid, assistant professor of religion, described Patel, the founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) in Chicago, as “a public intellectual, a pragmatist and a visionary.” IFYC is an organization that builds interfaith movements on college campuses.

However, Patel spent almost no time talking about the IFYC or the interfaith movement. Rather, he spoke about what students should focus on during the next four years of their lives: items such as exploration, investigation, introspection and community service.

“As I stand up here right now and look at you sitting there,” Patel said, “my primary emotion is envy. I’ve been to a lot of crazy fascinating places in the last 20 years – Dharamsalla to visit the Dalai Lama, Cape Town to see [Nelson] Mandela speak – but the world never felt as new to me as when I was 17 years old walking under turning leaves on a college quad. There’s a great line about that by [French novelist and essayist] Marcel Proust: ‘The true journey of discovery is not in seeing new landscapes, it is in developing new eyes’.”

Patel opened his talk with an anecdote about his 20th high school reunion, which he recently attended. Many of the people there were highly successful, had traditional jobs and were well off financially. Patel found himself trying to describe his vocation.

“Like everybody else, I was asked what I did,” he said. “I tried all sorts of explanations. I’m a social entrepreneur, I direct a nonprofit organization, I work in the area of religion and public life, I’m trying to build a field called interfaith leadership. No matter what I said, I got pretty much the same response: a blank stare.”

Indeed, when he was a high school student, he had no idea what a social entrepreneur was or what it meant to be an executive director of a nonprofit organization. There came a time when he asked himself: “How did I go from having no image of what it means to shape a field to building an organization whose mission is precisely that?

And the answer, he said, was college.

“For me, just about everything that makes me who I am now I can trace back to some event in college,” Patel told the students. “Something I read, a midnight conversation in a dorm, a nugget of wisdom a professor passed on. And the more I thought about it, the more it occurred to me that an awful lot of the more profound things that happened to me in college were pretty random. There were no neon signs that said: here is the lecture hall where you will discover your vocation. Most of the time, I didn’t even realize that something big had just occurred. It took a while for that book or that talk to dig its way into my consciousness and do its work guiding my life.”

It was serendipitous that Patel happened to learn about a fellow named Muhammad Yunus, an activist who discovered a huge problem in his native country of Bangladesh, where industrious residents were having an impossible time getting banks to loan them money. So Yunus began a micro-credit program, which allowed skilled women to start their own small businesses.

“My professor…said, “Muhammad Yunus is what’s called a ‘social entrepreneur’, somebody who designs and implements real-world solutions to real-world social problems,” said Patel.

That’s when Patel decided he wanted to be a social entrepreneur, someone who analyzes problems in the social world and shapes programs to solve them. He had an epiphany. “For weeks on end, ‘social entrepreneur’ felt to me like the two most beautiful words in the English language,” he said.

Thus began Patel’s journey in discovering what he wanted to do with his life. He urged the students to be similarly open-minded and opportunistic and to take advantage of all that Trinity has to offer: not just classes but extracurricular activities, the arts, politics and, above all, “the intoxicant of ideas.”

“So what are the ingredients that make college, especially a liberal arts college like this, magical?” he asked rhetorically. “One is the fact that this is a stunningly rich environment focused primarily on your development. There are people who spent their entire summers trying to make orientation week as profound as possible for you. There are professors who reworked entire courses because they thought the new approach would be more pedagogically effective. There are people paid on this campus to tell you how great your idea for a new organization is, and to help you start that organization. There are faculty who will spend an hour with you to help you get three paragraphs in a paper just so. I have to tell you, the rest of life does not work like that…You will likely never again be in an environment this rich with intellectual energy, all focused on helping you become you.”

In addition to Acts of Faith, which won the Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion, Patel has written Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America, and is a regular contributor to The Washington Post, USA Today, The Huffington Post, NPR, and CNN.

He served on President Barack Obama’s inaugural Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Currently, Patel is a member of the Religious Advisory Committee of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Board of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the National Committee of the Aga Khan Foundation USA, and the Department of Homeland Security’s Faith-based Advisory Council.

Patel was named by Islamica Magazine as one of 10 young Muslim visionaries shaping Islam in America and was chosen by Harvard’s Kennedy School Review as one of five future policy leaders to watch. Both Patelo and IFYC were honored with the Roosevelt Institute’s Freedom of Worship Medal in 2009 and he was recently awarded the Guru Nanak Interfaith Prize, an award given to an individual to enhance awareness of the crucial role of religious dialogue in the pursuit of peace.