The Last Lecture

The Last Lecture

April 4, 2013
Political science professor Rick Mayes gives 2013 Last Lecture

If you were to address your students, family, friends, and colleagues one more time, what would you say?

It sounds like an exciting chance for professors to break out of their curriculum and give a lecture with personal meaning, but it’s not as simple as it sounds.

The last lecture concept has long been a common practice at colleges and universities, inviting leading academics to impart their wisdom to the world under the premise that it’s their last chance. When Randy Pausch, a computer science professor, was selected to give the lecture at Carnegie Mellon University in 2007, though, he turned the hypothetical into reality. Just a month earlier, he had received the news that his pancreatic cancer was terminal and he had only months to live.

This lens on the lecture pushed later presenters to think about the speech in new terms, often laced with the prospect of facing their own mortality. It was no doubt a difficult task for Pausch, and has continued to challenge those who have followed.

Pausch’s legacy was on the mind of political science professor Rick Mayes after students selected him for the newly revived Last Lecture Series at the University of Richmond. More than 550 students voted to choose who from among the entire faculty they most wanted to hear.

“Oftentimes we wait until it’s too late to ask people what they thought about their life, what meant something to them, and what kind of advice they want to give,” says Brian Guay, ’14, one of the event organizers. “We spend so much time in class talking about issues and what’s in our books. But not so much what these professors — who have led fascinating and very successful lives — have learned along the way.”

Mayes’ lecture was a diversion from his usual topics of political science and healthcare policy, instead focusing on a simple theme: What makes life truly meaningful?

It’s something we’re all in search of, he says, and Mayes mentioned six basic paths that he believes made a difference in his life. Work an undesirable job. Don’t try to be great. Find someone you trust to tell you the truth. Laugh. Be nice, but not always.

And most important, it’s perfectly OK to make plans, but remember that life isn’t as linear as people would like it to be, or even think it is. “If you ever look at a résumé, they’re so seamless and rational,” Mayes says. “Résumés are deeply misleading about the way life really unfolds.”

Instead, Mayes says it’s often the things we’re dragged into — sometimes unknowingly, sometimes kicking and screaming against our will — that yield the biggest changes. For Mayes, one of those moments came after reading Tracy Kidder’s book Mountains Beyond Mountains and assigning it to his class. He knew the message had struck a chord, but it wasn’t until his students saw the potential to visit Peru that a shift in Mayes’ life started to take shape.

Mayes was hesitant from the beginning, even hoping University funding for the trip wouldn’t come through. “It was the one time in my life that I was praying they’d turn us down,” Mayes says. “I did not feel like I had any wherewithal to do this. I was outside my comfort zone considerably.”

Six years later, Mayes is still taking students to developing countries to see healthcare issues in action. He’s now co-director of the University’s healthcare and society major. He teaches a living-learning community focused on global health. And just last year, Mayes and his family adopted a daughter, Ali, from a Peruvian orphanage.

Even with undeniably positive outcomes, Mayes says these times aren’t just momentary celebrations. They also help us get through the days when simply getting out of bed is a monumental accomplishment, and imagining that something better lies ahead is nearly impossible.

“This uncertainty is the reality for all of us, me included, at various times in our lives,” Mayes says. “Sometimes you feel like it’s the only reality in your life. But it is what makes us human, it’s what makes us honest, and hopefully helpful to others.”

Watch Mayes' Last Lecture