A prof’s lessons from China

Lyle D. Olson

Lyle D. Olson

Twenty-nine years ago this fall I arrived at SDSU as an apprehensive transfer student with many questions about what my future might hold — just like many of you.

I now have some answers.

You really can go anywhere from here. As an introverted small-town carpenter’s son daydreaming in the student center, I never would have dreamed that I would return and become a professor. Nor could I have imagined that I would travel to 14 countries and teach English for a semester in the 15th-China. I marvel at what I and other SDSU graduates with humble roots have experienced.

Closed doors are sometimes good. Upon my graduation, someone else got the job in Pierre that I had my heart set on, so I ended up a weekly newspaper in Ortonville, MN. For various reasons, boy am I glad! It prepared me well for all that followed.

Years later someone else got the teaching positions at two area colleges that I wanted when I was looking into moving north from Oklahoma. A couple years later a much better position opened up at SDSU; I’ve been here ever since.

Less is often more. A college friend, a backpacking buddy, lives in Zambia. He talks about feeling nauseous when he returns to the States and faces anew the abundance of choices in consumer products, sometimes to the point of being ridiculous. I now know what he means. Life in China was simpler. I returned with a new batch of questions about the plusses and minuses of so many choices in all areas of my life.

I’m a “rich” American. I was called rich in China. “No way,” I thought defensively. “I have a South Dakota teacher’s salary for goodness sakes.” But, when I read that one-third of the world’s population has never made a phone call and less than five percent have a personal computer, I’m ashamed at my reaction. I’m still troubled by being called “rich,” and I grapple continually with materialism and issues of what I want versus what I need.

Satisfied dissatisfaction. The list of things in my life that I’m satisfied with and grateful for is long. After living in China, three things rise to the top: I appreciate being an American more than ever, northeastern South Dakota is a great place to call home, and American higher education is wonderfully available, egalitarian, and, yes, even efficient.

Nonetheless, I’m still dissatisfied with my life but less so concerning my possessions, status, accomplishments. It has taken me a long time to realize that what I should be dissatisfied with falls into different categories. I haven’t, for example, nurtured friendships as much as I should have, I haven’t given more of my disposable income beyond the Biblical 10 percent tithe to charities, I haven’t volunteered my journalistic and carpentry skills more often to serve others, and on and on.

Twenty-nine years and counting to find some answers and learn some lessons. I hope you learn more quickly.