Based on student voting, political science professor Rick Mayes was selected to give the second of University of Richmond’s Last Lecture Series, which will be held at 7 p.m. April 1 in the Jepson Alumni Center.
During the first three weeks of this semester, students were able to vote on Bannerweb for any Richmond professor to give the next Last Lecture. Three professors received the majority of the 555 student votes, said junior Brian Guay, who initiated this year’s talk with the provost’s office.
Guay said he had come across a video of Richmond’s first Last Lecture, given by accounting professor Joe Hoyle in 2009, and wondered why the school had not presented another talk since then, considering the success of Hoyle’s talk.
Hoyle’s Last Lecture was also in the Alumni Center, and the room was packed, Guay said. There were people on the floor right next to the stage, and there was also an overflow viewing room, which will be available this year as well, he said.
Guay emailed President Edward Ayers asking why the school had not pursued the series. Ayers was pleased with Guay’s interest, especially since he had given a Last Lecture at University of Virginia, Guay said. Ayers directed Guay to Provost Steve Allred, who was happy to consider the opportunity and whose office is now sponsoring the event, Guay said.
Guay got to break the news to Mayes that he had been chosen to give the lecture. “Honestly, I was overwhelmed,” Mayes said about his initial reaction. “Not in a good way.” Mayes was worried about the high expectations people would have for this type of talk, more so because of the origins of the Last Lecture Series, he said.
The original Last Lecture was given by Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, in 2007 when he learned he had terminal pancreatic cancer. He gave a lecture called “The Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” which he then expanded on in his book, “The Last Lecture.” Pausch co-authored the book with Jeffrey Zaslow, a Wall Street Journal columnist who originally wrote about the speech. The book became a New York Times Bestseller, and the YouTube video of Pausch’s talk has more than 15.5 million views.
Pausch’s story has inspired colleges and universities all over the country to hold their own Last Lecture Series, as Richmond is doing, and pose professors with the question, “If you were to deliver a lecture that would be your last, what would you say?”
Guay and Allred gave Pausch’s book to Mayes as a gift of congratulations and inspiration. Mayes said he had watched videos of other professors’ Last Lectures, as well as videos of commencement addresses, since they often have a similar tone and message. Mayes has come to like the idea of a Last Lecture because he has realized that message is what students ultimately want from their professors, he said.
“I’m trying to give a talk that’s not maybe quite as dynamic as [a commencement address] or not as inspirational, but at least has some things that are easy to remember and will be helpful,” Mayes said.
Mayes is the faculty adviser for the Global Health Sophomore Scholars in Residence program, and one of his current students in the program is John Ciemniecki. Mayes and his classes for the SSIR have played a key role in solidifying Ciemniecki’s plan to go into the medical field, Ciemniecki said.
He said his desire to be an advocate for social change had made him more interested in working abroad, maybe for an organization such as Doctors Without Borders, but that Mayes’ coursework about the American healthcare system had changed his mind.
Ciemniecki realized he could make a difference here, and he has been “impassioned to go into the healthcare industry,” he said. But Ciemniecki said that Mayes’ passion for healthcare was not the only thing that made him believe he was a good choice for the Last Lecture Series.
Mayes is so supportive of his students that their relationship feels more like a friendship, Ciemniecki said. “He wants to get to know us better,” he said, “and he wasn’t hiding anything about himself. That openness is rare to see in a professor.”
Mayes’ history at Richmond shows how much he is willing to do to get to know his students outside of the classroom. He, his wife and their two sons lived in Thomas Hall as dorm parents for six years, Mayes said.
He also likes to take students on more field trip-like outings, putting the emphasis on experiential learning, he said. Mayes said he has seen students and their friendships flourish in those situations.
Mayes’ passion for his area of study and for teaching has an impact on his students, said Guay, who has not had Mayes as a professor but has met with him to talk about studying abroad in Peru. Mayes’ students want to hear more from him and to see him talk in a different way from how he normally does, Ciemniecki said.
The Last Lecture Series is free and registration is not required. Guay has started a Facebook event that currently has more than 130 people planning to attend.
Contact staff writer Maggie Burch at firstname.lastname@example.org