Renowned astronomer shares advice during WU's convocation address

by University Communications,

David J. Helfand, president and vice chancellor of Quest University Canada, knows students receive an earful of advice when they enter college.

They’re told to develop job-ready skills, to take as many credits as possible and to pad their resume with a double major — all to look good to future employers.

But Helfand says none of this is important. Instead, college students should take time to discover their passions and develop critical thinking skills.

“Education is not about learning information, it’s about gaining knowledge,” Helfand told a crowd of more than 1,000 people at Willamette University’s Convocation ceremony Aug. 23.

“What employers are looking for are people who can write and speak effectively and persuasively and people who can collaborate across departments in their company to solve problems."

During Helfand’s talk, “How Not to Spend the Next Four Years,” he lauded the value of a liberal arts education to incoming students and their families, sharing how he unexpectedly discovered his own love for astronomy while a student at Amherst College in the 1960s.

After taking one class, he said he began to realize astronomy — not theatre — was the best fit for him.

Since then, he earned his PhD from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, worked for 35 years as a professor of astronomy at Columbia University, and appeared on such television programs as Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” and National Geographic’s “The Known Universe.”

Helfand now serves as president of the American Astronomical Society — the professional organization of astronomers, planetary scientists and solar physicists in North America.

A liberal arts education “is the best kind of education for the world in which you'll graduate,” he said. “Be open to that.”