We didn’t see Darrin Good coming.
If you’d have asked folks on campus to guess where Nebraska Wesleyan University’s next president might come from, Los Angeles, Calif., wouldn’t have topped many lists.
Nor would we have guessed, when he and his wife, Diana Good, landed in Lincoln, that the California couple stepping off that plane would fit so well on Nebraska soil.
“Our time in LA was wonderful,” Darrin said. “The weather was like a summer vacation that lasted four years. But that wasn’t us. We missed having seasons.”
They first visited NWU while campus was in the grip of Lincoln’s snowiest winter in decades. “I think we annoyed some people by how much we enjoyed the snow,” he said. “You were probably all sick of it by then. But to us, that snow felt like coming home.”
The Goods’ attitude throughout that snowy campus introduction was far more “first-year student” than it was “first couple.”
“Yes! That’s exactly right. Our eyes were that wide open—our excitement that high,” Diana said. She described a campus reception in Great Hall. “We were just bewildered at the welcome. We got to walk over to the Admissions Office and ring the same bell they ring for every new student. We felt so much a part of it, I just didn’t want that visit to stop.”
But the Goods needed to fly back to sunny Los Angeles, where Diana taught Spanish to 185 students at Claremont High School, and Darrin served as vice president of academic affairs and dean of the faculty at Whittier College. Whittier is one of the country’s most racially diverse independent national liberal arts colleges, founded the same year as NWU: 1887.
Before their time at Whittier, the Goods had crisscrossed the Midwest. Darrin had served as associate provost and dean of science and education at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn. Prior to that, he taught biology at his alma mater, Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill. That’s where, as an undergraduate, he met and married Diana, like him, a “small-town kid from Illinois.” And like a lot of Midwestern kids, Darrin said, the two of them were both raised to revere a good education, and “to never forget you represent more than just yourself.”
The son of a middle school science teacher, it made sense for Darrin to study biology at Augustana. He began college thinking he was bound for medical school. Then it was physical therapy. Then veterinary science, then dentistry.
“I wanted to prove myself and make money,” he said. “I wanted to go back to my hometown and show everybody I’d made it.”
Darrin’s junior year, his father died, and something changed in his outlook. “I looked back on Dad’s life and thought a lot about what had made him a success to me. I remembered when he returned to teaching and the happiness that gave him.”
By then, Darrin had already been accepted to dental school. “And I slowly realized I was doing it for the wrong reasons.” He shifted gears and fell in love with teaching.
Fast forward a few years, and Darrin was no longer anxiously studying biology at Augustana. He was happily teaching it there.
“I’m a big believer in constant vocational reflection,” he said. “If you’re happy in your work, you serve the world in better ways.”
Diana’s career as a Spanish teacher echoes that philosophy of service. “I’ve had the joy of helping young people get excited about learning a new language and exploring new cultures and new people,” she said. As their careers moved from Illinois to Kansas, Missouri, Minnesota and California, Diana has taught at every stop—often going through the extensive work of recertification in a new state.
“It’s worth it to be with young people.” Not everyone understands the joy to be found surrounded by dozens of 14- and 15-year-olds, she said. “But these people are fountains of creativity. They give me so much.”
Nebraska is likely to be the first place where Diana doesn’t teach—a reality that leaves her with complex feelings. “I’m just not sure I could give my commitment to a school district here and serve the right way in this role with Darrin,” she said.
“It’s important for us to travel for the university, to be at events, to be in service. And I don’t think I could do that well and be present in a way that my students would deserve,” she said.
“So, you could say I’m about to learn a new language, myself, right?”
She smiled a smile big enough to hold just a little sadness. “When you care about what you do, it’s always emotional.”
Darrin felt his own mix of emotions as he explored Nebraska Wesleyan for the first time on that snowy February day. Asked for his impressions of campus, the easy talker paused. He said it would be easy to slip into clichés about the warm welcome they received. But a cliché wouldn’t do.
Instead, Darrin told a story. He said coming to Nebraska Wesleyan made him think back to his daughter’s college search. He remembered asking Samantha how one campus visit had gone. Could she see herself doing well there?
“She told me, ‘Dad, no. Not there.’” Surprised at how adamant she was, he asked her why. “’They were so pretentious!’ She said it was like the whole campus was dressed up fancy just because it was Thursday.”
Darrin took his daughter’s word for it that the school wasn’t the right fit for her.
After another visit at another school, he asked her the same question. Can you see yourself doing well here? “Yes, Dad,” Samantha said. “Here.”
Darrin smiled. “She was just certain. She saw the sincerity, the openness, the energy she was looking for. And she just knew it. That’s what Diana and I felt when we came here.”
They felt like new students. New students in the right place.
“There’s such a depth of community here that we could just immediately feel,” Darrin said. The Goods went to an NWU choir rehearsal and band practice. They cheered alongside Fred and Rosemary Ohles at a pair of NWU basketball games. “Everywhere we walked, we saw friendly faces—students with their eyes up.”
The “upness” of those eyes impressed the Goods. Here were students whose attention wasn’t fixed (at least, not solely) on their phones. Nor were they locked on their own feet as they shuffled in isolation between buildings. These students were alive and engaged—with each other and with new ideas. The Goods connected with their energy—and even with their anxieties.
College students are bombarded with the new. And some will be overwhelmed. Darrin expressed concern for the rising rates of American college students experiencing anxiety disorders. Students can fall into patterns, he said, where they lose sleep over how little sleep they get, or feel stressed about their stress.
“Inside that cycle, it becomes harder for some young people to make decisions,” he said, “because they’re scared it might be a mistake. It can reach the point where they won’t give themselves enough room or enough credit to make small choices.”
He applauded the Nebraska Wesleyan students he’s met for their eagerness to try the new—to take bold steps, even when they’re uncertain. “Because that’s what experimentation is, right?” he said. “You gather your courage. You try something new and you watch what happens. You learn from it and you let it inform that next new thing you try.”
In this light, he connected acts of learning and acts of courage. Both require steps into the unknown. Darrin Good is heartened to see so many new NWU students taking those kinds of steps. And Nebraska Wesleyan’s new president wants to bring that same energy, optimism and courage to his new role.
“Looking ahead to the medium term, we know that we’re going to have to try some new things to diversify Nebraska Wesleyan’s sources of revenue,” he said. “We already know that schools like us can’t rely on tuition from traditional undergraduate programs alone to sustain ourselves.”
He pointed with approval at the graduate and adult programs NWU operates now. More will come, he said. And not every new thing will succeed. “We have to be OK with some calculated risk,” he said, “because not making a choice—that’s also a choice.”
Willing as Darrin is to make a few “freshman mistakes” in his new role, don’t expect rashness to be among them. “There’s a real danger to somebody coming in guns blazing, acting like they know from the get-go exactly what a school needs.” That approach, he said, can stifle the consensus Darrin is keen to build.
“I’ve seen the foolishness of new administrators coming in and trying to put their stamp of ownership on everything,” he said. The only thing Darrin seems intent on owning in his new role is an attitude of servant leadership.
“This is not my institution,” he said. “I’m its caretaker.”
This work of caring for something precious that you do not own has tapped a sense of wonder and gratitude in both Goods. Diana described that wonder, again, through the lens of a new student.
She arrived at Augustana out of high school, and said the experience was like stumbling hungry into a feast. “I had no idea the buffet of opportunities waiting there for us. And Darrin and I have been fed by that every day of our lives.”
She said, “Since the moment he and I met, we’ve never been unattached to an academic institution. Not one day. And we’ve been constantly culturally enriched and blessed and fed by everything a college campus has to offer.”
Gratitude for those blessings is what drives them both to be the best possible caretakers for Nebraska Wesleyan University—so these life-changing feasts can continue for others. “All of these things you encounter at a school as special as Nebraska Wesleyan—they lay the foundation for this incredibly rich life in service,” she said.
That’s the life Darrin and Diana Good are beginning in the Good Life State—the kind of life where you are, forever, blessedly, a new student.
The Good Inauguration
All are welcome as Nebraska Wesleyan University inaugurates Darrin Good as its 17thpresident during homecoming.
Friday, October 4, 2019