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The School of Life

November 20, 2017
ASU Rick Shangraw

By R.F. “Rick” Shangraw, Jr.

A new bestseller asks: how do we find meaning when the world is filled with natural disasters, violence and suffering?

The author, Iddo Landau, teaches at Haifa University in Israel and notes that questions about purpose aren’t limited to his students.

The answers to them, however, may not be far from campus classrooms.

Though universities are places where young adults find themselves and emerge into the “real world,” they are also places for people at every life stage to—borrowing from the title of Landau’s book—“[Find] Meaning in an Imperfect World.”

Consider Charlie Leight.

To many, Charlie’s body of work as a news photographer amounts to a sufficient legacy. However, as he aged, he began looking elsewhere for a way to give back. When donating a kidney didn’t work out, he still wanted to find a way to “be a part of someone’s miracle.”

This fall, he covered the Sun Devil Family Association’s Angel program at Arizona State University, which pairs students with donor-mentors who fund their tuition. Moved by seeing scholarship recipients meet their benefactors, it clicked: he wanted to become one.

He is rallying a group of co-workers to contribute to the cause.

There’s also Cliff Vellucci.

After 25 years, Cliff retired from the U.S. Marine Corps. “Going from 1,000 miles per hour to a very slow pace, it just really wasn’t enough,” he said. “Jump in the front seat,” he told himself. “Take control of the situation. Empower yourself to be a difference-maker in the community.”

He enrolled in ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and now works in Phoenix as an assistant principal.

Mary and David Patino are similar.

When the new Mirabella at ASU life plan community opens in Tempe, they’ll be among the first to move in. They want to be back on campus to share their experiences and success with a younger demographic.

So it goes for me.

I came to Phoenix in 2005. I’d built a fast-growing tech consulting firm, but my heart pulled me to ASU because it presented pathways to make a difference.

For the five of us, meaning has not come from grandeur, but from taking on problems we’re able to help solve.

In his book, Landau encourages readers not to hold themselves to perfection. Celebrating the value of helping a child, bettering the community or completing a job well done offer meaningfulness and shouldn’t be disregarded because others lead more luminous, or healthy or wealthy lives.

His conclusions recall Viktor Frankl’s 1946 Man’s Search for Meaning.

“Being human always points … to something or someone, other than oneself—be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter,” Frankl said. “The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is.”

If you look to your nearby university, you’ll find countless ways to learn, but also to teach; to take, but also to give.

Though there is anguish in a culture seemingly hurtling towards fragmentation, our college campuses bring us together to express our humanity. Few other spheres offer such rich opportunities to do so.


Rick Shangraw is chief executive officer of ASU Enterprise Partners, the private nonprofit organization comprised of distinct entities that raise, create and invest resources for the benefit of Arizona State University.

This piece originally appeared in the Arizona Republic’s “Opinions” section on Monday, November 20, 2017, page 12A, under the headline “Classrooms help find meaning in an imperfect world.”

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