Watch Rhiley Huntington’s speech “On Altruism,” delivered at the Pella Corporation Scholars Dinner on April 23
By Rhiley Huntington
Excerpt from “On Altruism” address
In the dark of each night, in the jungles and farmlands of Mexico and South America, something inexplicable is happening. As the moon rises and the land cools, the cattle settle and the birds roost, quieting their songs. However, for another creature, the day has only just begun: at dusk, the vampire bat unfolds its wings and takes to the skies, seeking its drowsy prey. Vampire bats must feed almost every night. Should a bat miss eating three nights in a row, it will starve to death. For nursing and young bats, survival, then, can be a struggle. So, interestingly enough, bats who have eaten will share their food with bats that haven’t.
In nature, selfless actions like this aren’t uncommon among family members. However, vampire bats don’t share their food with relatives alone. Instead, uniquely enough, they will share with any bat needing to eat. Biologists call this type of behavior reciprocal altruism: the sharing of one’s time, resources and talents to those less privileged, regardless of relation or acquaintance.
I am at Central College because of one of the most phenomenal examples of reciprocal altruism I have ever seen in my life. Thanks to the generous gifts of the Farver family and the Pella Corporation, I have been able to attend Central College as a Pella Rolscreen Fellow unlimited by worry and open to all the possibilities a true liberal arts education can hold.
In the fall of 2009, I came to Central on the wings of this gift, ready to claim my second home. I hoped to become a forensic scientist, but one warm August night, sitting beneath a shagbark hickory, watching small shadows drop from its bark and into flight, my dreams evolved. Those shadows were endangered Indiana bats, leaving their roost for the evening. My dreams were now of field biology.
I spent the next two summers interning with Professor Russ Benedict, tracing the range of Indiana bats across Iowa, eating too many small town hamburgers and crowding my mind with bird songs. Back at Central, blooming in my liberal arts environment, I wasn’t just a biologist. My time in the wild filled me with too many stories, so I started writing again. I had too much energy, so I too began metalsmithing and glassblowing and working on prairie restoration at the Central College Field Station. By junior year, I was Rhiley Huntington, biology major, minors in art, chemistry and writing.
Of course, it seemed that the more I gave to the Central community, the more I wanted to keep giving. I toured prospective students during Iowa Private College Week. I became a resident advisor to 22 girls in Graham Hall. I reinstated Tri-Beta, the Biological Honor Society, as a networking opportunity for science students. I was the secretary of Intersections Council, vice president of Graham Hall Council, and occasionally, chauffer of the biology department’s van.
I traveled to Costa Rica and Belize with my Tropical Ecology course, snorkeling on coral reefs, hiking through deep rainforests and falling asleep to the humming sound of tree frogs. I studied abroad at Bangor University in north Wales, and I saw castles, cathedrals and museums until they became the landscape of my dreams.
This has been my Central education: the continual search for something more, the feeding of the insatiable fire of the desire to learn and the pursuit of not only happiness, but of meaning. All of this began with the singular spark of a gift.
Reciprocal altruism. When a vampire bat shares its food with another, it does so not just to be “nice,” but rather in anticipation of a similar act being performed for it in the future. It shares because it believes that it will be shared with.
In the past four years, I have discovered a desire to become a naturalist, one who teaches about the environment and wildlife of their home from a deep, personal knowledge. I hope to work for a county conservation board or non-profit organization to share my passion and spark changes in the way we think about our Iowa landscape. This is the gift I give to you: from a single act of altruism, you have spawned an altruist, one who believes that the world can be a better place and works to make it that much more beautiful. My fellowship has become a gift given not only to me, but to every person I teach. It is in each question that answer, in every bird that I see and in every child who has ever looked at me with eyes wide open and said, “I never knew that.”
After graduation, Rhiley will continue to share her Central education as an iEarth Camp Educator and Overnight Leader at the Science Center of Iowa in Des Moines.