On Monday night, one Rowan University professor lectured as if he knew he was going to die the next day.
In the student center ballroom, hundreds of students watched as the young, vest-chain-clad professor shared life lessons in between card tricks, family photos and “Dr. Who” references in Rowan’s “Last Lecture.”
Every year, Rowan University students vote for a faculty member to share a hypothetical lifetime of wisdom in their “Last Lecture.” For the seventh-annual running, the student body chose Dr. Philip R. La Porta, an instructor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy who happens to be the department’s only professional magician.
The event was inspired by Carnegie Mellon University’s late professor of computer science, Randy Pausch, who delivered his famous last lecture, titled “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” after being diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer.
“I want [my students] to laugh, and I want [them] to smile. That’s why I do everything but headstands in class for you guys.” – Dr. Philip R. La Porta
“The most important thing I could ever tell anybody is that you don’t stop learning,” La Porta began, mentioning that even though he has achieved his doctorate, he still learns every day. “No matter what happens in life, no matter what you do, don’t stop learning.”
As one of many teachers in his family, La Porta values the experience of lifelong learning, and he spends his spare time learning about everything from cooking to kickboxing.
“Right now I’m a white belt with no stripes, lowest of the low, freshest of the fresh,” he said. “It’s so nice to just be there and be learning something new.”
La Porta attended Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where he learned to use his time and energy selectively so that he could foster his deep interests in physics and performing magic. He emphasized the need for students to learn to prioritize in order to keep focused on what they really enjoy.
“It seems like the moment you make a compromise, the moment you give someone any ground that isn’t your own, people get mad at you,” he said. “That’s ridiculous; compromise is how the world works. Don’t try to do everything.”
La Porta told the story of tragically losing his mother to cancer when he was just beginning graduate school at Lehigh University. It was after telling a joke at his mother’s funeral that he realized the importance of maintaining levity and a sense of humor in the face of life’s challenges.
“Sometimes you need to laugh, even at the most inopportune times,” he said. “I want [my students] to laugh, and I want [them] to smile. That’s why I do everything but headstands in class for you guys.”
Junior physics major Joe Pinto remembered feeling hesitant on the first day of La Porta’s introductory mechanics class.
“He walked in and he said, ‘I’m the professor they warn you about. I’m going to require more work out of you than a professor has ever asked.’ And I thought about just getting up and walking out of the class,” Pinto joked. “I realized it was worth it when he started relating physics to us, the class itself. He fed off the environment we gave him and related physics to everything.”
Sophomore Colin Yost, who took the same class as a pre-engineering requirement, was inspired by La Porta to switch career paths entirely.
“I was in his office and it was at that point that I wanted to become a teacher and teach my favorite subject, history,” Yost said. “I saw a couple of his students coming back to see him, and I wanted that affect on people.”
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