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Listen to Your VoiceListen to Your Voice
August 24, 2009

It is my honor, on behalf of Ithaca College, to welcome to this student convocation members of the board of trustees, as well as staff and returning students who are here today by virtue of their role as campus leaders.  Ithaca College is a special place because of your commitment and expertise.

I want to offer special thanks to the faculty who are here today as a token of their commitment to the education of the Class of 2013 over the next four years.  This is a faculty of great expertise and complete commitment to teaching.  Faculty, will you please rise and face your new students?  The relationship between faculty and students is at the heart of our College.  Please offer each other the appreciation and applause you deserve.

To the students who are joining us for the first time – whether as freshmen or as experienced college students who have arrived from elsewhere – let me say, "Welcome." You are joining a very special community, and you bring to it experiences and perspectives that will make it even more special.  You were the first class to participate in ICPeers, an on-line social network for admitted students that enabled you to form bonds with each other before you even met or formally began here as students.  And now you will be among the first to join myHome Community, a collection of social networking tools being released today.  MyHome Community will enable you to share profiles within IC, find other students with similar interests, work on projects with students from across the college, among other capabilities.  Based on your embrace of ICPeers, I expect you will be among the leaders in finding innovative uses for myHome Community.  If you have had a chance to read my blog post on the Class of 2013, you know the depths of my respect for all that you are and all that you bring to our campus.

One evening last summer I started thinking about what I might say to you today.  What do I have to offer you on this, one of the most important and memorable days of your lives?  I know what you expect me to say, and your expectations deserve to be met:

You are embarked on a great adventure, a wonderful journey of discovery.  Your college education will open doors not just to knowledge but also to wisdom and insight – the basic tools for a happy and successful life.  I urge you to give this experience everything you have – with attention not only to your coursework but also to the entire experience of life among the community of learners at Ithaca College. 

Having said that, though, I cannot help but wonder what would I say to you if my 18 year old self could be standing here today?  What would be the message from someone who is your age, albeit someone from an earlier generation?  If I could channel that kid, what would he say?

In order to find out, I climbed into a time machine one evening last July.  I made a deliberate trip to my own past by picking up a book that I read in the summer before I started college.  The book had seemed important to me years ago, so important that I talked about it in serious and hushed tones with my friends.  They all read it too, and every one of us thought the book was speaking directly to us as individuals.  I no longer remember the content of those conversations, but I do remember their urgency.  We felt we were discovering something important about the adult world – a world we felt superior to but a world that also intimidated us. 

The book is called Demian, by Hermann Hesse.  And when I say that I picked up that book again for the first time since I was 18, I mean that I literally picked up the same copy of the book that I read then.  It contains my underlinings, notes in the margins, and scrawled reflections at the end of the book, as well as those of a friend who inhaled the same copy.  In fact, it must originally have been her book because her name is on the inside front cover.  Probably I was supposed to return it to her when I was done.  If you are reading this, Donna, the book is in the mail.

Why did this book seem so important to me and my friends when we were almost exactly your age, and what lessons might it have for us today?  I will not tell you anything about the characters or the plot, because those are truly minimal and anyway they are not what grabbed us.  I will only tell you that it is a book about searching for meaning.  The book describes the thoughts of the main character, Emil Sinclair, and it reports on his conversations with others.  Some of the passages I underlined at the time include these three:

I longed desperately to really live for once, to give something of myself to the world, to enter into a relationship and battle with it. 

I wanted only to try to live in accord with the promptings that came from my true self.  Why was that so very difficult?

There is no reality except the one contained within us.  That is why so many people live such an unreal life.  They take the images outside them for reality and never allow the world within to assert itself.  You can be happy that way.  But once you know the other interpretation you no longer have the choice of following the crowd. 

As I read on that July night last summer, I was 18 years old again.  I did not just remember those days; I became that person.  I experienced again the thrill of feeling a growing power within myself, perhaps it is the power called consciousness.  No wonder these ideas seemed important – they were subversive!  No wonder we talked about the book in whispers, and talked about it only with friends we could trust.  No adult would tell you these things, and surely no adult would even understand these things:  that the external world has no meaning other than what you give it, and because of that you have an obligation – a personal, individual obligation – to discover what matters and to act on it. 

Let me end here my reverie as an 18 year old and re-inhabit, gratefully, my much older self.  Let me interpret for you, as a college president, what my 18 year old self wanted to say today.  You are, as I said before, about to embark on a wonderful journey.  You will follow a curriculum, a word whose origins in Latin refer to a running track that has been prepared for you to complete.  Worlds will open up to you as you complete that running track, and those worlds will be even more meaningful because you are part of a comprehensive residential college in which your life experience will mesh with your experiences in the classroom.  The Ithaca College faculty are wonderful guides for that voyage.  You will also find great wisdom and a huge commitment to your personal well-being on the part of the many members of the College staff whom you will meet and work with. 

But, the most important single voice you will hear for the next four years will not be the voice of a professor.  It will not be my voice, or the voice of an academic adviser, or a counselor, or a coach or a student club sponsor.  It will not be the voice of a friend, or even of a parent.  It will certainly not be the voice of popular culture that dominates the external world.  You already know that the most important voice you will hear will be the voice inside you.  Over the next four years, that voice will grow stronger and more sure of its direction.  It will say some surprising things.  It will be a challenging voice, because it will at times tell you to embrace the uncertain, and to follow a path different from what other people may expect of you.  Look deep.  Pay attention to that shimmering longing for an authentic existence that you find within.  Then try to live it. 

Last month I remembered how scary that internal voice was when I was eighteen, and how sometimes I told it to stop talking.  I can tell you now, from a much older perspective, that whenever you do listen to your voice, you will never regret it. 

Class of 2013, I look forward to watching your voyage and listening to your voice over the next four years.