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Steer For the Deep Waters Only!Steer For the Deep Waters Only!
August 26, 2013

Sail forth! Steer for the deep waters only!

Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me;

For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go,

And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.

-- Walt Whitman, "Passage to India" (1871)


I have sat right in the seat you are sitting in now. It was in a different field house at a different university and it was in a different century, but it was exactly the same seat. I recall my thoughts and emotions from that moment like it was yesterday morning, just as you, 40 years from now, will remember everything about today, your first official day on the Ithaca College campus. 

Like you, I was excited about this significant new chapter in my life. I was intimidated at the prospect of having much more independence and responsibility in my everyday life. I was more than a little bit nervous at the prospect of being away from family.  I was curious what it would be like stepping up to a new level of academic expectation.  All in all, I was looking forward to being a college student – or at least that was the semi-truth I kept telling myself. 

Beyond focusing on surviving the first weeks and the first semester, I gave very little thought to what the college experience might mean . College was the natural, logical next step in life – a continuation of high school but with different living arrangements. Or so I thought.

If you do college right, if you take advantage of the opportunities that are in front of you, then the coming years will be a time of profound shaping of who you will be as an adult. You are already aware of some of the choices you will be making, such as the choice of a major field of study.  You will be making other choices just as powerful in shaping who you become, choices that might not on the face of it seem so important.  You will join a number of clubs and organizations, or you won’t . You will associate with this or that group of students. You will develop your own habits in how to organize your work time and your play time, rather than following the rules laid down for you by others. Because you have left the community and family you grew up with and are now attaching yourself to a new community with the opportunity to reinvent yourself, this is not just a continuation of your journey up until now. You are steering for the deep waters, as Walt Whitman put it in a section of Leaves of Grass titled “Passage to India.” “Sail forth!” Whitman wrote with his usual exuberance. “Steer for the deep waters only!  Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee and thou with me.  For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go.”

In order to get the most out of your college experience, you must be an explorer in the truest sense of not knowing as you begin your journey where it may end. Who will you be? What values will you hold most dear? What are for you the essential elements of a rich, challenging, rewarding and happy life? What elements of your personality and abilities will you draw upon and enhance, and what elements will you try to reshape? 

Only you can decide what the key questions in your journey will be. But there is no avoidin ghte journey itself. Your only choices are whether you undertake this journey consciously or whether you simply drift to some unplanned place.   

The year 2013 is an auspicious one in the Mayan calendar. Last December marked the end of a Mayan long cycle lasting 7,885 years. Since the Mayans believed that the universe is destroyed and then recreated with each new cycle, you probably remember that there was a flurry of millennial or end of the world thinking centered on the date December 21, 2012. 

What was lost in that moment of incessant and ultimately meaningless chatter was that fact that 2013 marks the beginning of a new 8,000 year cycle that brings with it creation of a new universe of possibilities. None of us will live to see if that turns out to be the case or not for the earth as a whole, but it is definitely true for you and for Ithaca College itself.

You are probably aware that the first year college experience has been remade almost in its entirety, just in time for your arrival. You are the first class to be part of the Integrated Core Curriculum, a thematic approach to understanding human intellectual and aesthetic endeavor from the perspectives of arts, humanities, social sciences and science. You are the first class to have the opportunity to further explore your core curriculum theme through the First Year Residential Experience, thereby helping bridge the gap between classroom and residence hall.  You are the first class to have access to a group of professional staff advisers in addition to the faculty member who is your academic adviser. And you are the first class to have access beginning freshman year to the IC Mentor Network, an online community of students and professionals in every field who share everything from tips on finding internships and jobs to thoughts on why it is important to have a broad education to prepare for success in what might seem to be a relatively narrow or even technical career.

The goal of these innovations is to increase the frequency, richness and diversity of moments when you will be part of an important dialog, when you will be advised or mentored in deeply insightful way, when you will see familiar objects or ideas suddenly from a different perspective, when you will be inspired, when you will ask or answer a question in a way that empowers you.   

These changes to the first year experience are all the product of years of work by the IC faculty and staff. We have been giving steady and intensive thought to the question of how a four year college education can utilize every part of your campus experience – academic, co-curricular and residential – to prepare you for fulfillment and success in a world that is changing at warp speed. We came up with some surprising, out of the box ideas that combine to create a model that other colleges will attempt to follow. And we have been diligent – I would say even courageous – in putting those ideas into practice. You see, we too have been steering for the deep waters.  We are exploring together – I with thee and thou with me. 

Personally, I didn’t get too caught up in the Mayan end of the world craze in December 2012. But I did raise an eyebrow at the realization that 2013 is year one of a nearly 8,000 year cycle. Because everything you have done so far in your life, and everything we have been doing at Ithaca College for the last few years, converges on this moment. It is your moment. I wait with joy to see what you will do with it.