|Ithaca College, August 27, 2007|
Good morning and welcome to Ithaca College.
Let me join those who have already extended a very special welcome to you, our new students. We are gathered here, today, in your honor, to celebrate the start of your college education and to acknowledge this important milestone in your life. You have chosen a very special place—a wonderful place—to learn.
Admission to Ithaca College is very selective. You were chosen from among thousands of applicants. You were chosen because you stood out. You were also chosen because we believe that you will both succeed here and that you will also contribute to the vitality and energy of the mosaic we call the Ithaca College community.
You have demonstrated that you are intelligent, accomplished, highly motivated, inquisitive, and driven. Each of you is an individual with unique dreams, goals, personality, interests, attributes, and tastes. It does not matter if your musical preference is Dave Matthews, Linkin Park, Bob Marley, Korn, Fall Out Boy, Broadway musicals, Mozart, Rascal Flatts, Anna Nalick, or Nickelback. You are welcome here. Likewise, it does not matter what your taste is in food, or literature, or politics. You are welcome here. The varied backgrounds, interests, and talents of our students make this an extraordinary place to study and live.
You will find this campus and this town to be very open and accepting places. Ithaca is named after a Greek island. And, in many ways it is like an island. It is a beautiful place, a safe haven, and an ideal space for you to explore and challenge yourself and to have fun—lots of fun—with new friends. There are so many things to do and see. There are the gorges, Buttermilk Falls, Cayuga Lake, the farmers’ market, the State Theatre, Collegetown, the Commons, the DeWitt Mall, cinemas showing independent and foreign films, and cafés and restaurants of all kinds.
On campus this year you will have the opportunity to hear His Holiness the Dalai Lama; to hear a performance by Peter Serkin, one the world’s greatest classical pianists; to hear the distinguished essayist and novelist Scott Russell Sanders. There will be numerous concerts, theater productions, sporting events, and lectures, as well as Family Weekend and Homecoming to attend.
I hope you are open to change because you will experience many changes here as you join this new community. The transition from high school to college is not easy. I remember it well. In my case, there were just 44 students in my high school graduation class in Montreal. I left high school to study at the University of Toronto—a university with 26,000 students. That was a big adjustment and one of many life adventures where I have stepped into the unknown, on my own. The same was true of my move to Ithaca and IC 10 years ago. I knew only one person here, and not that well. These two experiences, and others like them, exposed me to new places, new faces, and new opportunities for growth. In each case I had to find my way—by reaching out to others, trusting strangers, relying on my strengths, gaining confidence, and being optimistic and open. I can tell you, from my experience, that the risks of change can yield great rewards. I am confident that this will be your experience as well, as you take this big and exciting step.
I have been at Ithaca for 10 years now, and have certainly seen many changes here. When I first arrived on the Ithaca College campus, students didn’t have cell phones, iPods, digital cameras, notebook computers, or BlackBerrys. YouTube, Facebook, and MySpace hadn’t even been invented yet. In addition to the changes I cannot even begin to foretell, the campus will be physically transformed while you are here. Over the short course of six to seven years, we will enhance our academic programs, improve the quality of student life, and improve the quality of work life for our faculty and staff. We will accomplish this by adding a new facility for the School of Business, apartment-style student housing, an athletics and events center, and the Gateway building—for a combined investment of $125 million. You will be among the first students to benefit from these enhancements to the campus and what they represent for the future of Ithaca College.
Ithaca College is a place where you will explore life in the broadest sense, where you will learn to think critically and deeply, where you will learn to listen to others and to your own thoughts, and where, I hope, you will learn to speak with confidence about what you believe and what you have experienced.
While here, you are responsible for your own learning. You are responsible for engaging in the learning process deeply and enthusiastically—with a sense of inquiry, wonder, and excitement. Your learning will take place in concert with outstanding and committed faculty who will serve as scholars and mentors, and a staff dedicated to supporting and encouraging you along the way.
Learning doesn’t just occur in the classroom. It occurs through internships, international study, on-campus employment; participation in clubs, organizations, and volunteer activities; through competition on the athletic field, and by learning to live in harmony with a roommate whom you hardly know today.
Membership in our community is a privilege—not a right—and belongs to those who seek a vibrant, diverse, and respectful environment in which people of all backgrounds and perspectives gather to explore, to grow, and to learn together.
While I fully realize that you and your family have sacrificed a great deal so that you can attend Ithaca, I believe it is important for you to recognize that you have, nonetheless, been given a gift. It is a privilege to be able to spend four years of your life in a residential academic environment, while many others your age in our society go to work every morning trying to support themselves and in some cases other family members.
A four-year education is an option that less than half of our nation’s high school graduates can pursue (according to the Chronicle for Higher Education). I hope that you fully realize what a gift you have been given: to pursue an education in whatever field or fields that interest you; to debate and listen and express yourself openly and honestly; to explore the natural beauty that abounds in and around Ithaca; to spend time considering your aspirations for what lies ahead after Commencement. An Ithaca College education is a gift that will serve you well throughout your life and that will enable you to earn a very good living—as well as to be challenged and fulfilled—and put you in an enviable position to take responsibility for giving back to society in significant ways.
For many years, UCLA has surveyed incoming students at colleges and universities across the country. Students in the most recent survey said what students say year after year. They want their college education to help them earn a good income. That’s no surprise to anyone. However, what was surprising about the survey was that almost 70 percent of incoming freshmen said they believe that it is important to help other people.1 That is the highest percentage of students in more than 20 years of the survey to cite “helping people” as a priority in their lives. It reassures me about the future of this nation and about your generation.
Clearly, your generation has many good-hearted people. You care about making this a better world. You have what I and others here at Ithaca College call character. Character is one of the principal tenets of our mission statement. Here’s what our mission statement says, in part: “To provide a foundation for a lifetime of learning, Ithaca College is dedicated to fostering intellectual growth, aesthetic appreciation, and character development in our students. The Ithaca College community thrives on the principles that knowledge is acquired through discipline, competence is established when knowledge is tempered by experience, and character is developed when competence is exercised for the benefit of others.”
It’s not our job to change you while you’re here. It’s our job to provide you with an environment that brings out the best in you. It’s our job to help you discover for yourself how you want to use your intelligence, drive, accumulated knowledge, skills, talents, and passions for the greater good. Trust me; you will have lots of opportunities to help other people during your college years, in big and small ways. You will have opportunities to help friends and classmates prepare for a recital or a sporting event, to understand an equation, to navigate relationships, to adjust. You will have endless opportunities to serve in clubs, student government, and on teams, and to volunteer in community service here in Ithaca, around the country, and around the world. In the process, you will learn a lot about yourself. Among the questions I want you to keep asking yourself are these: How determined am I? How strong and resilient am I? How flexible am I? What am I willing to give up so that someone else can succeed? What makes my blood boil? For what cause am I willing to take a stand? I have no doubt that your Ithaca College education will make you more mature, more outgoing, and more grounded.
Part of the process of character development will reveal your strengths—strengths like determination, confidence, resilience, perseverance, fortitude, empathy, and sympathy—what Aristotle called virtues. Webster’s dictionary defines character as a pattern of behavior in an individual, a distinctive quality, trait, or attribute.
What is it that motivates you to be kind, to help other people, to care? Do we expect you to become the next Mother Theresa, Albert Schweitzer, Jane Goodall, Martin Luther King, or Nelson Mandela? Who knows? Only you know now, or will come to know, what you aspire to do with your life. What we do hope is that you will learn how and when to stand up and be counted when you see injustice. We hope that you will speak up when others are afraid to do so—or take an unpopular position when you feel that it’s the right thing to do.
Ultimately, the development of character provides you with the foundation from which to do all that your heart and conscience tell you to do, to help advance the cause of humanity. Bill Gates, speaking this year to Harvard’s class of 2007, said, “Humanity’s greatest advances are not in its discoveries but in how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity.” Let me put the sentiment in the words of someone closer to your age: When describing how he believed his fellow classmates would conduct themselves after graduation, Alexander Moore, president of Ithaca’s class of 2007, said at Commencement last spring: “No matter what our formal titles are, we will always be individuals who contribute to our communities, enrich the lives of those around us, and readily come to the aid of those in need.”
We all read the same book this summer, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. You will recall that the main characters were transformed by reading the works of Balzac and other great Western writers. It is my sincere hope that you will be transformed in wonderful and unexpected ways, by your intellectual and social experiences here at Ithaca College, that your years here will enhance and reveal your true character to yourself and to those around you, and that you will gain insights into how you want to live your life.
I am sure that you have heard your parents and other adults refer to their college years as some of the “best years of their lives.” Well, it’s true! The good news is, you’ve just arrived, and some of the best years of your life are just ahead.
Students of the class of 2011, welcome to Ithaca College, your new home.
. John H. Pryor and others,
The American Freshman: Forty-Year Trends, 1966–2006
(Los Angeles: UCLA, 2007).