Lean In, Show Up

As prepared.

Today, we are starting a journey together. It’s a journey of discovery, of challenge, of community. It’s a commingling of ideas and thoughts and dreams. Today is your convocation—a word that literally means “to come together”—and today we do so to celebrate the start of our journey, and to celebrate our potential as a learning community. Today begins a conversation, one that requires us to bring our authentic selves, without reservation, into a collaborative dialogue that will create our shared experience over the course of the next four years.

This is my first year as president of Ithaca College; I am new here just like you. And like you, I am learning the shape and the rhythm of this community, the things that make it unique and wonderful. It is such an honor to begin my IC experience alongside you!

We all chose to come to Ithaca College, we chose to be a part of this community. This is the place we thought matched us best. Here, you will get a challenging education, learning more about a field of your choice, and learning more about yourself and others. This is one of the only times in your life when you will live, work, and grow in the company of people whom you’ve never met before, but who will, over time, become friends, mentors, a part of your chosen family. The years you spend here will help you understand who you are as a person, how you want to express yourself as an individual within our community and our society. 

This is a celebratory gathering, a day of hope and excitement. But we must press pause for a moment, and acknowledge the greater context in which this day exists. We are struggling as a nation, our country is tied in knots. This period of struggle presents very real opportunities for us to do difficult, meaningful work. At IC, there will be many chances to explore and affirm how we will do this work together—how we will learn, lead, support, and make progress on complex issues both in our society and on our campus. We must find ways to build meaningful connections even when conversations are difficult and uncomfortable.

I ask that you be open to these opportunities, commit fully to them. Lean into the hard stuff and decide how you want to show up. Encourage unity, inclusion, and common understanding. Above all, be respectful. The next four years will transform your life, and to fully engage in your transformation of self, you must embrace the understanding that you have a responsibility that extends beyond yourself. This is the crux of an undergraduate liberal arts experience; you learn about the world in its wonderful, messy entirety, and you take your place within it. Your education presents you with a unique opportunity. Use it.

We begin our time at IC, too, in the context of a celebration of the college’s 125th anniversary. Just think about that for a minute. The past 125 years, all the things that have happened since 1892, have culminated in the moment we’re experiencing right now, together, in this room.

“We must find ways to build community, to build meaningful connections even when conversations are difficult and uncomfortable.”

Ithaca College was founded as a music conservatory, located not here on South Hill but downtown. It was a small school, and became very well known as a place where many talented students came to obtain the finest music education—a reputation that still exists today. The quality of the conservatory began to attract creative minds from around the country, who added their energy and expertise to not only continue the excellence of the music program, but to add other programs that enriched the scope and the depth of the education offered to students. That is how our college started; these are our roots.

Even though we’re honoring the college’s 125th anniversary this year, we’re marking a single point in the history that represents so much more than one event. We’re locating ourselves within a continuing evolution, within a continuing conversation which revolves around the interplay between youth and experience, between growth and tradition, between theory and performance. You are a part of that evolution. The evolution of the college, of the IC community, and of our society. The evolution of your self—your thoughts and knowledge and being.

Ithaca College, then and now, inspires collaborative learning and the freedom to innovate. Here, you can study something deeply and be moved to practice and perform what you’ve learned. And when you do, you activate change in the world.

At Ithaca College, you will produce research that pushes the boundaries of accepted knowledge. You will come up with new ideas that make lives better. You will make unexpected connections and learn things you never dreamed of. 

Our community and this campus offers not only a safe space for this kind of growth, but a brave space, one that honors and encourages the vulnerability it takes to share your thoughts and values with people who may not agree with you or understand you. We cannot have an open dialogue or embrace this level of interaction without acknowledging the incredible amount of bravery you must have to not only speak your truth but engage in the challenging conversation that follows when you do.

You are starting down an unknown road today, and what happens over the next four years will surprise you, as my four years as an undergraduate surprised me. My college journey started with a 26-hour Greyhound bus ride from the New York City Port Authority down south to Nashville, Tennessee, to Vanderbilt University. I was with four other kids who were selected for a scholarship program at Vanderbilt funded by the Posse Foundation. If I hadn’t received that scholarship, I couldn’t have gone to school without creating serious financial hardship for my family.

This is the crux of an undergraduate liberal arts experience; you learn about the world in its wonderful, messy entirety, and you take your place within it.

The five of us rode with our mothers to Vanderbilt—a place that I had never seen outside of brightly colored admissions materials that were mailed to my house. Before you ask, this was in 1989 … the Dark Ages before the internet, cell phones, and email.

I got on that bus to Nashville as a first-generation college student from Brooklyn, New York, the oldest of three children whose parents immigrated to this country from the Dominican Republic.

That ride was powerful, and it has stayed with me my whole life. I didn’t know what was on the other side. I didn’t know I’d fall in love with the field of psychology, or that I’d get homesick—Vanderbilt was so far away. I had so many questions, and I was both excited and scared.

The four other people who rode that bus with me became my closest friends—my family in this new environment. At Vanderbilt, I also connected with people that I would have never met had I stayed in Brooklyn; people I would’ve never tapped as friends.

My college experience changed my life completely and created a new trajectory for me as a scholar and as a person. It also proved to me the power of mentors and the power of a network, the importance of having people who arrive with you and remain there with you along the way. These are the people who will support you during the big moments in college, they will have your back. The people who will do that for you are in this room right now.

Today you start your college journey, like I did, in the company of strangers in a brand new town. Today is a fresh start. It is an open door that leads to your future, and I look forward joining you as you walk through.