Convocation 1997

Ithaca College, August 25, 1997

Good morning. I am pleased to welcome you all here today -- trustees, faculty, and staff. And to our special guests -- new students -- I am honored to recognize you and to officially welcome you, on behalf of the entire Ithaca College community. We are delighted that you are here. We have been preparing for your arrival for a long time and, like you, we have hurried around a bit in the last few weeks to make sure that everything was ready. All of us at Ithaca College are interested in your success. We hope that you will find your place here and that you will thrive.

A few years ago, I noticed a message on a T-shirt that a new student was wearing and I am reminded of that message today. The message read, "Not nearly as calm as I look." Looking out at you, I imagine that although you are trying your best to look calm and relaxed, some of you are a little uncertain and anxious about where you are. It is perfectly reasonable and expected for you to be so at this time. Just think about it -- you are in a new place, with new people, embarking on an entirely new stage in your life. I vividly remember the first few weeks of my undergraduate days. Early on, I had the feeling that everyone else knew their way around the campus: they acted as if they had all been there before. It did not take me long to find out that that was not so, and that they were as unfamiliar with the new surroundings as I was. I hope that you have already begun to feel at home here and that, soon, excitement will overshadow everything else.

I, too, am new and we begin our life at Ithaca College together. Because of that, I will always feel a special connection with you. I arrived here about six weeks ago. I am beginning to find my way around and getting to know the many wonderful people who make up this fine institution. Feel free to ask me directions in the upcoming weeks . . . and I will do likewise with you.

In thinking about our respective journeys here, one thing we share is a rigorous screening and selection process -- one that gave each of us many opportunities to get a good look at the College and what it has to offer. I have a very clear sense of what impressed me during the search process and what I considered important about the College, in making my decision to accept the offer of appointment. I imagine that we came here for many of the same reasons:

  • the wonderful diversity and outstanding reputation of the academic programs;
  • the quality and dedication of a very accomplished faculty;
  • the strong commitment, pride, and expertise of the staff and their very positive attitude toward students;
  • the lively, engaging, and engaged student body;
  • and the setting in which all these factors come together -- the campus itself and the larger Ithaca community are places filled with activity and opportunity.

You and I have come to Ithaca College in different roles but these qualities of the institution, which struck me during the search process and continue to ring "true," are essential to your years here and will make your experience an empowering and enduring one.

Acknowledging that we are here in different roles, I welcome this opportunity to speak to you all before the academic year begins. This is a time filled with hope, with a strong sense of possibility about what lies ahead for each of you.

The words of Emerson capture this time well, and I quote: "We wake and find ourselves on a stair: there are stairs below us which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us . . . which go out of sight."

Although today marks a beginning, it is not a time to deny the past. Rather this is a time to build on who you are, what you know you can do, and what interests you and to work on those areas of weakness or developing interest as you dream about your future and keep your options open as much as you dare. I will let you in on a secret: you are starting anew and we really do not know you. This gives you a great opportunity to cast off some of those old habits that have been in your way or that may have annoyed you and others over the years -- a time to give yourself a new start in some ways.

College life provides you with a multitude of new choices and experiences. I encourage you to use those responsibly and wisely.

So what advice do I have for you to make this special and exciting time in your life the best that it can be? We know from our experience as educators over the years and from significant national studies about successful college graduates that the students who benefit most from college are those who experience the full range of what college has to offer -- in the classroom and beyond. The college experience gives you the opportunity to develop a dream for how you want to live your life and to explore the many dimensions of that dream. The college experience also provides you with a safe place to practice "trying on the new." However, you are not in a holding pattern here -- learning and practicing in a vacuum -- in an inconsequential sense. What you do here, how you spend your time here, matters. President James Freedman of Dartmouth College, in a speech in fall 1995 entitled "Making a More Humane Society," spoke to this very point:

I have the feeling that many of us regard life as beginning, in an important sense, only after we pass some future milestone -- after we have graduated from college, after we . . . . But life, of course, is not what happens after we have passed some future milestone. Life is what we are doing now. And so the necessity of leading a life guided by ideals, a life that each one of us is proud to lead, is present from the start and is always there.

So, as you begin your life as an Ithaca College student, consider these possibilities for how to fully engage yourself here:

  • Pursue a new activity, be it theater, cross-country running, learning to play a musical instrument -- even if you are not enrolled in the music school.
  • Assume a leadership role in campus life, especially if you have never done so before. Run for student government; become an officer in a student club. You are a special group of people: Ithaca College selected you and you selected to be at Ithaca College this year. As undergraduates here, you have a special responsibility to yourselves and to society, beyond the academic achievements you will surely have here. Society needs leadership and expects it to come from people like you. As college graduates, you will be expected to lead the way -- in the workplace and in the larger community. This is the place to develop your leadership talents and skills.
  • Explore academic disciplines that appeal to you but that you have never explored, no matter how certain you are of what you intend to study. Do not put blinders on; do not narrow the scope of your vision or exploration. Be open to new academic and intellectual interests that catch your eye. Many of us who work here at the College began our respective college careers with a strong sense of what we would study, and -- lo and behold -- we changed our minds and even our majors.
  • Regardless of what you plan to study, develop those "habits of mind" that will serve you well here and after you leave. When we talk of Ithaca College and its strong liberal arts tradition, this is what we mean. We are talking about that dimension of your academic experience where you will further develop your critical thinking and reasoning skills, your intellectual breadth, and your capacity to deal with an infinite amount of information and knowledge -- much of what is yet to be discovered. In November of 1932, then-President Leonard Job shared these words with Ithaca College students and they ring true today: "Education is what you have left, after you have forgotten all you have learned." In this fast-paced and radically changing world of today, much of what you will learn here will have a short life. The capacity to keep learning and to process new information and knowledge will make you all successful and effective professionals and citizens throughout your lifetime.
  • Use the opportunities here at Ithaca to expand your worldview and your understanding and appreciation of other cultures. Accept and enthusiastically embrace the differences that surround you here on campus -- be they different academic interests, recreational interests, racial, ethnic, religious, or family backgrounds. Explore these here and far beyond the boundaries of the campus. Study abroad, consider an exchange within this country that exposes you to other dimensions of this diverse nation, or take courses that give you the chance to explore parts of the world that are unfamiliar to you.

I want to share an experience that I had en route to the campus interview last winter related to this. I was stuck in the Albany airport with many other people in the midst of a snowstorm, and a young woman across the way was reading a book called Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt. It is a book in which the writer recalls his childhood amid the miseries of Limerick. I had purchased the book but had not read it at the time. I said to her, "How do you like it?" She said, "I think it's terrific." I said to her, "How did you find out about it?" She said, "My very good friend, who is of Irish background, read it." I said, "And she recommended it to you?" "No, she told me not to read it, because I was not of Irish background and I would not understand."

I can't tell you my reaction at the time -- it was such a foreign notion to tell someone not to try to reach out. We must all seek out opportunities to learn about people and cultures that are different from ours, to encourage each other to read books, to study languages, and to travel to new places -- for the excitement they offer us and for the new understandings we gain from those experiences. Some of you may currently have opinions that might limit your opportunity in this regard. Let all of you rest assured: by the time you graduate you will hold many opinions that will be radically different from those that you hold now.

And consider including in your college experience some aspect of service to others. You are indeed fortunate to be here, and I urge you while at Ithaca to find ways to contribute your time and talents to others. This college has a long and admirable history of such service among all its constituencies -- faculty, staff, and students -- and I encourage you to join in and build on that legacy.

As you consider all these possibilities and opportunities, remember to keep your focus on who you are and who you want to become. This is not a selfish notion, but rather an acknowledgment that each of us is unique -- with special talents and gifts to develop and contribute. As you engage in your college life here, keep these words of philosopher André Gide in mind: "Look for your own. Do not do what someone else would do as well as you. Do not say, do not write what someone else could say, could write, as well as you. Care for nothing in yourself but what you feel exists nowhere else and out of yourself. Create -- impatiently or patiently -- the most irreplaceable of things."

Recognize and accept that there is no one best way, no one right way to live one's life or one's college career: the paths taken and the lives lived are as varied as we are from one another. As you chart your own course, however, be open to others, appreciate and learn from what they do and how they act, recognize their talents and perspectives -- albeit different from yours -- and learn from them. However, do not seek to imitate them or replicate them. Be your own person and be true to yourself.

Looking to the future, as you begin this new stage in your lives, I hold out these hopes for you. I hope that you will

  • Pursue all the new opportunities around you with courage and excitement. Follow your interests, meet new challenges, and develop the capacity for adaptation and redirection.
  • Develop long and lasting friendships with one another, with other students who are already here and with those who will join us in the years ahead, and with faculty and staff.
  • Develop intellectually. I hope that your love of learning and your intellectual curiosity will grow exponentially during your years at Ithaca and will sustain you long after you graduate.
  • Develop a heightened sense of the world and your place in it. Develop a conscience about what you can do to make the world a better place for all its citizens and make a commitment to act on that conscience.
  • And I hope that you will find this community to be a great place to live and to learn -- one filled with as much fun as hard work.

Remember, as you look around here today -- and in the days that lie ahead -- that Ithaca College is your new community, your new home, and that we are all your new neighbors. We are all here, regardless of the roles we play, for the same reason -- to help you achieve your academic and personal goals. We have high expectations for you and will give you a great deal of encouragement and support. Ultimately, you are responsible for your own learning. Each of us is interested in your success, and you have our commitment that we will do our best to help you achieve that.

Now I will end with a story -- it is a story told by Fannie Lou Hamer. Fannie Lou was an African American, the daughter of Mississippi sharecroppers and one of 20 children. Never allowed her right to a full, formal education, she was, nonetheless, wise and visionary. As a civil rights worker and grassroots leader she inspired many people -- black and white, young and old -- to work for a more humane society. She once told this story about a wise old man:

This old man could answer questions that were impossible for other people to answer. One day, two young people -- thinking that they were very clever -- said, "We are going to trick that old man today. We are going to catch a bird and we are going to carry it to him. We will then ask him, 'This that we hold in our hands today, is it alive or is it dead?' If he says 'dead,' we are going to turn it loose and let it fly; if he says 'alive,' we are going to crush it." So they walked up to the old man and said, "This that we hold in our hands today, is it alive or is it dead?" And the old man replied, "It is in your hands."

You hold opportunity in your hands today -- enjoy the adventure and the journey. I wish you every success.

Thank you.