Convocation 2006

Ithaca College, August 26, 2006

Thank you, Bill. Let me join those who preceded me by extending a very special welcome to all of 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.

Today is a great day, a day filled with promise. At this moment in time, all things are possible. Your dreams and aspirations have no limits.

During your years at Ithaca you will begin the process of determining what you want to do with the rest of your life.

Statistics suggest that you will have at least six major life roles and careers over your lifetime. As I look back over the years, I have already met my life quota -- although I am not done yet. I thought I would give you a brief autobiography to give you a sense of how parts of my life have evolved, including my career and my education.

I was an entrepreneur at an early age. At the age of six, I caught and sold frogs to fishermen on the northern shores of Lake Champlain in Vermont. The job required no specialized training and built on my natural aptitudes of physical quickness and persuasiveness.

I dressed a little differently then than I do now; the hours were my own and the money was not bad for a six-year-old. Like many entrepreneurs, however, I had some difficulty with my supervisor. My mother hated frogs, and sometimes my inability to keep the frogs confined to their cages on our back porch got me into trouble.

I then had a stint as a girl’s yo-yo champion for the west island of Montreal. In that role I learned to compete, to handle publicity, to interact with strangers, and to deal with uncertainty. I also encountered my first experience with sex discrimination: The boy who won the competition got a bicycle. They gave me a watch! Eventually I came to believe that, unlike figure skating, skiing, running, and other Olympic sports, a career as a professional yo-yo competitor held little promise.

My next career came while I was a student in high school, when I served as a volunteer at the Montreal Children’s Hospital, where I visited very sick children every week. I fed them, read to them, and kept them company.

My early paying jobs included raking leaves, shoveling snow, and delivering a weekly newspaper. My first job as a paid employee came during college, when I worked in the laundry at St. Mary’s Hospital. In that role I began to learn about the real world of work and the people who inhabited it.

I entered college with a happily undeveloped sense of what I wanted to do -- although medical school was certainly on my list.

I never did get a medical degree, and I have no regrets. I had a wonderful and stimulating time as an undergraduate and earned a degree in psychology, and then a master’s degree in education and a doctorate in administration, planning, and social policy.

My sense of direction and purpose has developed over time, as will yours. I have charted new intellectual territory, responded to what captured my heart and soul, and have evolved into the person I am today.

Before entering the field of higher education, I was a social worker at a public agency here in upstate New York and then at a hospital in Vermont.

I moved into higher education when I took a position in Vermont’s statewide community college system. Over the years I have worked in diverse higher education settings: in public and independent institutions; in two- and four-year colleges; in all-women and coed environments; in settings that served adult learners and others that focused on "traditional" students aged 18-22.

As I begin my 10th year as president of Ithaca College, I look back on each and every one of these work experiences and recognize its unique value.

Each and every one was different from the other. Each organization had its own personality, priorities, vision, approach, politics, problems, challenges, and rewards. And each community in which I have lived has introduced me to interesting people and ideas.

What a wonderful ride it has been! I would not change a thing -- honest! -- because I know that I have learned from each and every one of these experiences, and continue to learn from them every day.

That’s enough about me. Now let’s talk about you as you embark on this next chapter of your life.

This is the one time in your life when you can pursue one area of interest, then another, and perhaps another while you seek to find a passion that will ultimately launch you into the world.

Even if you think you know what you want to study right now, I know that you will take courses in other disciplines that sound interesting or intriguing. You may do this because a friend recommended it or because you heard good things about a faculty member.

I am confident that you will also try to develop interests outside the classroom -- athletics, the arts, student leadership, and volunteering. There will be many opportunities to explore such interests.

Many years of research have shown that the most effective people in life are those who combined rigorous study with out-of-class activities during their undergraduate years. This is the foundation for living a balanced life, one where work will be part, but not all, of how you spend your time and how you define yourself.

Today, the question foremost in the minds of most young people like yourselves is, “What do I want to be when I grow up?” Cast that question aside -- while your parents gasp a little -- and substitute these questions: “How do I want to live my life? Who do I want to become?”

The answers to the “what” questions will take care of themselves. In fact, there will be many answers. The answers to the “how” and “who” questions will, ultimately, become your life story. This story will develop over time as you make choices about what is important, what deserves your time and attention, what is enjoyable to learn, and where you can make a difference.

The lead character in The Mermaid Chair, a recent book by Sue Monk Kidd says it well:

“So few people know what they are capable of. At forty-two I’d never done anything that took my breath away, and I suppose now that was part of the problem -- my chronic inability to astonish myself.”[1]

I know you have the capacity to astonish yourselves -- and those who know you. I hope, in a month or perhaps a year from now, you will have moments of joy and exhilaration when you say, “I did it. I did that?”

You have chosen an institution of higher learning where you will have many opportunities to astonish yourself -- and to be astonished by others.

Of the nearly 3,600 accredited colleges and universities in the United States, you chose Ithaca College as the school you believe to be best suited to meeting your needs. I congratulate you on your choice and believe that time will prove your decision to be a wise one.

This is a very special place for you to experience personal growth.

As the former president of Smith College, Jill Ker Conway, eloquently put it, “If we’re lucky, the places and people that can give our lives an aura of magic potential enter our experience at the right moment to sustain our dreams.”[2]

Ithaca College is just such a place -- one where you will experience an exciting journey of exploration, discovery, and fulfillment.

It 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 speak with confidence about what you believe and about 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.

Learning doesn’t just occur in the classroom; it occurs through internships, study abroad, on-campus employment; through participation in clubs, organizations, and volunteer activities; in 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.

Your intellectual life here will include discussion of the award-winning book you were assigned to read this summer, Life of Pi.[3] Opportunities to discuss this book begin tomorrow, when we will gather in groups facilitated by faculty and staff.

For those guests in the audience who are unfamiliar with this book, Life of Pi is the story of Pi, a resourceful 16 year-old boy who must use his courage, guile, faith, wits, and wisdom to endure 227 days alone in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger.

The summer reading initiative offers you and your classmates an opportunity to learn about and discuss literature from many perspectives: literary, historical, political, personal, and social. This kind of broad engagement -- that cuts across all our schools and divisions -- is what a learning community does best. Throughout the year many of you will have the opportunity to discuss the broader topic of the transformative power of literature.

You -- along with faculty, staff, and your fellow students -- will have your first such opportunity on Tuesday, September 5, when we will welcome our guest speaker, Azar Nafisi. Ms. Nafisi is the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran,[4] a book about a small group of brave women who risked being thrown in jail in order to continue to read and discuss books banned by Iran’s religious leaders.

Looking ahead, you are indeed fortunate to be able to spend the next few years learning in this beautiful environment.

It is important to understand, however, that an education like the one you will experience is not just about making you smarter or giving you more knowledge.

Your education will be complete only when you understand that you have been given a gift that must be shared with others. To quote our mission statement: “Character is developed when competence is exercised for the benefit of others.”

It is our job to help you develop your character, your sense of duty, your desire to help others, and your moral compass.

Despite all that is wrong in this world today, I remain optimistic that you and your generation can correct the mistakes of past generations. This world needs your optimism, idealism, energy, and commitment.

Indeed, people of your generation have already stepped up. For example:

Recent college graduates who were shaped by the tragic events of September 11, Hurricane Katrina, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been moved to take action.

The Peace Corps has more volunteers today than at any time in the past 30 years, and Teach for America recruited 19,000 college graduates this year to teach in underserved urban and rural schools.

Students have been motivated to give back on the local level, too. Now in its ninth year, our Community Plunge program hosts over 100 Ithaca College students a year who come early to campus in late August to work for two days on projects that help 20 local nonprofit agencies. I commend those of you in the class of 2010 who participated in Community Plunge last week.

How you decide to use your skills, talents, and intelligence is up to you -- but use them, you must.

I can assure you that you will have many opportunities at Ithaca College to decide how you want to live your life, how your life can improve the lives of others, and what life work best suits your personality, interests, and passions.

If, after four years with us, you have a reasonably good answer to most of these questions, we will have served you and society well.

I would like to close with some advice. It is based on my own personal experience.

1. As you build on your talents, gifts, and interests, leave behind those parts of you that you don’t like so much, that have tripped you up in the past, that did not fit well with who you are or who you want to become. Others you meet here will not know all there is to know about you, so this is the opportune time to reinvent some aspects of yourself and cast away some of the old you.

2. Don’t try not to fail. Try to succeed.

It does not matter how successful you have been to date. In the years ahead you will be challenged, and sometimes you will fail. Do your best to succeed. But when you fail, fail forward. This advice comes from a book by John Maxwell titled Falling Forward: Turning Mistakes into Stepping Stones for Success,[5] which was brought to my attention by Greg Shelley, an assistant professor of exercise and sports sciences. What matters is how you respond to such situations -- whether you fail backwards, or whether you use the situation to move on to a new understanding.

3. Encourage and empower others. Let your self-esteem, energy, motivation, and confidence be contagious. At the same time engage with others, listen to them, be open, and learn from what they have to offer you. Be open to people from different backgrounds and belief systems. Be open to what they have to teach you. Engaging with them will enrich your experience.

4. Do what you love doing and all else will follow. If you try to do something because others want you to or because you think you should, it will not work, because it will not capture your heart and soul. There are no “shoulds” here. There is no set path to follow, no one life plan suited for everyone. The path is yours to define. In the words widely attributed to poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Do not go where the path may lead; instead, go where there is no path and leave a trail.”

5. Finally, enjoy yourselves along the way. This is a very special and exciting time in your life.

And so, let me end as I began, by welcoming you to Ithaca College.

I sincerely hope that you will embrace what lies ahead with a spirit of inquiry and wonder, that you will enjoy your newfound freedom and independence, that you will be an active participant in this vibrant learning community, and that you will take full advantage of all that Ithaca College has to offer -- today, tomorrow, and in the weeks and months to come.

All the best.

Thank you!

[1] Sue Monk Kidd, The Mermaid Chair (New York: Penguin, 2005), pp. 1-2.

[2] Jill Ker Conway, A Woman’s Education (London: Vintage, 2001), p. 3.

[3] Yann Martel, Life of Pi (New York: Harcourt, 2001).

[4] Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (New York: Random House, 2003).

[5] John C. Maxwell, Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes into Stepping Stones for Success (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000).