What a pleasure to welcome you all home to your alma mater, Washington & Jefferson College. It is such a joy each year to see so many alumni return to renew old friendships and to see how W&J has grown and changed.
You are arriving at a time when, as many of you know, the W&J community is mourning the death of senior Tim McNerney, who was killed off-campus on October 4. This tragic death of a popular football player has left a hole in our community. Eighteen-year-olds are known for their unshakeable sense of immortality. That sense was unsettled for our students on October 4. Our reactions have been so strong not only because Tim was at the core of this college, but also because things like this just don’t happen at W&J. W&J remains a safe campus and the security of the college is our highest priority.
I have never been prouder of the W&J community as I have these past few weeks. I have watched students, faculty and staff come together to comfort one another. I have seen athletes wearing Tim’s number 5 on their wristbands, and I have seen alumni, students, parents and community members stepping forward to fund the scholarship that the McNerney family established in Tim’s name. If you are interested in supporting this scholarship, just ask Michelle or me and we will tell you how to do so.
Now, two weeks after Tim’s death, the campus is beginning to heal, and students have found new salience for the college motto, “Juncta Juvant. Together We Thrive.” One student wrote in the Red &Black, “Being a Washington & Jefferson president is not just about the individual accomplishments we make as students. Taking on the role and title of a W&J president means to take on a sense of responsibility we have to ourselves and to those around us. . . . I know that I am not alone in saying that I am bursting with pride to call this school my home. Alone we are weak, but together we are strong, and through the help of our fellow presidents, we will emerge from this tragedy a stronger and more unified campus.”
Those of you who came through the Pittsburgh airport on your way to W&J or who travel through that facility regularly may have seen our new advertisements for the College that invite prospective students to “Be a President.” This visibility campaign, which we launched last year, has been incredibly successful in capturing the spirit of what we do here at W&J. We transform lives. We admit students who are often the first in their families to attend college, and they leave us, as our mission says, “prepared to make a significant contribution to the world today.” What do we mean by “Be a President”? As one student said, we mean that we encourage students to dream, to discover, and to do. Being a president means learning to have a vision, to be able to see beyond the immediate to the possible. It means that we work with each student to identify his or her strengths and passions, that we challenge them to do their very best work as they pursue those passions and develop those strengths, that we encourage them to see themselves as individuals who can truly make a change in the world, and that we equip them with the knowledge, confidence, ethics, and independence of mind to become leaders for their communities, their churches, their businesses, the nation, and the globe. As you know, our alumni body is filled with such leaders. We have individuals like Dick Clark, our board Chair, who has run a multi-national company, as well as respected rabbis like Rabbi Mayer Selekman, groundbreaking scientists like Denny Slamon who invented Herceptin the breast cancer drug, jurists like Gerry Schwartzbach who developed the battered woman defense, and a whole host of award-winning teachers, artists, athletes, and historians.
One of the programs that exemplify the kind of experience that transforms a student into a President is our Magellan Program, which just won its second major national award for innovation in global education. As most of you know the Magellan Program is designed to provide students an opportunity to explore the world while pursuing a research project of their own devising. Magellan Scholars travel alone, without the aid of other universities or third-party providers to smooth their way. They become entrepreneurial architects of their own lives, shaping their experiences as they encounter new cultures in an unmediated way. So, one young woman, our nominee for the Marshall Scholarship, built a series of three Magellans during her time at W&J. Having never traveled abroad, this mathematics and art double major spent the summer after her freshman year exploring how the classical architecture of Rome was echoed in the streets of Paris—all on her own. The next summer, she tested her interest in a teaching career by taking a position at the Cloud Forest School in the rainforests of Costa Rica, and finally, as part of her senior project as an art major, she spent a summer visiting art museums and painting in the open air of England and France. Another young man, a ROTC cadet, travelled to the Republic of Georgia to explore their sense of patriotism following their separation from Russia, another traveled to Tibet to study traditional medicines and yoga, one “couch surfed” through England, staying in people’s homes where they could discuss politics, education, and even gender roles. These Magellan Scholars who have provided medical care to the indigenous peoples of the Amazon, explored the roundup of Jews in Paris during the Holocaust, and backpacked from Quito to Lima studying construction of national identities--these students are truly Presidents. They will become leaders wherever they go.
But rather than my extolling their virtues, I want you to hear from the students themselves about how these experiences shape their lives.
A senior who studied how hotels and resorts market themselves in a country like Israel that is known for its random violence wrote:
When I was writing the proposal for the outrageous expedition that would become my Magellan, I compared myself to Frodo the Hobbit from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Like the small hobbit, I had spent virtually my entire life within the boundaries of Maryland and Pennsylvania. I have been to Ohio once, New York twice, Virginia once, and North Carolina 4 times. That was honestly the entire extent of my travel experience. I had never been on an airplane, barely used public buses, and the DC metro was still terrifying to me; and I was happy with that. I was perfectly content to spend the rest of my life in the United States, maybe working in state politics but not drifting too far away. But like Frodo the Hobbit, adventure was thrown at me. . . So before I knew it, I had a check in my pocket, a suitcase full of clothes, and a round-trip ticket to Tel Aviv, Israel.
[After I completed my project,] I never felt more alive in my life. For the first time in my life, . . . I had a cause. I found my passion. And I found myself. . . . . The adventurer, the Rabbi, and the Priest; the soldier and the freedom-fighter; the business-owner and the refugee-- all of them showed me a piece of their lives, and engraved that land into my heart forever.
Another student who studied sustainable cuisine in Viet Nam remembered:
I experienced frequent power-outages, stomach-aches, and ate plenty of insects for dinner. I loved every minute of it. . . . When you travel by yourself you get the opportunity to have a one-on-one experience with the place you are traveling to. I had to figure out how to eat soup for breakfast on a kiddie stool on the sidewalk by myself, I had to negotiate motorbike taxi transportation for myself, and most importantly I made friends that I continue to email regularly who never would have approached me to practice their English (and eventually invite me to their schools and homes) had I not been approachably by myself reading by the Hoan Kiem lake. . . . Photographs cannot explain the smell of sewage in the streets after rain and what it feels like to wake up with mosquito netting across the back of your hand in the morning, it’s the human interactions that make everything worth the money and time it takes to go someplace new.
And there was this student who learned more down-to-earth lessons. She wrote:
I learned that when you work for your boss, you do what your boss wants, whether you want to or not.
And finally, one student described her experience, saying:
The most important lesson that I learned this summer was that my dreams are not only dreams, they can be a reality BUT no one else can make them a reality if I don’t. The two months basically on my own taught me a lot about myself and made me much more independent. . . .
W&J enabled me to be confident enough to think of a plan, ask for guidance, and follow through with the project. . . . W&J has taught me to use my passion, grow in it, and use it to follow my dreams. . . This project was a huge step in my life, but it is only the start to an awesome journey. . . .[Following your dream] takes courage, drive, passion, resilience and much, much more. . . . This Magellan project has lit a flame in me that had gone out for a while and I am so grateful that I have been inspired again.
So, during this weekend, I hope that you will talk to students, see the campus through their eyes and get a sense of the remarkable energy at W&J. W&J is a college on the move. In the past few years, our freshman applications have grown from 1000 to more than 6000 for the 400 spots in our freshman class, and we have built 16 new buildings that provide our students with comfortable living and classroom spaces. The new Swanson Science Center at the corner of Lincoln and Maiden streets is evidence of our on-going commitment to provide our faculty and students with state-of-the-art facilities. If you haven’t had a chance to go inside, I hope you will be able to do so this weekend. It is truly a magnificent building. There, our chemistry and physics faculty and students are doing ground-breaking research. And this past year, we continued to improve our science facilities by substantially renovating the Biology and Psychology building named for two famous W&J professors, Dewey Dieter and Homer Porter. That building has a new roof, is air-conditioned and boasts state of the art animal facilities. Even its lobby is refreshed, so while you’re visiting Swanson, take a look at Dieter-Porter as well. These science facilities are serving our students who are doing research that they present on the international stage. This past summer, for example, one student presented her work on nanoparticles at the Molecular Materials conference in Barcelona and another presented his work at the Alzheimer’s Association International conference in Vancouver, British Columbia. Our students continue to make us proud.
And being a college on the move, we are embarking on a new 5-year strategic plan. At the heart of this plan is a proposal to add a small number of targeted, non-residential post-baccalaureate and certificate programs in areas that complement our mission and our historic strengths. For example, several leaders in health care are helping us to shape a program in Health Care Economics, and we are looking at the possibility of companion programs in medical narrative and medical illustration as well as certificates in areas related to energy policy and regulation. These programs will provide added visibility to W&J and supply revenue that will support our core program, the undergraduate liberal arts education. Since we would use professionals in their fields to teach in the post-grad programs, all our undergraduate faculty will still be focused 100% on the undergraduates. Only undergrads will live on or near campus and so the heart of the college will remain unchanged. But we will be growing and expanding, reaching more people and providing more services. This proposal will go to the faculty for their approval later this fall.
Little wonder that when we produce students who are so well prepared, they do exceptionally well in the job market. You may read about college graduates who cannot find work, but those are not OUR students. Employers who interview our seniors talk about their exceptional work ethic, their fine preparation in their field, and their strong sense of integrity. Our graduates are the kind of employees who arrive at 8:30 in order to start work at 9:00, who will stay late to finish a job, who know how to work effectively in a laboratory setting, who understand international businesses and economics at a sophisticated level, and who can be trusted by their employers. For all these reasons, within 6 months of graduation more than 90% of our students have jobs in their fields or have been admitted to medical, law, or graduate school.
And did you know that on the national test of critical thinking administered last spring, our seniors scored #5 in the country? That’s a ranking I am proud of.
So, as you meet old friends and greet your professors during this Homecoming weekend, I hope that you will take pride in the College as it exists today. It is a place where students study hard, where they do nationally award-winning research, where they learn to take initiative and tackle tough problems, and where they commit to working for the common good. These are the qualities that define the W&J community.
And the college community embraces not only today’s faculty, staff, and students, but also our alumni. It stretches across the generations. In fact, many of our alumni are now serving as mentors for current students, talking to them about choosing a major, explaining what a fraternity or sorority is, and even providing some advice on careers. What a wonderful way to knit together the various generations of the W&J family. Alumni mentors talk or email frequently with their student mentees, but some do even more. One mentor traveled with his mentee to Korea this past spring break to introduce the student to leaders in athletic shoe manufacture, and another has employed his student mentee as a freelance marketer.
Other alumni are helping students with scholarship support. Many of you tell me that you could not have afforded to come to W&J without the scholarships that a previous alumnus provided for you. And you are passing it on, paying it forward. And for many of you, this gist is a very personal one—I see many of you coming to commencement to see the individual students you have supported graduate. What a wonderful feeling to know that you are doing for them what others did for you. Some of you also support our special fund called GIFT, Give It Forward Together, which supports students whose financial situation changes while they are in college. Every year, there are students whose families have struggled to pay for college and who suddenly face an unanticipated setback. A parent is laid off, a family business fails. These students have worked hard here and done well, but they are facing the possibility of needing to leave college for want of only $2000-3000. And, through GIFT, you are assuring that these bright, deserving students can complete their degrees and launch a successful life for themselves and their families.
The phrase “the W&J family” is more than rhetorical flourish. Over the years, alumni have given the money to build Old Main, to put books in our library and to support our remarkable staff and faculty. In fact, did you know that tuition only covers 65% of the cost of educating students at W&J? It’s been like that for generations—every student, even those paying “full price,” has 35% of his or her education subsidized by the College. It’s true today and it was true in your day, too, whether you were here in the 50’s or the 90’s. We all stand on the shoulders of those who passed through this College before us. We all benefit from their dedication to seeing the College move forward. Like those who came before you, you are making it possible for our current students to have state-of-the-art classrooms, exceptional faculty, dedicated staff, and an education that will change their lives and the lives of their communities.
We need to get out the story of W&J. We need to shout it from the rooftops. I can’t do it alone. I’ve repeatedly invited the New York Times to balance its reporting of the college experience by covering the story of schools like W&J that succeed in getting students to graduation on time, but Tamar Lewin told me, “Success is not newsworthy.” Well, I think it is newsworthy, and we need to spread the story. It’s a story that our country needs to hear and to celebrate. It’s the story of young people working hard, studying hard, learning to take initiative, and committing to work together for the common good. Like our current students, you are leaders in your field. Wear the identity of your alma mater proudly. Put a W&J sticker on your car. Wear a college sweatshirt to your child’s soccer game. Talk about the College to your friends and neighbors—especially those with children in high school. BE A PRESIDENT.
I want to close tonight by thanking you for representing W&J so well. The momentum that the College is currently experiencing is due in large part to many of you who are in this room. You have guided our students as alumni mentors, you have given your time and your financial support to this College, you have been our best representatives. We cannot thank you enough because we build our reputations on you. If you live more than 50 miles from Pittsburgh, when someone meets you, you may be the only person they know from W&J. For them, you are the College. And I know that you represent us well. Thank you for embodying the remarkable achievements of Washington & Jefferson College. Thank you for being a President. And welcome home.