Matriculation of the Class of 2017

Matriculation Address
Class of 2017
August 30, 2013

It is my greatest pleasure to welcome all of you to Washington & Jefferson College.  You have come from down the street, from as far away as New York, California, and half-way ‘round the world.  Most of you are first-year students who constitute the Class of 2017.  Others of you have transferred here from different institutions, and some are visiting us as international exchange students.  Congratulations to you all on your decision to join this amazing institution.  Together, we are going to embark upon a fabulously challenging and enriching educational journey.  And welcome, as well, to the parents, friends, and family members who are here with us today.  You have entrusted your sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, cousins and grandchildren to us, and we are honored to count you, too, among the members of the W&J family.  We are delighted to have all of you joining our community.

This matriculation is the first important ceremony you will engage in at W&J.  It is the mirror to commencement.  And I assure you that it will seem like a very short time before we all gather again on this same ground to mark your passing from college student to college graduate. 

In addition to those speaking today, joining me on the platform are Dean Charlie Hannon in Academic Affairs, Dean Steve Anderson who oversees Residence Life, and Amanda Gunther, Assistant Director of Student Transitions.  Our sign language interpreter is Michelle Balfe.  Finally, I’d like to thank Scott Elliott, who teaches guitar at W&J for providing the prelude music.

SO, turn off your cell phones, pocket your various other electronics, and let me tell you a little bit about our new students at W&J.

Among you are 8 Valedictorians and 7 Salutatorians.  More than 30% of you were in the top 10% of your graduating class, and 93% of you were in the top half of your class.  21 of you have at least one parent who attended W&J.  Thirty-eight of you were involved with student government, 23 were involved in drama or theatre, and 36 participated in a church group.  Thirty-one of you played in your high school band or orchestra—and two of you are award-winning pianists.  You have been team captains, class presidents and prom queens.  83 of you are members of the National Honor Society, and 103 were members of another academic club.  At least one of you had perfect attendance in high school.  While many of you are considering careers in medicine, law, business, or education, we are delighted that at this point more than half of you have no idea what you will major in.  We hope you will embrace college as a time for exploration.  About a third of you were active in community service—one of the highest percentages in recent years.  One of you coaches students with disabilities in baseball, another in swimming, and a third at the Therapeutic Riding Equestrian Center.  Several work with autistic children, one of you is a bell ringer for the Salvation Army and another a weekly bingo volunteer.  Your class includes three Eagle Scouts and one winner of the Girl Scout Gold Award.  Two of you are professional models and one is a radio broadcaster.  You are an international crowd.  You have traveled around the world including Spain, Ireland, Australia, France, Germany, Iberia, the Republic of Georgia, China, Pakistan, Greece, Lithuania, Mexico, Turkey, South Africa, Norway, Solvakia, the Czech Republic, and Singapore.  One of you worked with the Modernize Rwanda campaign.  One of you is a competitive rock climber, another an actor at Haunted Acres Manor.  Two of you are twins and two have twins who are attending a different college.  

Well more than half of you were high school varsity athletes.  Some of you will continue that activity here and others will opt for intramural and informal sports.  Several of you have participated in Olympic Development Programs in a variety of sports from hockey to water polo to soccer, and one has two cousins in the NFL.  You also include a member of the team that won the Physics Olympics, a Mathlete, and several award winning participants in the Pennsylvania Junior Academy of Science competitions.  In fact, one of you took home trophies four years in a row!  Many of you volunteer in local hospitals and one started a student-run café.  You have performed at Disney and the Apollo Theatre, taught Hindu, Spanish, and Chinese, and designed school uniforms.  You belong to the Robotics Club and the French national Honors Society.  One of you wrote your personal statement about breaking up with a box of tissues.  You volunteer in an oncology unit, coach little league, lead your debate and Model UN teams, and you volunteer at the local library and the food bank.  You have founded social media sites and the Pennsylvania Youth Congress.  You read to the blind and work as a volunteer for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.  You have served as a chaplain for future farmers of America and for Children of the American Revolution.  One of you was voted the most artistic in your senior class, another had your poetry published in 10 books, and a third earned an Air Force Achievement Medal.  One of you is a rapper who wants to design shoes, another had the honor of laying the wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier in Arlington Cemetery.  One of you has worked as a construction worker and another as a Cheese taster.  And one dreams the impossible dream—to be an uncorruptible politician.  You are truly a diverse and multi-talented group, and we are delighted to welcome you to W&J.

We brought you here you because each of you has a unique voice to add to the chorus of voices that creates our community.  For college is a conversation.  Sitting among you today are liberals and conservatives, Hindus and Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Atheists and Jews.  Individuals who grew up in the dying neighborhoods of inner cities, and those who have private estates in gated communities.  There are individuals who are straight, gay, and everything in between. 

We want to hear what each of you has to say.  And we also want you to listen to the other voices around you.  Listen with respect and listen to understand.  Discussions in college are not about shouting each other down, not about “winning an argument.”  When we refuse to listen to those who disagree with us, we endanger our democracy.  At W&J, we believe in listening to all points of view, weighing them, considering their logic, and so seeking the truth.

I remember well being part of a wonderful, if contentious, conversation among students that began one evening about 4 p.m. on the subject of whether or not arranged marriage was preferable to a love marriage.  Somehow, a few hours later, this had become a discussion about when and if you could ever bring yourself to kill another human being, and by midnight a born-again Christian was arguing that even good Jews are condemned to hell because they have not accepted Christ.  The conversation continued, people coming and going, all night until dawn.  The students weren’t talking about specific courses that they were taking, but they were thinking critically, listening to one another, and learning. They were listening across lines of difference from a position of respect. They were creating the conversation that is at the heart of a college like W&J.  At a time when the world tends to see issues as black and white, good and evil, we are committed to the conviction that ideas are complex, multi-faceted concerns that deserve long and careful conversations.

Over the past few years, I have been gathering advice for all of you from some of our seniors, and Adam gave you some wonderful insights in his address to you.  I stop students on the street or in The Commons and ask them what they know now that they wished they had known when they were sitting where you are.  Here is their advice in terms of social life.  One—give your roommate a chance—you may or may not become best friends but learn to live together. Two—for those of you who live nearby, don’t go home on weekends—especially at first—because you will miss out on the important formation of social groups here.  One senior said she was terribly homesick at first, cried herself to sleep in fact, but staying here re-centered her life and was important.  Three—have more than one group of friends—not just your teammates or just your neighbors in the residence hall.  Having two or three groups of friends gives your life variety and richness. 

As I reflect upon their advice, I realize that they were saying "College is a time when you learn to live in a society that is much larger and complex than your family or your hometown or your prep school."  At this point, most of you are accustomed to having private space, your own bedroom.  At W&J, you will experience a life lived in common.  And you will learn the most important skill that leaders nationwide consistently seek in their new employees--the ability to work together in a diverse group.  At W&J you will master that skill as you share your bedroom, share your eating space, and share your lives with others. 

The most common advice I hear from students was summed up by Adam in his welcome address to you when he advised you to study hard.  Think of your education like a gym membership—you get out of it what you put into it.  Simply purchasing a membership to a gym does not ensure that you will have a trim and toned body.  You have to actually do the sit-ups.  So, too, simply purchasing a college education does not make you educated.  Your education will grow in value the more effort that you put into it.  We will provide you with a dedicated faculty who want you to succeed, support services that are designed to help and challenge you, and a world of information and ideas at your fingertips.  But we cannot do the studying or the learning for you. Like physical conditioning, mental conditioning—education--requires effort, discipline, and perseverance.     

And, if you really challenge yourself, you will inevitably face some setbacks.  When that happens—whether you receive a poor grade, do not understand the material, or make a bad choice in your social life—learn from the experience.  I know that in my own life, I have learned far more from my failures than my successes. 

Many of our seniors have told me that they wished they had realized how easy it was to go to a professor for help.  “The professors are in their offices,” they told me, “go see them.  After all, ignoring a bad grade does not make it go away.”   Remember that when the faculty push you, when they give you challenging assignments, when they hold you to a high standard, that is a sign of their respect for you. They push you because they know that if you try, you can do it.  And they want you to succeed.  If you work with them, you will be surprised at what you can do—publish your own research, earn prestigious internships, and present your work at national and international conferences. 

It’s time for you to take charge of your own education.  If you find that you really don’t want to major in Biology but want instead to study politics or art, then take charge of your education and change your focus.  You can create your own major here. During January, join our faculty for a trip to Africa, to Japan, to Italy, or England.  Don’t wait until you’re a senior to visit Career Services, go there as freshmen and learn about internships and resume writing. Get an alumni mentor and soon you will be having regular conversations with a CEO, a doctor, a teacher, an alum from NY or Chicago or South Africa who will be your friend, answer questions about college, and help you in your future career.  You can sign up for the alumni mentor program online.

Or maybe you will consider studying abroad for a semester, or applying for W&J’s signature Magellan Program.  The director of that program, Dr. Brianne Bilsky in our Student Life Office, can work with you so that you can follow in the footsteps of this year’s 75 Magellan Scholars who studied constitutional law in Belize, worked with refugee children in Uganda, completed a marketing internship with twentieth century Fox, and literally swam with the sharks in South Africa—look to see his video on Shark Week.

To get a good start at W&J, an assignment I would give each of you for the first year is to find a professor—just one will do—with whom you connect.  It could be your advisor or your Philosophy teacher or your lab professor.  This process can take time, but find someone.  Connect with them so that you can go to them when you need advice.  You’re going to change a lot in college—and you will want to talk to someone as you go through that change, someone who has seen many other college students make this same transition and who also knows you well.  If, at the end of the first semester or at least the first year, you have found such a professor, you will be well on your way to a successful college experience. 

When I was a freshman, I found such a professor.  The first paper I wrote for this English professor was a C-.   I’d never gotten a C-.    Looking back, I suspect the paper was really worse than that --he just didn’t want to discourage me.  But I went to his office and he spent hours teaching me how to read literature, what kinds of questions to ask, and how to convert that reading into a paper.  Sometimes I felt like I’d never get it, but slowly my grades improved and he was patient as I kept stumbling along.  We remained good friends, and he counseled me through college.  When I was married, his son was my ring-bearer and he attended my inauguration as president of W&J.  I wish the same kind of lifelong relationship for you.

Finally, this is a time when you can start life anew.  There might be a few people here from your high school, but most people here won’t know your personal history.  They won’t remember that you cried in first grade when your mother left you alone for the first time.  Or, that you were a bad sport in high school, or that you made a fool of yourself when you danced alone in the rain.  From this point forward, you can be who you want to be.  Create a self that you can be proud of.

And so, families, don’t be surprised if your child changes during his or her time here.  When your child comes home, he or she will have grown and changed.  That’s why you are sending them here.  Embrace that growth.  Question them about their new ideas.  Learn, listen, and talk with them.  You are part of the remarkable transformation we will all celebrate at graduation. 
So now let us concentrate on your transformation into W&J students.  We will mark your entrance into the W&J community in several ways.  Most importantly, you will sign the mission statement, joining with us in our collective desire to grow and learn together.  The W&J mission statement reads:

The mission of Washington & Jefferson College is to graduate people of uncommon integrity, competence, and maturity who are effective lifelong learners and responsible citizens, and who are prepared to contribute substantially to the world in which they live. To this end, the College promotes the development of skills, knowledge, personal qualities, and a worldview that characterize a well-educated person.

Fine words.  Let’s take this statement apart to see what it means for all of us.  The mission statement says that W&J graduates individuals who have uncommon integrity and maturity—who have a sense of ethics that they believe and enact.  What does this mean in practice?  We don’t have a required integrity course or a department of integrity.  How can we say that our graduates are men and women of uncommon integrity? 

To illustrate what we mean, let me tell you about what happened here in 1923, just one year after W&J played Cal in the Rose Bowl. W&J is the smallest college ever to have competed in the Rose Bowl—and we had the first Black quarterback to play in that competition.  Anyway, the following year, W&J was scheduled to play Washington and Lee.  And when Washington and Lee traveled north from Virginia to play football, they always demanded that the northern teams bench any Black players they might have.  They would not play with Black players on the field.  And most teams complied with their request, “out of courtesy to the Southern team,” as the president of Rutgers said.  But W&J insisted that they were not going to bench their Black player, Charlie West.  When the team from Washington and Lee got off the train downtown, they once again demanded that we bench our black quarterback.  But W&J said, “We weren’t kidding.  We’re not going to bench him.”  And W&L said, “Well, we weren’t kidding, either, and you owe us some money.  Our contract guarantees that you pay us a minimum amount from the gate receipts.  And we think you will want to play so you can collect the gate receipts to pay us.  So, bench Charlie West and let’s play.”

But W&J didn’t play.  Instead, the team went down to the bank, withdrew the minimum guaranteed amount, paid Washington and Lee, and sent the Southern team home.  Now this is a story of integrity.  What makes it a story of UNCOMMON integrity is the fact that Charlie West, the only black player on the team, had such a badly sprained ankle that weekend, that he could not have played anyway.  It would have been so easy to have said to him, “Don’t bother to suit up, Charlie, because you’re injured” or to say to the opposing team, “Let’s let him suit up, but we can guarantee that he won’t be on the field.”  The wiggle room was a mile wide.  But W&J acted on principle, paid Washington and Lee, and sent them packing.  They acted with uncommon integrity.  That is the kind of college to which you have come. 

I also would draw your attention to the emphasis here on “contributing substantially to the world.” Whatever you do as your life’s work, you will find that our society is no longer local but global.  The decline in America’s economy affects farmers in Russia, businessmen in Tibet, and villagers in Tanzania. The turmoil in Syria echoes in London and in Washington, DC.  As you design your education, keep your eye on the globe. 

And why a liberal arts and sciences education?  Well, the statisticians tell us that students your age will change careers seven to nine times in your lifetimes.  In other words, you might graduate from W&J and go to law school, but then decide to become a journalist, and then maybe a television personality, then an author, and finally a U.S. Senator.  Some of you will graduate into types of jobs that do not currently exist.  How can we prepare you to contribute to the world, given that unknown future?  Not by providing you a job certificate for a given profession, but rather by giving you the most practical of all educations—a liberal arts and sciences education—that will teach you problem-solving, critical thinking, writing, and speaking skills—along with basic knowledge of history, philosophy, science, math, languages, and art so that you can move from job to job, career to career, growing and changing as you evolve. I hear repeatedly from employers that the W&J graduates whom they hire are promoted more rapidly than graduates of other schools—including Harvard and Yale.   Why?  Because they know how to work hard and they can write and speak clearly as well as being exceptionally well prepared in their area of expertise.  At W&J, we prepare you for your first job, but we also prepare you for a lifetime of jobs.

Our alumni are evidence that we fulfill this mission admirably.  One of our most famous alumni, the NFL commissioner, not only exemplifies the “uncommon integrity” that we prize, but he also got where he is today by taking initiative when he was a student here at W&J.  When Roger Goodell was a senior here, he decided he wanted to work for the NFL, and so he wrote letters asking for an internship to every team and every office in the NFL. All his friends told him no one would answer, but he kept writing, anyway.  He had a passion for this sport, and he acted on it.  Finally, one team did answer and offered the persistent young man an internship.  Now, 30 years later, he heads the NFL.  Our alumni are individuals who do not sit back and wait for others to solve their problems; they are leaders who take the initiative to shape their educations, their businesses, and their futures.

As I look out at you new W&J students, I know that you are going to make us proud, that you will graduate from W&J as responsible citizens, as well-educated persons, and as the leaders of tomorrow.  We’re counting on you to lead us in the future, to find miraculous new cures for cancer and Alzheimer’s, to craft trade and political agreements that make our world more peaceful, and to find a way to preserve the health and resources of this over-taxed planet. 

By matriculating as Presidents at Washington & Jefferson College, you indicate your willingness to commit to this important work. 

Welcome to W&J and to this great adventure.