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.
As you wander around, cheer on the football team, and see your old friends, I hope that you will get a sense of the remarkable momentum on this campus. There is no question about it--W&J is a college on the move. In the past few years, our freshman applications have grown from 1000 to close to 7000 applicants 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. If you haven’t already seen it, I hope you will take the time to visit the new Swanson Science Center at the corner of Lincoln and Maiden—what a magnificent building. And those of you who toiled in Dieter-Porter or who studied under those faculty legends will be pleased to know that the Dieter-Porter Life Sciences Building is being renovated this year to add air conditioning, upgrade laboratories, and make the building more suitable for year-round use since students and faculty are in there every day now doing research funded by CDC, NSF, Merck, and HHMI. We also have a brand new Center for Energy Policy and Management on campus that will be studying issues related to all kinds of energy—solar, wind, nuclear, coal, and, of course, given our location at the heart of the Marcellus Shale, also natural gas. This spring, the Center will be issuing the W&J Energy Security Index. This index, which is analogous to the consumer confidence index, will allow the media and the public to track our relative energy security year to year. And issuing the index should put W&J on the national map.
Our athletics teams are also on the move. Did you know that W&J has produced 10 Academic All-Americans in the past five years, the most in any five-year period in the College’s history? Our men’s athletic teams won their seventh-straight PAC All-Sports Trophy last year, led by our men’s golf team which captured its 15th conference championship throughout history. And just this past week, our three-time defending conference champion women’s soccer won its 10th game in a row, which established a new school record. This year we had national champions in track and diving—and our diver finished fifth and seventh on the one and three-meter boards.
So this weekend you should experience a college on the move, a college unlike those that seem to attract the attention of so many journalists. Reading the newspapers over the past year, you would think that students never study any more, don’t learn much even if they do, struggle to graduate in four or even six years, and even then can’t find a job to pay off their excessive debt. Given that picture, why should colleges exist? Why should alumni take pride in them?
I am here to tell you that W&J is not like those colleges and our students are not like those students. W&J is truly uncommon. Every day I am impressed with how hard our students work. I see them from my bedroom window, studying late into the night at the library—many of them after putting in several hours of work on campus or bagging groceries at Giant Eagle. And their hard work pays off. Every year our students compete at Harvard with the Model UN, and they are invited to present their research at national conferences like the American Chemical Society that are dominated by faculty and graduate students from other schools, and W&J was the only undergraduate team in this region selected by the Chartered Financial Analysts Society to compete in a global Investment Research Challenge, so once again our undergraduates will be competing against graduate students elsewhere. And speaking of competitions, this summer Cory Thoma, a senior at W&J, set a new standard. He was given the opportunity to work with a faculty member at CMU on a project to develop computerized monitoring to maximize the efficiency of household energy use. His research was successful and so he was one of 23 students invited to compete for awards at TECHCON 2011, a national conference where he won second prize—ahead of students from Stanford, Berkeley, and, yes, CMU. Given W&J’s record of remarkable success, no wonder that routinely W&J gets 90% of our applicants into medical school and this past year, 95% of the W&J students who applied to law school were admitted—many with significant scholarships.
So our students are studying and they’re learning. What about our graduation rates? Did you know that 98% of our graduates complete their degrees in four years? 98%. Even though some students work more than 20 hours a week, W&J students graduate on time because they receive personalized advising from faculty and staff who know them well. To make this record of success real for our prospective parents and students, we now offer an “on time graduation guarantee,” which promises that all our students who meet the academic requirements—that is, they do not disappear and travel to Italy for 3 weeks—will graduate in four years. If they do not, we will offer them up to one year of tuition free at W&J. We are putting our money where our mouth is because we know that W&J students succeed.
And what happens after graduation? Do our students get jobs? You bet they do! For the past few years, 100% of our Economics and Philosophy majors had job offers or had been admitted to graduate school when they walked across the stage to receive their diplomas. And even as teachers across the state were being laid off, our newly certified graduates secured teaching jobs. We survey all our students six months after commencement, and last year 91% of them had jobs in their fields or were enrolled in graduate or professional school. And that number is UP from previous years. In other words, in this turbulent economy, our students still stand out.
Why is that? What makes our students so uncommon? Recruiters and graduate schools tell us that it’s simple—they are well trained and have a strong work ethic. A recruiter from Price Waterhouse Coopers told me that his firm was shifting their recruiting emphasis from the Ivy League to schools like W&J. “All the big financial services firms are fighting for the same students,” he said. “And those students aren’t that good. Those Ivy Leaguers are cocky—their first question in a job interview is how many days of vacation they receive in their first six months. It’s like recruiting Labron James,” he said. W&J students, on the other hand, are just as smart, just as well prepared, and they want to work. This year, the national office of Price Waterhouse Coopers interviewed 6 W&J students and hired 2 of them in addition to the 5 hired locally. They must be pleased because they are currently interviewing 12 more students. Not a bad record! This kind of testimony to our students’ remarkable preparation also comes from those who hire them as interns. One employer told me that the W&J junior who worked for him in the summer was quicker and better able to analyze complex financial situations than the Harvard MBA student who worked alongside her.
So, you see, W&J is truly a remarkable place. The value of the education we offer here is evident every day in the work our students and graduates are doing.
People often ask me what today’s 18-21 year-olds need to learn the most. It’s a tough question. But I would say that our country needs two things from the next generation—an entrepreneurial drive and the ability to work together toward a common good. In other words, we need to regain that pioneer spirit that drove our country westward, that brought America together to raise up great cities, and to create a nation out of a patchwork of immigrant groups who held different values and beliefs. Without a recommitment to that pioneer spirit—rooted in education—I fear that our country will languish.
At W&J, we encourage our students to develop an entrepreneurial attitude. Some students might say that we insist upon it. Just last weekend, W&J held its second Founding Father’s Mock Trial tournament, hosting 15 teams from 8 schools. That effort was completely student–initiated. Students wanted to hold the tournament, they recruited judges, they invited teams, they staffed the event, and they competed. They took initiative. Another program that teaches students to have confidence that they can make a difference in the world is our award-winning Magellan Program, which sends students off to do truly independent research around the globe. These freshmen, sophomores, and juniors must make their own way—they have no one to guide them as they interview migrant workers in the backwaters of Shanghai or study coffee farming in the mountain villages of Ecuador. There is no one to help them figure out what to do when they lose the address of their hostel in Paris or miss the last train of the day in Tokyo. The W&J students who become Magellan Scholars are learning to become the authors of their own lives—and in so doing they are changing the world around them. One young woman who traveled to the Gambia to study new laws affecting women’s education found her calling in life. “The Gambia is blessed with lots of natural resources,” she told me, “Mangos, peanuts—but they have to send the food outside the country to be processed and then re-purchase it at a higher price. When I graduate with my International Business major,” she said, “I am going to find angel investors and build a food processing plant in The Gambia to help the nation become more self-sufficient.” Another Magellan Scholar, herself a cancer survivor, performed cancer research in New Zealand this summer and wrote a monograph called Granulosa Cell Tumors for Dummies, which translated scientific research into language that patients and caregivers could understand. That monograph is now on the front page of the GCT Research Foundation’s website and has been downloaded thousands of times by people around the globe. As a sophomore at W&J, this woman is receiving dozens of emails daily including offers to speak at conferences. At age 19, she is already changing lives. And one young man has strung together three Magellan experiences in a row, each year challenging himself to do more. After his freshman year, he volunteered with Doctors without Borders in the Dominican Republic, scrubbing in on surgeries in their rural clinics. After his sophomore year, he hired doctors on his own and ran his own version of Doctors without Borders, setting up his own clinics in different communities in the DR. Then, as a junior at W&J, he said he wanted to “leave a legacy” here at the College. I don’t know about you, but when I was a junior, I was not thinking about “leaving a legacy.” Anyway, he founded Presidents without Borders (to echo Doctors without Borders) and this summer 15 W&J students and a cadre of physicians traveled to the Dominican Republic and ran rural clinics there. This international service group will be Nick’s legacy to W&J. This is what I mean when I talk about entrepreneurial spirit and initiative. When these students return, they no longer are the kind of folks who say, “There’s a problem and someone should solve it.” They say,” There’s a problem and I will help solve it.” This past summer 61 students completed Magellan projects. These students help to make W&J uncommon.
We also teach our students about the need to work together for the common good—a quality that seems to be in short supply these days. Fortunately, W&J is one of the most diverse colleges I know in terms of political and social ideology. Most colleges are dominated by a liberal or a conservative point of view. That homogeneity makes them comfortable places—everyone knows that their opinions are right because they all agree with each other. But such homogeneity also breeds intellectual sloppiness. With no one to challenge their opinions, students do not learn how to think critically. At W&J, however, there are sizeable groups of students on both sides of most contentious issues. Some students aspire to work on Wall Street and others want to occupy it. Some believe that we should impose taxes on our wealthiest citizens and others support tax cuts. In the last presidential election, so far as we can tell, about half of our students voted for Obama and half for McCain. We work every day to nurture this kind of ideological diversity because it teaches students to engage in meaningful discussions that help them to understand the very real problems that our society faces. Only when our students can converse across lines of difference from a position of respect will our participatory democracy thrive.
This year a group of students took the initiative to make the most of our political diversity. They voluntarily decided to live together with those who have political perspectives or ideological viewpoints different from their own. In what they call the Civics House, the presidents of the College Republicans and the College Democrats are now roommates. Pro-life supporters are living with pro-choice advocates, members of the NRA with vegetarians. And the students did it on their own, as their own expression of the College motto: Juncta Juvant, Together We Thrive, because they felt that it was important to learn how to engage in civic discourse. These young people are modeling themselves after the namesakes of the College, two men who differed greatly on most important issues of the day and yet worked together to form a country. Look at the statue at the corner of Lincoln and Beau, and you will see this spirit displayed. In that statue, Washington & Jefferson stand next to each other, arms around each other, but not in a chummy or intimate way. One man’s hand is only at the small of the other one’s back, and the two men are gazing off in different directions. And yet, they joined together in the common effort of building a country.
And so, as you wander around campus and remember your days here, I hope that you will take pride in the College as it exists today, for the college community embraces not only today’s faculty, staff, and students, but also our alumni. You. It stretches across the generations. 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. One alumnus said that, the young man he was mentoring called him to say “Happy Father’s Day” even before his own children did! What a wonderful way to knit together the generations of W&J students and alumni.
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 scholarship that a previous alumnus provided for you. And you are passing it on, paying it forward. Some of you support GIFT (Give it Forward Together), which helps our students who face significant changes to their financial situation while they are in College. Every year, there are students whose families have struggled to pay the cost of tuition and then suddenly face an unanticipated setback. A parent is laid off, a family business fails. These students have worked hard here, they have done well, but they are facing the possibility of needing to leave college for want of only $2000-3000. Some of them are so close to their goals—even in their senior year. Your support allows these bright, deserving students to 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. 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.
I hope that I have convinced you that W&J is a place on the move, a place you can be proud of. We need to spread the story of this uncommon college. 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, “W&J’s story is just not newsworthy; success is not newsworthy.” Well, I think it is newsworthy. 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. W&J has only 12,000 living alumni, but you are a powerful group. 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. When someone asks you, “Where did you go to college?” Don’t say, “A small college in Southwest Pennsylvania that you probably never heard of.” Say “Washington & Jefferson College” And if the response is, “Isn’t that in Virginia?” You can say, “No, that’s Washington & Lee. We’re Washington & Jefferson. They may have a president and a general—but we have two presidents.”
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 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. And welcome home.