August 27, 2006
Olin Fine Arts Center Lawn
It is my greatest pleasure to welcome the Class of 2010 to Washington & Jefferson College. Congratulations on your admission to this amazing institution. Together, we are going to have a fabulously challenging and enriching next four years.
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 our faculty marshal, Dr. Stuart Miller; Dr. Dana Shiller, associate dean of academic affairs; and Dean Susan Yuhasz who shepherds our student life programs. Our sign language interpreter is Paul Klucsartis. I am also delighted to have with us Brianne Bilsky, a 2005 graduate of W&J who played a major role in designing this ceremony. Brianne is now a graduate student studying English at Stanford University. Finally, I'd like to thank Dr. Susan Woodard and Ty West for providing the prelude music. Ty is a junior pre-med student majoring in music.
So, let me tell you a little bit about the Class of 2010 at W&J.
Some of you come from rural settings, and some from urban ones. Some are exchange students from England, Germany, Japan, and Russia. One of you carries a South Korean passport. Among you are 11 valedictorians. One hundred and seven of you were involved with student government, 79 were in a choral group. 32 of you took up the cause of Students Against Drunk Driving, 22 played softball. 98 of you were in a foreign language clubs, 57 participated in a church group, and six of you were active in the Model U.N. In addition, one of you has beaten cerebral palsy, another has overcome leukemia, and one has a father who recently returned from Iraq. You also have among you a female wrestler, a professional paintball player, and someone who stared down a bear on a camping trip. Three of you have twins, two of you are published authors, and one of you has a bedroom with walls painted like a football field. Then there are the ones among you who said you were just "average Joes" (or Josephines). But I suspect that none of you are really average. You are a diverse and multitalented 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. Sitting among you today are Marxists, Conservative Republicans, and members of the Green Party. 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 religious, atheist, straight, gay, and everything in between. And, of course, all of you wear multiple identities—as a woman or an African-American, as affluent or pre-med or Muslim. You are each like a diamond with many facets—and different parts of your identity will be in play at different times during your college education.
We brought you all to W&J to create a conversation. Your voice is important. We want to hear what you have to say. But we also want you to listen with respect to the other voices around you. Discussions in college are not about shouting each other down, not about "winning an argument." They are about coming to understand one another. Sometimes your conversations may change your point of view, sometimes they may not. You may enter W&J as a firm supporter of the welfare system or the war in Iraq and you may leave as a critic of these initiatives. Or you may leave even more convinced of your initial point of view. Like Genly Ai in your summer reading, The Left Hand of Darkness, you may well see yourself differently when you talk with those who are different from you. Conversation in college is not just an opportunity; it is a responsibility.
I remember well being part of a 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 are not Christian. 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. At a time when the world tends to see issues as black and white, good and evil, and when difficult world situations are reduced to sound bites, at W&J we are committed to exploring the complexity of ideas through long and careful conversations.
There is a kind of paradox at small college like ours. We have assembled here a faculty and staff that are dedicated to teaching and supporting you. You will never be a number here. The librarians will help you learn how to do college-level research on the Internet and the faculty will challenge you daily to read more deeply, write more clearly, and think more precisely. We will be at your theatre and music events. We are all here to help you succeed.
But here's the paradox. We will provide opportunities but we will not program your lives. You have to take charge of your own education. It is not a recipe we write for you—it is a feast that you assemble and prepare yourself. Get involved in activities on campus—the Black Student Union, the rugby club, student government. If you brought a television to college, put it back in its box and hide it in the rear of your closet. It will only distract you. Take courses in areas you may not have studied before. During January, join our faculty for a trip to Africa, Japan, Italy, or England or take a course in global security. If you are especially interested in an issue that arises in class, pursue it. Read more than is on the syllabus. Go to lunch with your professor in the Commons. During the summers, work for VISTA, do research in a national lab, or, as one of our students did, intern on the Late Night with David Letterman show. Explore the unknown, stretch yourself. Training your mind is like training your body. You can have the best coach in the world but you won't learn to play well unless you get out there, swim those sprints, lift those weights, and practice that strategy. In college, you are making the transition from adolescence to adulthood, and part of that transition is taking charge of your life, taking responsibility for your future.
An excellent model for you to follow is one of our alums who has received a good bit of press recently—Roger Goodell, the new NFL commissioner. All his life Roger Goodell dreamed of working for the NFL. So, when he was a senior at W&J, he wrote them letter after letter, asking them for an internship. Everyone told him to give up, his letters would just be ignored, thrown in wastebasket. But he didn't give up. He worked his network of friends from W&J and he persisted, writing those letters. Finally, sure enough, he landed the internship. Now, 24 years later, he leads the organization.
This is the time in your life to dream, to do what you've always wanted to do. It is a time when you can start life anew. 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. From this point forward, you can be who you want to be. Create a self that you can be proud of.
And so, parents, don't be surprised if your son or daughter 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 in four years at graduation.
So now let us concentrate on your transformation into W&J students. Today you are not embarking upon a fifth year of high school. Today, you become a college student at a very special college. 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 men and women 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 not only first-rate pre-meds, smart historians, dedicated teachers, entrepreneurial business leaders, and brilliant artists, but also 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 an integrity requirement 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, the year when John Heisman coached the W&J football team, just one year after W&J played Cal in the Rose Bowl. (Yes, 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. In those days, when Washington and Lee traveled north, they always demanded that the northern teams bench any black players they might have. They would not play with Black men 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. Washington and Lee traveled here anyway. When their team 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."
But W&J didn't play. Instead, the team went down to the bank, withdrew the minimum guaranteed amount, paid Washington and Lee, and ushered the Southern team back onto the train. Now this is a story of integrity.
What makes it a story of UNCOMMON integrity is the fact that Charlie West, the black player, 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.
Our mission statement also says that W&J graduates men and women who are "prepared to contribute substantially to the world in which they live." The statisticians tell us that students your age will change careers seven times in your lifetimes. In other words, after W&J, you might graduate 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 education—a liberating 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 converse with people from all walks of life. And you can continue to grow.
I would also draw your attention to the emphasis here on "the world." Whatever you do as your life's work, you will find that our society is no longer local but global. Someone contracts bird flu in Hong Kong and within 48 hours, the disease has spread around the world. Natural resources from Africa are processed by workers from India to produce goods marketed in Europe by companies headquartered in America. The air we breathe in Pennsylvania is filled with pollutants from China and Mexico, as well as Ohio. As you design your education, keep your eye on the globe and consider ways in which you can expand your horizons through international internships, through study abroad, and through courses that take your mind beyond our country's borders.
Finally, the mission statement speaks of graduating responsible citizens and lifelong learners, individuals who will help to guide our country whose participatory democracy will only thrive so long as we have voting citizens who are well educated so that they can elect representatives intelligently, weigh the various uses of their taxes, and debate whether a war is justified. Our democracy will only thrive if our citizens think deeply, speak out, take initiative, and take responsibility.
And to get a good start on this path to lifelong learning, an assignment I would give each of you for your first year at W&J is to find a professor—just one will do—with whom you connect. It could be your advisor or your English teacher or your lab professor. 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 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. I remember well, feeling completely lost in English class. My first paper was a C-. But I went to the professor and asked for help. He and I spent hours together, going over my papers, talking about how to read literature. And gradually I came to understand. A few years later, when I was married, his son was my ring-bearer. And five years after that, I earned a Ph.D. in English literature. I am still in contact with Professor Blackburn and he continues to advise me. I wish the same for you.
As I look out at this new class of W&J students, I know that you are going to make us proud, that in four years, 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. Welcome to W&J and to this great adventure.