Class of 2011
It is my greatest pleasure to welcome the class of 2011 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, Dean Shiller in Academic Affairs, Amanda Gunther from Student Transitions, and Dean Yuhasz who shepherds our Student Life programs. Our sign language interpreter is Jennifer Miller. 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 Ph.D. student studying English at Stanford University. Finally, I'd like to thank our students Allyson Johnston and Ty West for providing the Music.
SO, turn off your cell phones, pocket your blackberries, and let me tell you a little bit about the class of 2011 at W&J.
One of you carries a Turkmenistan passport, another was born in Bolivia, a third lived in Luxemborg, and one of you is the child of Ethiopian refugees. Some are exchange students from England, Germany, Japan, China, and Russia. Among you are 17 Valedictorians and 4 Salutatorians. We have 10 children of alums joining us this fall. Ninety of you were involved with student government, 49 participated in drama events, 20 of you worked on your high school yearbook. 36 of you took up the cause of Students Against Drunk Driving, 69 played basketball, 34 were on the wrestling team. 89 you were in a foreign language clubs, 64 participated in a church group, and 13 of you were debaters. About half of you are undecided as to your major-and we are glad of this. A third of you hope eventually to be doctors, twenty-seven percent want to pursue law or education as a career. You come from 21 different states. In addition, among you is a set of twins and a set of triplets. (So, if you think you're seeing double or even triple, it's OK.) One of you spent two summers doing research with Chimpanzees, one owns your own jewelry business, one cares for an autistic sister, and one has a father serving in Iraq. Your professions include coin dealer, tennis pro, blues drummer, drag racer, and lounge pianist. This year, we welcome both a ball boy for the Pittsburgh Steelers and a babysitter for the Pittsburgh Pirates. At least three of you are Black Belts. One of you is an American Revolutionary War Re-enactor, another has traveled to 24 countries, and still others have taken missionary trips to Russia, Peru and Guatemala. And one of you ate nine Kentucky Fried Chicken junior meals at one sitting. You are truly a diverse and multi-talented group, and we are delighted to welcome you to W&J.
We brought you here 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 Marxists, Conservative Republicans, and members of the Green Party. There are Hindus and Muslims, and Christians, and Buddhists, 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 religious, atheist, straight, gay, and everything in between. All of these points of view are important.
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." They are about coming to understand one another.
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 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 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.
A few weeks ago I was privileged to hear four seniors giving advice to incoming freshmen. When I asked them what they knew now that they wished they had known when they were freshmen, they have three pieces of advice. One-give your roommate a chance-you may or may not become best friends but learn to live together. Two-don't go home-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 and called home in tears on Labor Day, but staying here re-centered her life and was important. Three-have more than one group of friends-not just your teammates or 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 not just one more year of high school. It's a time when you learn to live in a society that is much larger and complex than your family. At this point, most of you are accustomed to having private space-your own bedroom--and customized websites alerting you to the music, news, or books that address your particular interests. When I was your age, we purchased whole record albums in order to hear one or two favorite songs. You simply download the particular songs you want onto your IPOD-no need to hear the other selections. You can watch televisions shows and movies wherever you like and whenever you like ON DEMAND. You have literally inhabited "myspace." At W&J, you will inhabit "our space," you will experience a life lived in common. One of the most important skills that business leaders nationwide consistently identify as desirable in their new employees is the ability to work together in a diverse group. Here you will learn that skill as you share your bedroom, share your eating space, and share your lives with others.
Whether you went to a public school or a private boarding school, you are also accustomed to having many decisions made for you. Your teachers probably told you what classes to take, what books to read, what questions will be on the test. Your parents probably set rules about doing your homework before going out with your friends. This, too, will change in college. You will begin to set your own rules, to make your own decisions. Yes, you will receive a syllabus with reading assignments and paper deadlines and testing dates. But you will be expected to do more than the syllabus demands. To read more, to think about what you've read, to know more than is on the final exam. You will be expected to have your own ideas.
College is a time of reflection, a time to learn how to learn, a time to take charge of your life. You will be expected to take initiative. Learn Arabic. Take a journalism course with a USA-Today journalist. If you find that you really don't want to major in Biology but want instead to study the economic impact of environmental degradation, then take charge of your education and create your own major. If you are having trouble in a class, go to see the professor, find yourself a tutor through the PAL program, ask questions. If you want to study abroad, go talk to Mr. Ha and work together to find a good program. If you want an internship, go talk to the folks in Career Services and work with them to find what you need. During January, join our faculty for a trip to Africa, to Japan, to Italy, or England. Take charge of your education. It is not a recipe we write for you-it is a feast that you assemble and prepare yourself.
And to get a good start, I have an assignment for each of you. During your first year at W&J, find a professor-just one will do-with whom you connect. It could be your advisor or your English 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. I remember well, struggling to understand how to write an English paper. The first paper I wrote for him was a C-. Looking back, I suspect it was really worse than that but 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. It took me a long time to grasp what he was telling me. Then, one day I suddenly had an epiphany, ran to his office, plopped down in his chair and announced, "I know what literary criticism is all about." "Oh good," he said, "What is it all about." Well, of course, I couldn't articulate the vague idea that had hit me like a bolt of lightening. So I stammered and muttered and left a bit embarrassed. But because I knew him well, 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. I wish the same for you.
This 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, 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, 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.
But for now let us concentrate on your transformation into W&J students. 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 are 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. 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, 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 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, you might graduate W&J to 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. Four years from now, some of you will graduate into types of jobs that do not currently exist and use technologies not yet invented. 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 to read carefully, to write clearly, to reason with numbers and logic, to weigh evidence, to command technology and to design meaningful research. Armed with these skills, you can change careers, you can learn and re-learn, and you can continue to grow for a lifetime.
I also would 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. Natural resources from Africa are processed by workers from India to produce goods marketed in Europe by companies headquartered in America. The smoke from the fires in Greece darkens our skies as well. 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. Our alumni are evidence that we fulfill this mission admirably. We have graduated 88 college presidents, including presidents of Princeton, Penn State, Michigan, and founding presidents of Ohio University and Miami University of Ohio. One of our alums has received a good bit of press recently-Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner. His life story demonstrates just the kind of leadership we nurture here. Not only is exemplifying 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 that his letters would just get thrown away, but he kept writing them. Finally, one team did answer and offered the persistent young man an internship. Now, 25 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 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.
By signing the mission statement of this College, you will indicate your willingness to commit to this important work.
Welcome to W&J and to this great adventure.