Class of 2013
September 4, 2009
It is my greatest pleasure to welcome the class of 2013 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. And thank you to the parents, friends, and family members who are here with us today. You have entrusted your loved ones to us, and we are honored to welcome you, too, into the W&J family.
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 Byron McCrae who shepherds our Student Life programs, and Amanda Gunther, Assistant Director of Student Transitions. Our sign language interpreter is Jennifer Miller. Finally, I'd like to thank Allison Johnston for supplying our piano music today. Allison graduated from W&J in 2008 and now is putting her music major to work teaching piano.
SO, turn off your cell phones, pocket your blackberries, and let me tell you a little bit about the class of 2013 at W&J.
Among you are 13 Valedictorians and 3 Salutatorians, five Eagle Scouts, and 2 Homecoming queens. Sixty-six of you were involved with student government, 9 of you as president of the senior class and 2 of you were president of the student body. 291 or about 75% of the class were varsity athletes-- 65 of you played basketball, 45 played soccer, and 69 participated in track and field. Some of you will continue that activity here; others will opt for intramural and informal sports. The W&J Class of 2013 has in Albania, Austria, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Japan, Ecuador, Costa Rica, and China. You come from 22 different states and three foreign countries. One of you is a member of the Zuni Nation. About half of you were active in community service. One of you is Director of Habitat for Humanity in your area, another led the building of a baseball field for the mentally and physically disabled. One of you is raising money for educating girls in Mali. Thirty of you performed in your high school musical, 15 were active in Model United Nations, and 35 of you are members of Students Against Drunk Driving. 85 of you were in a foreign language clubs, 61 participated in a church group, and 9 of you were involved in environmental organizations. About a third of you have no idea what you will major in-and we are glad of this. College, after all, is a time of exploration. After college, about half of you hope to work in medicine or health, 15% want to pursue law and another 15% are interested in teaching as a career. Your musical tastes are truly wide-ranging, from Lebanese Pop to classical rock to hip-hop and Scandinavian Death Metal. In addition, one of you volunteered for the Democratic National Committee and another was president of the Young Republicans. Three of you were People to People ambassadors to countries like Russia, Latvia, Fiji, and the United Kingdom. Another one traveled around the world for a year. One of you makes her own glass marbles, another loves Anime, and another is a self-taught classical pianist. One of you is a member of the Jamaican National Water Polo Team. One of you is a "Bleacher Creature," and another was voted by your classmates as most likely to appear on Saturday Night Live. One of you was part of a cardiac research team, another earned first place in the Pennsylvania Junior Academy of Science competition. One of you breeds dogs, another fosters rabbits and another has worked at the National Zoo. One of you is a member of the Society of Skeptics and another suffers from "sloppy handwriting syndrome." Actually, I expect that many of you could be similarly diagnosed but just did not own up to it during the Admissions process. One of you is a member of the Young Astronauts Club. Another is an active member of the Army Reserve. One of you has never eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and one of you has relatives who graduated from W&J going back as far as your great-great uncle in 1877. 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 politicize debate and 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.
Recently, 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 had 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, 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. You have literally inhabited "myspace." At W&J, you will inhabit "our space," you will experience a life lived in common. The most important skill that leaders nationwide consistently identify as desirable in their new employees is the ability to work together in a diverse group. At W&J you will learn that skill as you share your bedroom, share your eating space, and share your lives with others.
I would like to add three pieces of advice to those offered by our seniors. First, think of your education like a gym membership. 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. Sitting at home, thinking about exercising is not good enough. Watching someone else do sit-ups won't give you 6-pack abs, either. 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, a world of information and ideas at your fingertips. Like good physical trainers, the college will let you know what you need to do to master a subject or a skill. B ut you must get engaged and work hard in order to achieve that mastery yourself.
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. You can create your own major here-you can design your own education. As in the gym, try some exercises you've never tried before. So, stretch yourself. Learn Arabic. Take a journalism course; study robotics.
Up until now, your parents probably set rules about doing your homework or practicing the oboe or cleaning your room. In effect, they reminded you to do the sit-ups. This 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 decide how hard you will work, when you will relax and when you will study. You will take charge of your own education. You can set yourself low standards or high ones-you can do 5 sit-ups or 500--but you will make your own decisions.
As in the gym, the people who succeed are those who work beyond their comfort zones, exercise harder every day, challenging their bodies and their strength of will. So, make the most of college. We will expect you to do more than the syllabus demands, study more than you did in high school, to formulate your own ideas. You will need to read more, to think about what you've read, to know more than is on the final exam.
Just as with 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 bad grade, do not understand the material, or make a bad choice in your social life - learn from the experience. Talk to your advisor or your RA about how to make better choices about eating, making friends, or getting along with your roommate. Go to the professor and find out what you did wrong. 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. It's not that they don't like you or that they enjoy making red marks on your tests. Like good physical trainers, they push you because they know that if you try, you can do it. And they want to help you succeed. If you work with them, you will be surprised at what you can do. Of course, there may be times when the opposite is true as well, when you are not sufficiently challenged. If that happens, go to your advisor or see your professor so that you can pursue more advanced work and your mind does not become flabby.
And 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 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.
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, 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 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 smart historians, dedicated teachers, first-rate pre-meds, 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, 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, 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. As you design your education, keep your eye on the globe. Consider international internships, study abroad, and courses that take your mind beyond our country's borders. Of course, we'd also like you to consider applying for W&J's unique Magellan Program. Through this program you can put your liberal educations to work with internships both here and abroad, with study-travel projects, and with research around the world. The freshman Magellan advisor, Dr. Todd Verdun in the English Department, will help you follow in the footsteps of this year's Magellan recipients who studied the Invasion of Normandy through museums in Britain and France, learned Hungarian in Budapest, shadowed a rural doctor in Ecuador, interned on capitol hill, worked with Smith Barney in NY, and aided street children in Paraguay. I invite you to dream, to explore, and to extend your education.
Finally, the mission statement speaks of graduating responsible citizens and lifelong learners, who can think critically, solve problems creatively, and communicate clearly. Our alumni are evidence that we fulfill this mission admirably. We have graduated 89 college presidents, including presidents of Princeton, Penn State, Michigan, and founding presidents of Ohio University and Miami University of Ohio. Our alums have created bio-tech firms with international stature, they serve as presidents of hospitals and leaders in Congress, collect and distribute royalties for two thirds of the world's music, shepherd church congregations, and shape the minds of first-graders. 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, 27 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. 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.
Dr. Tori Haring-Smith