Opening Convocation Remarks
Thursday, Aug 23, 2012
L. Jay Lemons, President
Good Afternoon. My name is Jay Lemons and it is my great pleasure to add another word of welcome to all of our new students and their loved ones here and elsewhere on this grand occasion. Let me begin by asking you to join me in a salute to the merry band of orange-shirted students we call the O-Team, who coordinated move-in along with the cheerleaders, members of fraternities and sororities, athletics teams, and alumni and parents of returning students, who all joined in a spirited way to say “welcome home.”
Ceremonies such as this, and the intended ritual that is symbolized by the colorful academic regalia adorned by our faculty, keep us mindful of the roots that were sewn more than 800 years ago with the rise of higher education in Western Europe, in places like Oxford, Cambridge, Paris and Bologna.
From the beginning, the promise of the liberal arts throughout history has been to prepare students to live as free persons readied by knowledge, by habits of heart and mind, by commitment, and by character to build and continually work to improve and strengthen just, democratic societies. In modern times, the liberal arts have been significantly misunderstood. The liberal arts do not represent a political ideology, but rather a way of learning, living and seeking to follow the light of knowledge. The phrase liberal arts come from the Latin “artes liberales.” Liber, meaning free, is at the heart of the phrase. While each year on this occasion, I seek to remind us all of the hallowed roots of these institutions that continue to powerfully inspire the work of both scholars and teachers here, there is increased meaning during this year when the university’s academic theme, as proposed by Professor Erik Viker and student, Karen Stewart, is “Freedom and Responsibility.”
Nicholas Kristof, author of Half the Sky and a writer for the New York Times, said upon a similar occasion at a sister institution, that each and every one of you has won one of the largest lotteries known to humankind. The privilege, which comes from studying in a place like Susquehanna University, is truly one that is rare in a world with more than seven billion people.
So as you begin your collegiate journey, be mindful of your privilege and good fortune. Indeed, each and every member of the Susquehanna Class of 2016 already has been earned both new freedoms and new responsibilities. It is your great good fortune to have arrived here, given the support of your family and your teachers, along with funding from private and governmental sources and the generosity of previous generations of Susquehannans, who have helped to build this campus and have provided permanent endowments for the benefit of you and others who will follow you. These are blessings that have flowed because of our country’s commitment to the exercise of both freedom and responsibility, which are at the heart of a democratic form of government. You arrive on our campus during a presidential election year. The late journalist Tim Russert called our presidential election process “an every four-year scrum for democracy.” The framers of our constitution, the builders of our nation, those who have sought to strengthen our government throughout its history, all have shared these common commitments.
The mission of Susquehanna University is to prepare students to lead productive, reflective, and creative lives of achievement, leadership and service in a diverse and interconnected world. The fulfillment of our mission is only possible if all members of our community exercise both freedom and responsibility as we embrace the privilege of learning and living together.
This afternoon, I want to introduce you to five students who are exemplars of achievement, leadership and service. I could highlight literally hundreds of students like those you will meet today and I urge you new students to seek out and come to know the members of the O-Team, the residence life team, and of course our Student Government Association, as there are many stars to admire here. I hope you will hear in the very brief descriptions and stories I share about them why we are proud of the persons each of them is becoming.
Kristin Berger is an honors student who came to us from nearby Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. She is biology major with minors in chemistry and health care studies. Kristin spent part of this summer doing research at the nationally recognized Geisinger Health System. She has been involved in a wide range of campus organizations, including the Biology Club, HOLA (Hispanic Organization for Latino Awareness), the Student Government Association, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Alpha Lambda Delta, the Biology Honor Society and Omicron Delta Kappa. She was a Presidential Fellow and this morning she was among the merry band of orange-shirted student leaders from the O-Team who mobbed your cars. Somehow she has found time to be a part of our track and field team, for which she is a pole vaulter. Even with her many activities, she has maintained a perfect 4.0 during her time at Susquehanna. To say the least, Kristin Berger is a winner. All that she is involved in is better because of her presence. She sets a high bar for herself and for others, and does it all quietly and unassumingly. Kristin’s advice to you is: “You will get out of your college experience however much you put into it.”
Next, I am very happy to have an opportunity to introduce you to Samantha Culin. Samantha is from Wilmington, Delaware. She is studying psychology and is an extraordinary example of the university’s commitment to service. She is a member of Alpha Lambda Delta, the first-year Honor Society, HOLA, Sustained Dialogue, Acts 29 and she is the vice president of the Religious Life Council. Her service work includes Hearts for Homeless, Support U, Sign Language Club, Charity Water, Active Minds, Senior Friends and Circle K. She also is a member of the O-Team. For all these reasons, Sam was selected by National Campus Compact as a Newman Civic Fellow for this year. Sam’s advice is: “Remember that you are irreplaceable. You have special gifts and talents inside of you to make a positive impact on the world. Be confident”. Sam, thanks for your example and your tremendous commitment to serving others. I am pleased to present you this certificate for your leadership in service from National Campus Compact.
Ryan Mason. I will never forget meeting Ryan during Accepted Student Weekend at the Honors Students dinner. It was clear that Ryan was bright, curious and enthusiastic about the prospect of college life. We were blessed as a university community when Ryan chose to come to rural Pennsylvania from the Borough of Brooklyn in the heart of the Big Apple. To be sure, he must have experienced culture shock when he found himself living in a county where the number of livestock outstrips the number of people. Well, Ryan, a Presidential Fellow, has found a home here at Susquehanna and his presence has made a great deal of difference. He is a member of the Residence Life staff and also, he serves as an officer in his fraternity, Phi Beta Sigma. He was one of the initial participants in our extraordinary LeaderShape program. His enthusiasm drawn from that experience provided him with the skills and confidence needed to help Susquehanna become the 15th campus to have its own chapter of Sustained Dialogue. This program, which got its start at Princeton University, helps to promote better human relations in an effort to bring peace and justice to the world. Ryan spent this summer in France and it is awfully good to have him back for his senior year. Ryan’s advice is: “Your freshman year helps to set-up your college experience, not define it. Every new year allows you to try again, so don’t let yourself get hung up on regrets or mistakes. Learn from them instead.”
Ryan Rossi arrived at Susquehanna prepared to be a star on the football team. But an injury to his knee ended his season before it began. After that, Ryan struggled to find his place at Susquehanna until he discovered a mentor in Professor Tom Bailey. In fact, he adopted Professor Bailey’s habits. So let me tell you about Ryan’s daily ritual. He gets up before the sun rises so that he can be at his writing desk, working on the craft of writing. With his mother and uncle distinguished writers in their own right, Ryan had an interest in writing even before arriving at Susquehanna. He writes from 5:30 to 7:30 in the morning and then heads to the cafeteria for breakfast. On more days than I can remember, he is opening the library as I pass by at 8 a.m. In the afternoons, after classes, Ryan is developing his business and entrepreneurial interests around a street clothing line, Paradigm, which he founded with Susquehanna classmate Marcus Cheatham. Along the way he has had help and support from Sigmund Weis School of Business professor Leann Michel. He was recognized last spring as one of the top undergraduate entrepreneurs in the country and he has a sweet development deal with the New York Stock Exchange. He has told me that he would love to become the next Ralph Lauren, helping to define American fashion. Ryan’s advice for you new students is that “true experience is the best teacher. You have to get out there and persevere.”
Emily Stankaitis came to Susquehanna from upstate New York with a broad range of talents, ranging from wonderful intellectual gifts to an unusual and enviable combination of music and athletic talents. She has distinguished herself as a student in psychology and is involved in our music honor society, Sigma Alpha Iota. She also is engaged in the Lutheran Student Movement and serves as a member of the campus hand bell choir. Last spring, she helped lead the Susquehanna women’s lacrosse team into the national rankings and a 15 and 2 record. Her athletic excellence was recognized last spring when she was named an All American goalkeeper. Emily represents achievement, leadership and service in so many ways. She has seized the opportunity to take advantage of the rich, broad set of activities available to students here at Susquehanna. Emily’s advice is “to follow and believe in your dreams, even when no one else will. Never, stop living your dream.”
Please join me in thanking these students for their example; seek them out on campus; heed their advice; follow their lead and find your own place here.
Ultimately, the goals of a liberal arts education are bound up in intentional efforts to: build character and personal skills; transmit knowledge from one generation to the next; and finally, to engage in creative and scholarly activity to further the bounds of human knowledge and understanding. To accomplish this, we believe it is essential that all of our students cultivate the skills needed to read and think critically, articulate and defend arguments, work in teams, develop an ethical bearing, and appreciate aesthetically the beauty and complexity of the natural world and all of humanity. I would argue that these are the fruits of our democratic society and that such endeavors would be impossible without freedom and responsibility.
Parents, this is also an extraordinary time in your life. Whether this is your first child to leave the nest or your last, this day marks an important part of your family journey. I hope that the five students that I introduced to you today make you excited about the journey that is ahead for your loved ones. The growth and development that takes place during these years is a joy to behold.
It has been less than a year since we delivered our first-born child to college so I well understand the mix of emotions I know you have today. It’s become tradition here for me to share with you a story that came from a dear and wise friend that captures some of what is bound up in this moment. The essential message is: “Parents, you need to have the faith of the shipbuilder.”
Launching a ship is hard. It comes only after great labor and an enormous commitment of time have been invested in creating a new vessel. It is a time full of excitement and anticipation, but equally it is a time of concern and doubt. Yet at the end of the day, the shipbuilder must test the precious vessel and there is only one place where that test can be done. The test must come at sea.
Parents, you have worked hard to make your human vessel seaworthy. You have cared and loved this person for the past 17 or 18 years. You have molded their character and nourished their intellect. Like the shipbuilder, launch your vessel with confidence and faith in your work.
Know, too, that the ship will come back to port every few months and usually with loads of dirty laundry. Your human ships will come home to port to be restocked, to have the sails repaired, to have barnacles removed from the hull. Your work is not done, but remember that for the shipbuilder, there is great pride and joy at watching your ship take to water.
May you leave this place with great pride and joy that your vessels have been launched here at Susquehanna University.
Members of the Class of 2016, in celebration of the promise of this day and time in your life, I want to now finally acknowledge the handsome box each of you holds in your hands. The late Stephen Covey said that it is helpful and powerful to “begin with the end in mind.” Convocation signals the beginning of your four years here and graduation marks the beginning of a new phase in your life and in the lifelong relationship you will have with your alma mater, Susquehanna University.
Now, I invite you all to open your box . . . this symbolic tassel is meant to help you think about the day in May 2016 when we gather in this place and recognize your accomplishments individually and as a class. We believe you have the potential to succeed here. The faculty, staff and I stand together to help you. Hold tight to that vision for your future and let us guide you along the way. Exercise your new freedoms well and with responsibility. We need citizen-leaders like you to make the world a better place.
To the members of the Class of 2016, hear now my prayer for each of you:
May you come to find your place here and in the larger world. Our democracy and the peace and well being of our world depend disproportionally upon people who are prepared in the tradition of the liberal arts. The calling that has led you here to Susquehanna demands that you lead lives that are marked and defined by the blessing of freedom and the exercise of responsibility.
You have come to a noble and excellent place. You have come to be enriched and enlightened. You have come to be challenged and nurtured.
May you come to understand the privilege of freedom and its twin, the obligation of responsibility.
May you come to accept and exalt in the opportunity to be citizen-leaders in a democratic, just and free society.
You will come to be a part of the tapestry that is Susquehanna University and the larger tapestry that is this time in human history.
Let your threads be bright and may your stitches here and in the world be brilliant. Godspeed.