Convocation 2017: Stick up for each other. Support each other.

Today is the only time I will be able to speak to you as a class until Commencement, in May of 2021, so I want to take full advantage to use my few minutes with you today to best effect.

Let me begin with an apparent paradox: a college education is a profoundly personal experience that you nevertheless undertake as a community. Each of you will be uniquely shaped by the experience, even though that experience is broadly shared.

I can illustrate this concept by using a metaphor that is appropriate for a campus with a nationally ranked sailing team. You should each think of yourselves as the captain of your own ship, undertaking a four-year voyage. You can travel as far as you wish in that time, or you can sail in circles close to your home port. You can make many ports of call, or none at all. You can be daring in your decisions, or play things safe every step of the way. You can choose to explore ideas and cultures that you may find different and mind-expanding, or you can spend all your time in the comfort of the company of those who think and act exactly as you do. But in four years, you will own your decisions. There are no “do-overs.” You get to do this once, so my advice to you today is to make the most of your experience. Don’t be one of those college graduates who almost immediately starts regretting the opportunities missed, the doors left unopened, the pathways not taken, while you were in college.

But even as each of you will have your own unique voyage, you are doing so as part of a flotilla of boats, all setting sail together. You certainly will not all sail as one, but there will be others with you at various points in your voyage. You will always be a part of the Roger Williams University class of 2021, and much of what you experience in the next four years you will share with members of your class—and some of your classmates will become lifelong friends.

The job of the faculty and staff is to assist you on your voyage, not so much by telling you where and how to sail, but by aiding you in making choices that will be in your interest, and by helping you become increasingly self-reliant, and entirely capable of responding effectively to everything from speed bumps to full-blown catastrophes—because you will inevitably see both during your lifetime.

And that leads me to the two points I want to make today:

 

  • First, however confident or insecure you may feel today, things are always easier when you are surrounded by your friends. So task number one is for us to convince you to stop seeing yourselves as 1150 individuals, and help you to realize instead that you are a community of 1150 souls, some of whom you will come to care deeply for, and some of whom will care deeply for you. Our job, then, is to create bonding experiences to facilitate the community building that will help undergird your success as students. We do this in many ways, in class and outside class, but front-loaded in your freshman year, so that you very quickly move from feeling like a person surrounded by strangers to a person surrounded by friends. So understand what we are trying to do, and go along with it. It’s really in your best interests.
  • Second—and this is the hard part—in order to make you self-reliant, and in order to prepare you to deal with the unexpected once you leave RWU, we have to confront you with ideas and concepts that you may find disquieting, or in contrast to your current world view. You can’t survive in college on a diet that is exclusively the mental equivalent of comfort food. You have to allow yourself to be challenged about what you know, and think, and believe, not with an eye to changing everything that you currently accept, but to strengthen your understanding of what you know, and think, and believe, just as you would strengthen your muscles to do better in athletics competitions.

 

Let me continue with this thought for a moment. At Roger Williams, we believe in academic freedom: the right of our faculty to introduce difficult and challenging topics and ideas into the experience they create for their students in the classroom. In addition, we believe in the virtues of the First Amendment:  no prior restraint on what is published in a free press or on what people want to present as ideas and positions that others may find uncomfortable or confronting. The idea of free speech is meaningless if it refers only to ideas with which you already agree. So we do not protect you from ideas. In fact, we very deliberately challenge you with them.

But we also honor our namesake, Roger Williams, one of the more remarkable men in the history of America, and a person about whom you will soon know more. We strongly value diversity, inclusion, equity, and civility, just as Roger Williams did in the 17th-century. To you as incoming students, and especially in light of the expressions of bigotry and intolerance we all saw on the news at Charlottesville, I underscore our on-going commitment to honor and protect ALL members of our campus community, regardless of race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, religion, sexual orientation, differing abilities, or economic status. These are not words we say, and then ignore. They are central to who we are as a university. This year, for example, the theme we are using to organize campus conversations is “Talking about Race, Gender, and Power.” Our Provost will provide some details when he speaks in a few minutes, but my point is that rather than avoiding difficult topics, we actively seek to engage in conversations about them, all with an eye towards preparing you for life after graduation.

But what about ideas that focus on hate and rejection, and that promote not understanding but fear? It is very difficult to be a successful student if you are forced to study in fear. Job number one is for us to make you feel as safe as we possibly can, not by protecting you from ideas, but by protecting you from physical violence, sexual assault, discrimination, intolerance, and hate. And I want you to work with me on this. Accept that an attack on any member of the class of 2021 is an attack on the entire class. Stick up for each other. Support each other. Intervene, if you see one of your class members being picked on, or belittled, or in danger of being attacked. Call your RA, or your CORE, or speak to your instructors, or contact me. Do not allow your own core values to be whittled away and diminished because you allowed bad behavior to occur when you could have intervened.

To come full circle, here you are, about to start your college career. Graduation is so far in the future that you can hardly conceive of it. After all, today those four years represent more than 20 percent of your lifetime—but you will be astonished by how quickly those years will pass—so make the most of them.

Have a great first year, class of 2021! Go Hawks!

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