Speeches & Writings

2017 New Student Convocation Address

by Martha E. Pollack, President

August 19, 2017

Ithaca, New York

As prepared for delivery


Welcome, Class of 2021 and new transfer students! We’re “newbies” together, as this is my first fall as Cornell’s president. We’ll go through our first Orientation, our first Homecoming, our first Dragon Day, and many other Cornell experiences together. I am so happy to welcome you. You will always be a special class to me.

I also want to welcome your parents and other family members here this morning. Having sent two children of my own to college, I suspect I know how you feel right now: proud, joyful, and more than a little anxious, wondering what the next four years will be like for your child—and what they will be like for you!

Each of your children will experience Cornell in a somewhat different way, but each of them, I trust, will be changed, for the better, by the experience. The author Richard Russo described it this way: “Sending your kids off to college is a lot like putting them in a witness protection program. If the person who comes out is easily recognizable as the person who went in, something has gone terribly, dangerously wrong.”

Russo is, of course, referring to the intellectual and emotional growth that happens in college. A university education succeeds precisely when it enables students to develop new interests, new passions, and new ways of looking at the world.

It’s not always easy, but as parents, one of the most important things you can do for your new college students is to provide them the freedom to explore all the university has to offer. Let them soar, stumble, pick themselves up, and soar again—eventually emerging as educated adults, of whom you will be so proud.

Students, you will learn a lot at Cornell. But you won’t just learn facts (or theorems, or lab techniques, or another language, or how to code).  Yes, these skills can be enriching, and can be helpful in reaching your career goals, and you will develop them. But at Cornell, you’ll develop in a range of dimensions, all important to becoming an educated citizen.

Do you remember The Wizard of Oz? It is, to this day, one of my favorite movies—maybe it is yours as well. I still recall as a small child being allowed to eat dinner on a tray in front of the TV on the one night a year when The Wizard of Oz was being shown. Yes, this was well before the days of Netflix, Hulu, and On Demand. Your parents will understand.

One of the reasons I like Oz—beyond the music that gets stuck in your head for the next two weeks after you see it—is that it could be a metaphor for the college experience. As Dorothy says to her dog when they first arrive in the land of Oz, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.”

Going off to college is a lot like that. You’ve come to Cornell from 49 states (including Kansas; Mississippi is the only “missing” state this year).   You’ve also come from 46 countries outside the U.S., and you span many different backgrounds, interests and points of view. But Cornell will open new vistas that will be unlike anything you’ve experienced so far.

There won’t be a yellow brick road to follow to the Emerald City, but like the characters that Dorothy meets on her journey—the Scarecrow, the Tinman, and the Cowardly Lion—Cornell will help you develop a brain, a heart, and the courage to thrive in the world.

First, the brain: That’s what most people instinctively think about when they think about college. Here at Cornell you’ll receive a world-class education. You will learn to think critically, to communicate carefully, to assess information and evidence, to adhere to high standards of academic integrity, to appreciate art and music and literature. And you’ll learn how to keep learning after you earn your degree so that you can keep up with the expansion of knowledge, and so that you can contribute new knowledge to the world.

But finding a heart is also an important part of being at Cornell. As a land-grant university, Cornell is committed to community engagement and caring about our world.

You, as students, will find many ways to pursue activities that make a difference in and out of the classroom—from Orientation, where hundreds of students like Finn and Jung Won are helping you learn the ins and outs of your new community… to the Cornell Public Service Center, which offers a wide variety of volunteer programs and learning opportunities, including the Pre-Orientation Service Trips that some of you completed on Thursday…to the Engaged Cornell initiative, where faculty, staff, students and community partners collaborate on research, teaching and learning to address issues that are important at home and around the world.

At Cornell, you will discover friendships that enrich you, and find ways to put your knowledge to use, to impact society positively. A Cornell education really is education with a heart.

And finally, you’ll develop courage: You’ll learn to challenge yourself, to take intellectual risks, and to speak up. You won’t always agree with your classmates or your faculty members. An academic community is one in which ideas must be probed and challenged and pushed, and in which honest and open discussion of controversial topics must take place. We do not shy away from such discussions here: in fact, we embrace them. But we also strive for civil discourse. We strive to listen respectfully to one another and to respond thoughtfully, and thereby to learn.

As in The Wizard of Oz, there is no “wizard” who will help you develop your brain, your heart, and your courage. There’s no magic. Education, like so much else in life, is largely a do-it-yourself project. What there will be are dedicated, brilliant faculty and staff who will work with you, guide you, push you. And there will be your fellow students, who will also be an important source of learning, and support.

To get the most out of your time here, you should do several things:

First, find opportunities to interact directly with your professors.  Participate in class—ask questions—and seek out your teachers outside of class. Go to office hours. This might seem scary at first, but remember that one of your goals is to develop courage.  And also remember, we professors became teachers because we want to work with students:  we enjoy interacting intellectually with you.

Second, make it a point to seek out people who come from different backgrounds and who have different perspectives and life experiences—and learn to listen carefully to them.   Your education will be enriched by the many interactions you will have, and that is especially true when you make the effort to have real conversations with people who do not look, talk, or think the same way you do. The ability to communicate across difference may be one of the most important skills you can learn.

Third, stretch yourself. Take a course that sounds intriguing, even if it has no direct connection to the field you think you will major in. In the process, you may discover that your true passion lies in an area you hadn’t seriously considered before.

Finally, don’t be afraid to take some risks. You may not succeed at everything you try—no one gets through college without some kind of failure—but figure out what you can learn from that failure, and how to move on.

When you’re done, we hope that you will embody the Scarecrow’s brain, the Tinman’s heart, and the Lion’s courage (because like them, you’ve had those qualities all along, just waiting to be developed). We also hope that, like Dorothy, you’ll come to believe that “there’s no place like home”—where by “home” you mean both the place you were raised, and your new home, Cornell.

Class of 2021 and new transfer students, welcome to the magical journey ahead. Welcome to Cornell.

And now I invite you to join the Cornell Chorus and Glee Club, and all of us here on stage, in singing the Alma Mater. The words are printed in your program.