Opening Convocation – August 21, 2019

August 21, 2019
President Bob Iuliano
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

As delivered.

Thank you, Julianna, not only for those comments, but for all the work that you did in getting us here today for this Convocation, for the Orientation, and everything else. One of the things I’ve learned in my early days here is that Gettysburg College prides itself on giving its new students a warm reception. We may have overdone that this year.

It is my privilege to join in the welcome to all of you to this campus—and a special welcome to the Class of 2023, to our transfer students, and to all new members to the Gettysburg community.

It was 40 years ago—not two years ago—that I was a first-year entering my college, and I suspect that I was having some of the same reactions that you are: the mix of emotions; a degree of real excitement about what was about to begin; and a real sense of terror as well about everything that was about to begin. Will I fit in? Can I do the work? Will I make friends? Will my roommate play ancient Celtic folk music every morning at 6:00 a.m.?

Well, roommate habits aside, this will pass. You are here because we want you here. We want you as members of this community. We believe in you. We are confident that you will enrich our community with your ideas, with your talent, with your humor, with your warmth, and feats in the classroom, in the labs, in the playing fields, and on the stages.

I remember having one other strong emotion when I was inhabiting the chairs that you all inhabit—and Juliana made a point of it. It is an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the many people who made it possible for me to do what I was doing in my life. I’m sure that is true for you all as well—a recognition that you are who you are because of the people who have helped you along the way, including those who are here with you today witnessing this important next step in your life: your parents, your friends, your loved ones.

I suspect you know this as well, Class of ’23, but you aren’t the only ones experiencing a sea of emotions. This celebration will trigger in your parents and friends and loved ones a collision of emotions no assortment of words from this podium can ever fully capture.

But with this in mind, I would ask that you join me now: Turn to your parents, to your family,  and friends in attendance, and join me in thanking them for their support and encouragement as you begin this next chapter in your lives.

Thank you, parents and friends, for entrusting your students to us.

Members of the Class of 2023, today you enter our academic community and embark on the noble pursuit—one of an education rooted in the liberal arts and the sciences. It is an education that will forever change you. It will shape the way you think, the way you learn, the way you write, the way you speak, the way you reason, the way you lead, the way you inspire. These are all skills and qualities that will help ensure that you live lives of meaning, contribution, and consequence.

And, so, as you start this experience—this defining experience in your life—like Professor Douds before me, I’m going to offer you three pieces of advice. And there will be some overlap in our advice because repetition isn’t a bad thing. But this is what you can do to get the most out of this experience that you’re about to undertake.

First, engage with our remarkable and dedicated faculty.

Second, embrace difference and learn from your fellow classmates.

Third and finally, as you’ve heard from several, take intellectual risks.

Let me start with our faculty. Harder to identify because we’re not in robes today, but the faculty to your left and to your right are here because they believe in this college and the mission of this college, and they want to be part of the transformation in student lives that this campus brings about.

Our faculty will light in you the spark of creativity and curiosity, through lectures, through readings, through debates, through hands-on research opportunities. They will challenge you to think expansively across fields of knowledge. They will encourage you to question your assumptions about the world. They will champion diversity, inclusion, and belonging, help you to navigate difference, and deepen your understanding of the injustices all still-too-prevalent in our society. They will broaden your intellectual, cultural, and social horizons and empower you to use your education for a higher purpose.

We know that mentorship changes lives. As a powerful example, we need look no further than President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

As Professor Douds alluded, President Eisenhower left an indelible mark on this campus. He served on our Board of Trustees. He wrote his memoirs in the Admissions House—I’m still new here, it is somewhere in that direction I think! In fact, it was Eisenhower who 60 years ago was delivering a Convocation Address to Gettysburg students.

But let’s consider the president before he became the world-recognized leader, because he was transformed by the one-on-one mentorship of a man by the name of Major General Fox Conner.

So, Fox Conner—and I’m a little reluctant to talk about this in the presence of a world-renowned Eisenhower expert, but Michael [Birkner] will correct me if I get this wrong—but he was known throughout the army as one of the smartest men in the service. Recognizing Eisenhower’s potential, he took the future president under his wing—and the two of them would stay up all hours of the night examining ancient battles, theorizing about future conflicts, and discussing the endless books on Ike’s assigned reading list from Conner.

This individual mentorship changed Eisenhower forever, building his mind and character, and ultimately transforming him into the leader they both knew he could become.

The president would later offer young people this simple yet profound advice. He would tell them to—and here I quote—“try to associate yourself closely with and learn as much as you can from those who know more than you, who do better than you, who see more clearly than you. Don’t be afraid to reach upward.”

Class of 2023, from your first semester to your last—and even beyond—I ask that you keep President Eisenhower’s sage advice in mind. Reach upward. Seek out a mentor.

I have heard from legions of Gettysburg alumni who to this day count their relationship with a member of our faculty as among the most important in their lives. Be like Ike. Be open to mentorship and to all that our exceptional faculty can make possible for you.

So that’s my first piece of advice, to engage with our faculty so they can help you find your path.

My second piece of advice is this: Embrace difference and learn from it.

This is a theme you will hear me sound over and over again during your time here. Your class is remarkably diverse. In your everyday travels, you will encounter classmates who have very different life experiences from your own, perhaps brought about by racial, religious, economic, regional, ideological, and other forms of difference.

This is not accidental. Diversity is essential to a vibrant educational environment. If we came to campus sharing the same perspectives borne from similar life experiences, the search for truth and knowledge would necessarily be muted. A pluralistic campus helps ensure that we will see issues from other lens and will encourage each of us to interrogate our assumptions about the world and our place in it.

It is also among the reason that this College has such a strong commitment to free speech and the concept that ideas and beliefs are to be challenged, not suppressed.

I spoke earlier about the emotions you are experiencing as you begin your college career—and I assured you that those emotions would settle down as you settle in. But that relates to the transitory nature of getting socialized to a new environment.

The contest of ideas that takes place on a college campus is another thing entirely. It can often be disorienting and dislocating, precisely because it may call into question your most basic beliefs.

You are likely to disagree, perhaps strongly, with some of the thoughts and ideas you will encounter over the next four years. This is inherent in the collective exercise we undertake here. Higher education is about the search for knowledge and truth. This is an aspirational goal; today’s truths may emerge as tomorrow’s folly when exposed to perspectives once regarded as unthinkable. We have all heard the stories of Galileo’s rejection of the geocentric model of the solar system. It is no less powerful for its repetition.

There is, of course, a corollary as well. Ideas that you hold dear may also be regarded by others on this campus as mistaken. So how, then, do we ensure that this friction borne of difference is constructive rather than alienating or undermining of our community?

I’d suggest that we engage in what a friend and former colleague of mine, now the President of the University of Virginia, calls “generous listening.” We should assume good faith on the part of our colleagues, and not seek to demonize others merely because we may disagree with them.

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t contest ideas or statements with which we disagree; of course we should. But we should focus on the idea, not the individual, and with a respect that recognizes that we are all part of a single Gettysburg community bound together in the search for knowledge.

I’d also ask that you engage in these conversations with an open mind. If you approach conversations, even difficult ones, ready to listen, you may free yourself to see the world from an angle that might otherwise have been closed off to you.

I’ll conclude with my third piece of advice that also reflects something Professor Douds said. Take intellectual risks.

There will be few times in your life when you are given such broad latitude to explore who you are and what interests you. It would be easy to play it safe—to focus on things you already know you do well. But that would be selling yourself short. Try different courses. Join that club.  Volunteer in a community activity.

Much of life’s path is serendipitous; you may find an unexpected life-long passion simply by being open to exploration. As Professor Douds noted, taking risks means that you may fail along the way. But, as C.S. Lewis observed, “One fails forward to success.” Indeed, if you live your life not to fail, you will inevitably come up short of your fullest potential.

Let me end with the quote on the back of the Orientation t-shirts, on the folks in blue here, that you have seen around campus today, which I helped select and which I noted when first introduced to the community in February, and that is “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

The future is in your hands, Class of 2023. Let’s create a great future together at Gettysburg College.

Thank you and good luck!