August 19 - 23, 2020
President Robert W. Iuliano
As delivered at 15 ceremonies, due to physical distancing requirements.
Class of 2024, I want to begin by giving you all a very warm Gettysburg welcome. I know, for many of you, your journey here has been a long and winding one, and for some of you—due to the pandemic—these past few days represent the first time you’ve had the opportunity to set foot on this beautiful and historic campus. Well, I just want to underscore from the outset how excited we are to finally have you here with us and for you to join this remarkable community.
It is also important to remember that a number of your fellow classmates will be studying remotely this semester. As a College, we felt it was best to give all of our students an authentic choice in how they approached this fall, given the unique set of circumstances we face. I ask you—as our newest Gettysburgians, and among your earliest acts as members of this community—to take a moment this week to reach out to your remote classmates. Welcome them here just as our sophomores, juniors, and seniors have welcomed you. Talk with them. Get to know them. One of the great joys of a college experience is the lifelong friendships you make, and there is no greater foundation for a friendship than that of inclusion and acceptance.
For our students who are joining us virtually today, as president, it is my true privilege to welcome you to this special community. As you know, our community is about far more than just the grounds we share, as inspiring as they are. At its heart, our community is about the people—and all that we have to offer one another.
Let me be clear: you are full members of this College, and you have been accepted here because we know that you have much to offer and to contribute—so get involved. Put yourself out there. I’m sure you’ll soon find that although we are separated by distance, the close bonds you will forge with your faculty and with your classmates are equally as transformative. Again, we are so grateful to welcome you.
Today, I’d like us to use our time together to reflect upon three powerful words. Words that if embraced over your next four years, and beyond, will profoundly change your outlook—on your education and on your life.
Those three words: “I Don’t Know.”
Just think about the last time you heard that phrase. It has all but left our public discourse. Why is that?
We weren’t born resisting these words. Quite the opposite. We unabashedly repeat “I don’t know” for much of our childhood. I can still remember vividly all those why questions my two sons asked as they were growing up. In asking these questions, in acknowledging the limits of our knowledge and understanding, we open our minds and our hearts to more fully understand the world around us and our place in it.
Yet, something changes within us as get older. We become less willing to admit to ourselves, and to others, that we don’t know, that we’re not certain, or maybe that we’re not right. And, in turn, we forfeit profound lessons and learning opportunities.
The truth is, we do this out of fear—out of the diminishment we perceive in not knowing. As if by confessing our own limitations, we somehow expose ourselves as less deserving of another’s time or respect.
This isn’t a matter of capacity. It’s a matter of confidence.
Students, I know that admitting to gaps in our knowledge can make us feel vulnerable. But I am here today to tell you that vulnerability is a gift.
A liberal arts education in action is defined by openness—your openness. It’s what empowers you to question and to re-question everything that you thought you knew. This is why you’re here.
You see, a Gettysburg education is like an excavation — one which invites us to lean in to what we don’t know, so we may peel back the layers of this world and of ourselves in search what is true and what is right. It’s being open to the possibility that what we think we know about how the world works, or how we should fit into it, may not be quite right.
So be vulnerable. Ask questions. Explore. Learn. Approach your time here with a humility that permits true openness to other perspectives and the possibilities of personal growth.
Reclaim the phrase “I Don’t Know,” and declare it with the wonder and curiosity of your childhood self.
Because in the end, you’ll discover that there are few easy answers in life, and the answers you find will often lead you to more questions. The next four years will prepare you for this reality, so you may have the skills and the knowledge to navigate and respond to the many unknowns the universe is sure to throw at you.
And I promise you, with a Gettysburg education, you will be ready.