Opening Convocation – August 24, 2022

August 24, 2022
President Robert W. Iuliano
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

As Delivered.

Welcome to Gettysburg College, Class of ’26! I know I speak for the entire community in expressing how excited we are to have you join us and how much we look forward to all you will accomplish in the years ahead.

And, wow, what an introduction you all have had to college.

Most of you arrived on campus just a few hours ago—a place you will call home for the next four years. In fact, if your experience is like our alumni’s experience, this is a place you will call home for the rest of your life.

You’ve seen your room for the first time. Your parents and loved ones are perhaps still here, cheering you on and taking in this first collegiate ceremony, but soon you’ll say goodbye to them. Let me offer a message on their behalf, informed from my experience as a parent of college students: please make sure that you call them regularly. They already miss you!

You’re also surrounded by fellow classmates whom, by and large, you don’t know. For some of you, this is the first time you’ve been in Gettysburg, or in Pennsylvania, or perhaps in the United States. I’m guessing you’re all feeling a sea of emotions—excited, anxious, uncertain, and eager to get started.

In a moment, I’ll turn to the main point I want to convey this afternoon—encouraging you to approach the coming four years with a genuine openness to new ideas and perspectives. But, first, I’d like to offer two predictions, borne of more than 30 years in higher education.

First, the people around you will become your lifelong friends. In June, we had 18 classes return for their reunions—the first reunions we’ve been able to host on campus in three years. It gave me the chance to talk with hundreds of alumni. Here’s the theme I heard most consistently across those 18 classes: Gettysburg College is a special place. It’s a place where special friendships are formed. 

It’s certainly been true for me.

So, as hard as it might be on your first day of college, try to relax. You may not know anyone now. You may be anxious about fitting in. But remember that you’re not alone. The classmates to your left and right are feeling the same thing. And in a shorter time than you can imagine, you will find your community here—the friends who will help support you when you need a hand, who will celebrate your accomplishments, and who will create those moments that weave the fabric for a joyful life.

Second, there are going to be times in the months and years ahead when you feel challenged in the classroom and labs, on the stages and the playing fields. You may well wonder if you can do the work. Here’s my second prediction: you can do the work. You belong here. Yes, we have rigorous academic expectations. We will challenge you to do more than you think you can. It will be hard at times, but that is inherent in the consequential education you’ll earn here at Gettysburg College.

When those moments come—and they almost certainly will—here, too, recognize that you are not alone. Just about everyone experiences this feeling at some point during college. I did during my first year in college, as my near-failing grade in linear algebra can attest.

But know this: we admitted you because we believe in you and your talents. Reach out to your advisor, to a faculty member, or to the many other places of assistance on campus. This is a remarkably supportive community, and people are here to help you thrive.

Okay, let’s change gears.

One of the great joys in my life is reading to my three-year-old grandson, Leo. It was in that context that I was once again reminded of the old parable about the tortoise and the hare. I know you’re familiar with the basics—the fast hare losing a race to the slow tortoise, in part because the hare sprinted ahead and rested while the tortoise kept up a steady pace. The moral of the story is often said as “slow and steady wins the race.”

Now, you’re likely wondering what this ancient fable has to do with our Convocation ceremony today. I found myself thinking about the race from the hare’s perspective and how he ended up losing a race that he never should not have lost. And the more I reflected on that question, the more I saw some themes that bear on how authentic learning takes place—or, to bring it back to today, ways you all may think about the education ahead for you.

So, what went wrong for our long-eared friend?

In my view, the hare’s failure to keep a steady pace was a symptom of something more fundamental: he entered the race with absolute certainty that he could not lose. And it was that absolute, unquestioned certainty where we might find the root of the problem.

Where did this certainty come from and what lessons might we learn from it?

I suspect the hare believed he understood certain things about the world. He knew he was fast; in fact, I’m willing to bet that much of his identity was built around his speed. And in this, the hare is undoubtedly like the rest of us. It can be very hard to entertain any considerations that challenge our ingrained sense of self. It means admitting to ourselves that we have areas we need to improve, areas where we can be better.

He also had a set of lived experiences that constrained his perspective on the world. He knew only what he knew, and what he knew was that hares are fast and tortoises are slow. Perhaps in his experience hares always win races, and so he simply assumed it would be true in this race as well. I suspect he never paused to consider the limits of his own lived experience. He may never have examined the race from different angles, looking at it through the prism of different hypotheses.

In short, my urging today is that you don’t approach your education ahead like the hare, full of too much certainty. Authentic learning starts with an openness to understandings different from your own. A recognition that your journey to this point in your life is both a source of strength and a potential limitation. The strength is reflected by your presence here today, which attests to your character and talents. But it is also a limiting factor because, like the hare, you know only what you know from the first 18 or so years of your life.

The challenge ahead for your education is to be open to new ways of thinking and being, to question what until now might have been unquestioned assumptions about how the world works and your place in it. So, talk to classmates whose journeys have been profoundly different than yours. Seek out people who have a different point of view from your own. Be genuinely open. And, take seriously the Faculty’s efforts to stretch you, intellectually and philosophically.

To be clear, the purpose of your Gettysburg education is not to tell you what to think; that is your work, your responsibility. But it is to broaden the lens through which you look at the world. It should encourage you to come to more fully informed views about what matters to you and why, what you believe in and why.

So again, be genuinely curious. Resist the impulse to unquestioned certainty. It will make you a better student. It will also help you build bridges across difference, something in short supply in today’s world.

I will not pretend any of this is easy. Certainty is comforting, it’s familiar. It doesn’t challenge us to do deep or critical thinking. Openness, curiosity, and, yes, a healthy dose of doubt is none of that. It is hard work. It asks that we resist the shortcuts, the assumptions, that certainty offers.

Perhaps this is what Voltaire meant when he observed that “[d]oubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.”

Reasoned doubt and skepticism matter for other reasons as well. Now more than ever, being an informed and educated citizen requires that we have the skill to differentiate between fact and opinion, between belief and truth, between what is real and what is contrived. Incentives abound for people to push self-interested narratives ungrounded in evidence or facts. Evolving technology gives these efforts weight and influence unlike any previous moment in human civilization.

There are facts, and they matter.

Our job as educators is to provide you with the power of discernment to separate fact from opinion, truth from falsehoods. To arm you with the skills to find and to follow the evidence before drawing firm conclusions. This is an inherent part of being a good student and an informed, engaged citizen.

And, so, Class of ’26, I’ll end where I began. By again extending the College’s heartiest welcome to each and every one of you. We look forward to working side by side with you over the next four years as you learn more about yourself and the world, and as you work to make the College, and our society, a better, more just, more inclusive space.

As you depart today, I do hope you’ll keep the parable of the tortoise and hare in mind. That you’ll avoid the pitfalls experienced by the hare, and that you’ll approach your education with a spirit of exploration that will lead to true growth.

I’ll end with a quote from what many regard as Ray Bradbury’s best work, Fahrenheit 451.

“Stuff your eyes with wonder…See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. Ask no guarantees, ask for no security, there never was such an animal.”

Class of 26, four years from now, we’ll convene in this very spot, with your collegiate experience having concluded. It’ll be here before you know it. In the meantime, the education you will earn here will open the world for you. As Bradbury urges, “stuff your eyes with wonder.” Test yourself. Explore new things and new ideas. Take risks. Make deep friendships. Take it all in. Perhaps most importantly, be a full part of our community.

Welcome, Class of ’26. We are so excited to see all you will do.