Commencement Address: The Launch
Mrs. Roth, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty and staff, parents, grandparents, alumni, friends, and most importantly, seniors – welcome. We gather each year at this time to reflect on the academic year just completed and to honor and say farewell to the graduating class. This is a time for looking forward and for celebrating all that you – Class of 2013 – have accomplished.
When I think about my hopes for you, Class of 2013, they have to do with taking risks, facing your fears, and adventuring into new realms. You might remember that I talked about this in my April Bench Talk. As I have said to you, risk-taking is about freeing yourselves from self-conscious restraint that prevents you from embracing new experiences or seizing opportunities for growth.
Next year on your college campus or wherever you are, you have the chance to reinvent yourself. By "reinvent," I mean allowing yourself to be the self you truly are. Sometimes within the context of an institution, we try to live by some abstract norm of what we think we should look or act like. I hope that MBS helped you discover and nurture who you are, and in the years ahead even as you learn and grow and change, I hope you can continue to embrace the essence of your true self.
In the spirit of adventure as you go off to a new school, I have four recommendations to the graduates for how to approach your first year of college. Then I have a story, and I will conclude with advice for the parents.
To the graduates:
Recommendation #1: Get involved in activities beyond the classroom. If you are afraid of not finding friends, take the risk and sign up for an activity where you don't know anyone. If you go to an activity by yourself—without a clump of friends—you are more apt tomeetpeople. Ifyoulovetosingintheshowerandneverin public, take the leap and sign up to sing in an a capella group. If you've never played soccer before, sign up for intramural soccer. If you've never been on stage before, see if you can get a small part in a fall production.
Harvard statistician Richard Light spent ten years gathering statistics on college students, and he found that students involved in outside- of-classroom activities are far happier with their college experience than those who are not involved in activities outside the classroom. His findings revealed that a substantial commitment to one or two activities –including volunteer work--has no adverse relationship on grades and has a strong relationship to overall satisfaction with college life.
Recommendation #2: Take the risk of signing up for classes that have frequent assessments. Although it may be scary, go for classes that are highly structured and have frequent quizzes and short assignments. Richard Light also found that students in highly structured classes—that is, classes with frequent assessments-- tend to be happier and more engaged than students in less structured classes that have only a midterm and a final.
Recommendation #3: Treat office hours like gold. Go see your professors during office hours. This simple act could profoundly changeyourcollegeexperienceandyourlifeaftercollege. When your professors hand out their syllabi, memorize their office hours, and for the first three weeks of class, get in the habit of seizing the opportunity for one-on-one time with your professors.
On average, with four courses, most college students are in class for only 2 or 3 hours per day. A week has 168 hours in it. I think you
can handle the time commitment of attending office hours. Your next question might be—what will we talk about? For starters, read your professors' bios on the school website, and go in with questions about their area of study. If you are in large lecture classes, the only way to get to know your professor is during office hours.
Recommendation #4: Don't forget your family. Call often—and not just when you need money.
To reinforce this advice, I have a story for both the graduates and their parents. I know that many of you parents already have a child in college, so you are experienced in this, and you may already know what I am talking about with this story.
So here is my story:
In her first week of freshman year, my older daughter, Alexa, visited a lot of different classes to see which ones she would take. On her third day of these visits, she attended for the first time a class that had a paper due by 5 PM. She had to scramble to write the paper, and at the top of the page, she wrote a disclaimer to the professor, explaining that this was her first day in class, and she only found out about the paper a few hours before it was due.
When the professor returned the papers, Alexa's had a fat zero at the top of the page. Alexa approached Professor Schiller after class to find out what went wrong, and Professor Schiller said, "Your paper was unacceptable. If you want to stay in this class, next week you need to write two papers."
Alexa called home. "I don't think I am cut out for college," she said. "I just earned a zero on my first paper."
We told her that teachers always start out letting the students know the bar is high and that many college professors use various tactics to
shrink the class size to a manageable number. We reminded her that she knew how to write papers, and we knew she could do it.
The next week Alexa turned in two papers. No zeros. Things were looking up.
In October she called home and said that she had strong doubts about continuing with lacrosse, not because it took up about 40 hours per week—which it did-- but because there was divisiveness and in-fighting on the team, which made it not worth the time and effort. We encouraged her to stick with it.
Over the winter holidays, the day before she was to return to school, she lay on our bed and asked my wife to scratch her back the way she usedtowhenshewaslittle. Mywifewasquitetouched,and immediatelyembracedthisopportunityformothertime. During this intimate mother-daughter moment, Alexa announced she did not want to go back to college. She was having roommate trouble. Greatly alarmed on the inside but stoic on the outside, my wife encouraged her to communicate with the roommate and figure out how to adjust things. The next day we took her back to school.
In January things got worse, the roommate often had an overnight guest, and the room was just too small for three people. We offered Alexa sympathy and told her to go on the school website to find out the protocol for a room switch. She refused to look into it. At home we worried, but to her we offered optimism and good cheer.
In February things had not improved. Alexa had developed the coping mechanism of leaving the room when she woke up and returning only when it was time to go to sleep. Now, in response to my own concerns more than hers, I offered to call the Office of Residential Life to inquire what her options were. Her words: "No, dad. I can handle it."
In the spring, we did not hear about any new problems.
Her sophomore year, Alexa said she wanted to major in political science due to the class she took with the professor who gave her a zero on her first paper. "Really?" we asked. "Yes, that class was amazing. Didn't I tell you that? And by the way, I have switched advisors. My advisor is now Wendy."
"Who is 'Wendy?' we asked. "Professor Schiller, the one who gave me a zero, the one I refer to as "the Little Tyrant. Don't worry, I don't call her that to her face."
"Oh," we said. "Good to know. Glad you stuck with that class!"
Her junior year Alexa moved off campus with a number of her teammates. There were no real traumas this year except when she got swine flu. When she went to Health Services, the university gave her a snack bag of raman noodles and ginger ale, chucked her under the chin and told her she was quarantined to her room. They said there was nothing else they could do for her. She called home in despair. We offered to come get her. She said, "No, I can handle it." We were in agony. But she got better and was back to normal way before we stopped googling what to do about swine flu.
Her senior year, there were no roommate problems, no academic problems, and she was elected captain of the team that she had considered quitting her freshman year.
The week that Alexa was to graduate, Professor Wendy Schiller, wrote this email response to Alexa's question about her office hours during senior week:
I will be in the office in the afternoon tomorrow and then again next week on Wednesday the 18th.
Great card by the way - in 16 years at Brown I am not sure I was ever called the Little Tyrant to my face by a nicer student!"
What I hope you parents get out of this story is the tricky balance we all have of wanting to shelter and protect our children and wanting to help them grow, explore, and become independent. Each time Alexa called home with the latest challenge, we had a strong desire to want to fix it, and in many ways the hardest thing for us as parents is not fixing it.
Michael Thompson has a term that he calls "childsickness," which is the parental version of homesickness for children. As parents, we have all experienced "childsickness," and we will probably continue to have various versions of it throughout our lives even as our children move away and become increasingly independent. With that in mind, I have some advice for parents.
First, remember that when they unload their troubles to you on the phone, they often feel better, and you usually feel worse. It's funny how sometimes those long distance calls can focus on the hard things and leave out all the fun they are having.
Second, I call this the I-can-take-care-of-myself-but-can-you-scratch- my-back syndrome. Have you ever noticed that within the same time frame our children may signal to us the need for independence and in the very next minute signal they would like some nurturing? You are not crazy, and neither are they. This is called, growing towards independence. It can be confusing and hard for both our children and for us, but embrace it as part of the college process.
Finally - Find a way to participate in your child's college experience without going overboard. You are making sacrifices to allow your child to go to college, and you deserve to know what is going on in college. But the fact is, the school doesn't send you their grades; the infirmary will not give you information about them, and you are completely boxed out of steady communications from the school regarding your child. Make sure you get to join in the fun now and then!
Congratulations to the Class of 2013. We are all very proud of you.