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Convocation Address 2017

Freeman A. Hrabowski, III
President, UMBC
August 29, 2017

Each year at this time, we gather at Convocation – a “calling together” (in Latin) – to welcome you, our new students. We’re excited that you’re here. You are entering the university at a very special time. We just celebrated our 50th anniversary, and you will be an important part of shaping who we become over the next 50 years. I want to read a passage that has inspired and sustained me for decades. I hope it will do the same for you.

May You Seek After Truth

May you seek after truth. If anything I teach you be false, may you throw it from you and go on to richer knowledge and deeper truth than I have ever known.

If you become a man [or woman] of thought and learning, may you never fail to tear down with your right hand what your left hand has built up if, through years of thought and study, you see it at last not to be founded on that which is.

If you become an artist, may you never paint with pen or brush any picture of external life otherwise than as you see it.

If you become a politician, may no success for your party or even love of your nation ever lead you to tamper with reality and to play a diplomatic part.

In all of your circumstances, my child, may you seek after truth; and cling to that as a drowning man in a stormy sea who flings himself on a plank and clings to it, knowing that whether he sinks or swims with it, it is the best that he has.

Die poor, unknown, a failure – but shut your eyes to nothing that seems to them to be the truth.  

When I was a child, living in Birmingham, Alabama, my minister taught my peers and me this statement by Olive Schreiner, who was born in South Africa to British missionaries and became a social and political activist and novelist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We were growing up in turbulent times. The United States was fighting the War in Vietnam, and at home, Americans were fighting for equality and human rights – from the feminist movement to the gay rights movement to the civil rights movement for African Americans. Peaceful protest all too often turned threatening and violent. I saw my heroes, President John F. Kennedy, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, assassinated for what they believed. Through all that, this poem – May You Seek After Truth – served as an anchor, something my friends and I could hold onto.

We are again experiencing trying times. History tells us this is not the first time we’ve felt that the nation is divided. During such times, it becomes especially important to think deeply about our hopes, our dreams, and our values. We must be thoughtful about the challenges we face. At UMBC, we have redoubled our focus on those values we consider most important, chief among them the notion of the truth. Education is fundamentally about the pursuit of knowledge and truth. That is what we mean when we talk about the life of the mind.

We value treating others with respect, standing against any kind of prejudice, and speaking out with courage about what is right and wrong. We place a high value on the arts and humanities – especially what they teach us about what it means to be human – and also on the scientific method. We appreciate that the truth is not about anecdotes and what’s popular, but about what is real and socially just. We welcome discussion and debate about the challenges our society faces. We must talk to one another, lest we lose sight of the whole truth. We also encourage the development of critical thinking. Americans now see and hear information from so many different sources, and there are often conflicting interpretations of the same event or behavior. Your education should help you to think critically, to develop sound logic and judgement.

A commitment to truth and critical thinking will serve you well in your life, in your career, and in your role as a citizen. Frederick M. Lawrence, the secretary of Phi Beta Kappa, one of our country’s most prestigious honors societies, talks frequently about the importance of college as preparation for citizenship. He notes that Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis called America’s most important office “that of private citizen.” Dr. Lawrence goes on to say that there are three sets of skills needed to perform the duties of the office of private citizen, and each is developed by a liberal arts and sciences education. To paraphrase his writing:

First, a private citizen must be able to turn raw information into knowledge. Second, a private citizen must be able to evaluate arguments. Finally, a private citizen must be able to engage in reasoned debate with others. Presenting one’s own rational claims, based on provable truths, as well as being prepared to listen thoughtfully to those of others, is the hallmark of a liberal education.

Four years or 50 years from now, I want you to look back at the beginning of your college journey and remember that at the center of that experience was a focus on the life of the mind and the heart and on the search for the truth. Each of you also is beginning a new stage of life, and it’s important to appreciate the significance of a college education and attending UMBC, in particular. When we were founded, only 10% of American adults had four-year college degrees. Today, 33% of Americans, or one in three, hold a bachelor’s degree (36% white, 22% African American, 15% Hispanic, and 54% Asian American). In response to the emergence of China, India, and several other countries as global competitors, America has substantially raised its educational goals to 60% of American adults having two- and four-year degrees by 2020 (compared to about 42% today). To achieve this ambitious goal and maintain the nation’s status as a global leader, we must dramatically increase our numbers of college graduates.

While it’s true that more Americans than ever are attending college, the percentage of young adults with four-year degrees is not increasing substantially. American adults, in general, are second in the world for bachelor’s degree attainment. But younger Americans, 25 to 34 years old, rank 12th globally in bachelor’s attainment. All this means that for the first time since the middle of the 20th century, we cannot say that each generation of Americans will have more education than the one before it. What is especially troubling is that college completion is heavily stratified by wealth. Eighty percent of those from the top income quartile earning a bachelor’s degrees by age 24, while only 10 percent from the lowest income quartile do so.

One of the biggest challenges is that about half of students who started college have not finished. (In fact, there are 31 million Americans who started college in the past 20 years and have no degree.) In contrast, at UMBC, we fully expect that all of you will graduate. As this campus was opening its doors just over 50 years ago, coincidentally, I was just beginning college in Virginia as a nerdy 15 year old. I remember the Convocation speaker saying to our class, “Look to your left; look to your right; one of you will not graduate.” I watched some of my classmates already believing that the speaker was talking about them, and it did become a self-fulfilling prophecy. A number did not graduate. At UMBC, we say, “Look to your left; look to your right; our goal is to make sure all of you graduate.”

We want you to set high expectations for yourselves – both in your studies and in your life – just as we set high expectations for ourselves in how we support you. So, please keep the following themes in mind: you are important to us, and we are determined both to challenge and support you; own your education by getting involved in and outside of the classroom; and get to know each other and support each other. Our goal for each of you is that you graduate prepared to lead a meaningful life. You are here chiefly to prepare for the rest of your life – and you will have the greatest influence on your own success.

One of the reasons that UMBC has been so successful is that we listen to students. Each year, I ask returning students for advice to pass on to new ones. Here’s some of their advice:

  • Keep an open mind.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help – we all need help.
  • Get involved.
  • Show interest in your classes (and go to your classes – on time – in the first place).
  • Get to know professors and staff, and ask them to tell their stories.
  • Take full advantage of opportunities for internships and research.
  • Challenge yourself by getting out of your comfort zone.
  • Look for opportunities to network and to connect with other people.
  • Take responsibility for your mistakes.

UMBC is a community where people truly care about one another. Many of you have already bonded these past few days during move-in and activities on campus and in Baltimore. During Welcome Week, we want you to learn about the university and have fun – but most important, we want you to make connections. We know that students who support one another are the most likely to thrive and to succeed academically. You are not in this alone.

You are now a part of a campus that has become one of America’s distinctive public universities. This past year, U.S. News & World Report ranked us #5 among the nation’s “Most Innovative Schools,” and #18 in the country for excellence in undergraduate teaching. We are consistently named a “Best Value” by national publications, and the Princeton Review just commended our Career Center because our graduates are entering the job market with confidence. Large numbers of our students go on to graduate and professional schools and excel. Most important, UMBC is nationally recognized as a model for innovation, particularly for supporting students – from first-year seminars and undergraduate research to service-learning initiatives and intellectual competition. We’re also very proud of our athletes, half of whom are on the Dean’s list. (Give all of our athletes a round of applause.)

How many of you are a little afraid or anxious about starting college? That is perfectly natural. You’ll become more comfortable the longer you’re here, and you’ll quickly realize that the goal is not simply to earn a degree and then find work or go to graduate school (though those achievements are important). How many of you know what you want to major in? All of you – those who have decided on a major and those who are undecided – will benefit from the courses you’ll take in our General Education program, encompassing the arts, humanities, social sciences, and the natural and physical sciences. This work may be as important as your major; it’s a critical part of your education. What’s most important is that you learn how to learn and become passionate about learning and life. What you are getting here is the kind of liberal education the Phi Beta Kappa secretary praised.

What precisely do we mean by “liberal education”? The word “liberal” comes from the Latin adjective “liber,” meaning “free.” The word “education” comes from both the Latin verb “duco,” meaning “to lead,” and the prefix “e,” which means “out of.” Defined literally, then, “liberal education” means “the free act of leading out of.” Most often, “liberal education” has been associated with free people, who, unlike slaves or indentured servants, had time to cultivate the intellect. Another interpretation of “liberal education” is education for its own sake – the freedom to think and explore ideas in any direction. This freedom is the greatest opportunity you will find here.

A few years ago, one of my mentors, the late James Freedman, former President of Dartmouth College, told his graduating class that a liberal education was “the surest source of a satisfying life.”

A liberal education that lasts a lifetime will inspire you to strengthen the foundation of your moral identity and to explore the ordeal of being human – the drama of confronting the darker side of the self; the responsibility of imposing meaning on your life and society; the challenge of transcending the ambiguity-entangled counsel of arrogance and modesty, egotism and altruism, emotion and reason, opportunism and loyalty, individualism and conformity.

 Your liberal education will equip you with the skills you’ll need to grow. More important, you’ll develop a way of thinking about – and appreciating – your own story and the stories of others. In the classroom, you’ll practice thinking critically, writing and speaking clearly, and listening attentively. Outside the classroom, you’ll have opportunities to learn about leadership and team building, and to practice thinking on your feet and explaining concepts with clarity.

For years, I’ve been telling students about the late I.I. Rabi, who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1944. Rabi taught us that being passionate about learning depends on being passionate about asking good questions. Rabi grew up in New York City, where, after school each day, the neighborhood mothers asked their children, “What did you learn today?” Rabi’s mother, however, asked a different question: “Did you ask a good question today, Izzy?” Years later, when Rabi was asked how he became a world-class scientist and scholar, he answered that his mother deserved much of the credit: “Asking good questions made me become a good scientist.” The lesson is never stop asking good questions.

Surely, many of you already wonder about “life after UMBC” and where your education will lead you. You’ll be inspired by what some of this year’s graduates are doing this fall. Many are beginning their studies at the top graduate and professional programs across the country. Other graduates are launching careers with major corporations, agencies, public school systems, non-profit organizations, and start-ups, focusing on financial analysis, software engineering, education, human services, public policy, and dance. Most important, if you begin now exploring ways to connect with faculty and staff who can help you identify and get immersed in research opportunities and internships, you’ll have many options as you prepare to graduate a few years from now. In addition, faculty will know you well enough to write impressive letters of recommendation for you. Before the year is out, I hope you all will have gone to both the Career Services Center to learn more about internships and careers and the Shriver Center to learn more about service-learning opportunities.

The fact that you’re a student here means that you are well prepared. You have strong academic records, high test scores, and rich experiences in your backgrounds. Yet, you might be surprised to know that we have students here who are not even teenagers. What is my point? We can always find people who are even higher achievers than we are. What’s important is mindset and grit. Pioneering psychologist Angela Duckworth defines grit as “a special blend of passion and persistence” that is key to success. Characteristics of grit include courage, conscientiousness, possession of long-term goals, resilience, and orientation toward excellence rather than perfection. There’s a reason we call ourselves the “House of Grit.” What is important is that we work to be the best we can be – and to support each other.

I challenge you to work hard, to be passionate about your education, and to envision and dream about your future. I also challenge you to be actively engaged in the campus community. Be a part of each other’s success – as partners in study sessions, labs, artistic performances, and civic engagement; as teammates on the court or athletic field; as members of campus clubs and student organizations; and simply as friends. Some friendships you make here will last your lifetime.

There’s always plenty to do at UMBC, but you can’t know if you don’t get out and ask about what’s going on. I encourage you to visit the Involvement Fest on September 7, from noon to 3 p.m. Be a part of campus governance through the Student Government Association; keep the campus informed through The Retriever Weekly; elevate student research and creative achievement by contributing to the UMBC Review and Bartleby. We want you to connect with faculty and staff – they are national and international experts in their fields, and they care about you. Get to know their stories because they, too, will inspire you. A number of our students start companies during their time at UMBC, and I encourage you to participate in our annual Idea Competition. Also, take time to attend and enjoy a wide range of events – from Theatre and Dance Department productions to performances by the UMBC Symphony Orchestra to art exhibits to Humanities and Social Sciences Forum lectures to athletic events. You’ll see that we take pride in having increasingly exciting athletic activities.

UMBC is now your home – and you have more freedom than ever to make choices that will affect you and others around you. It’s important to balance this new freedom with a heightened sense of responsibility. Take care of yourself. Get enough sleep, eat well, and make good choices about alcohol. Most of our students make good choices, but sometimes, the pressure of being in a new place can lead people to make bad decisions. To prevent that, start by seeking out accurate information about campus life. For example, you shouldn’t assume that all students drink. In fact, a majority of first-year students tell us that they do not consume any alcohol during a typical two-week period, and large numbers of our upper-classmen say the same. Nationally, 40 percent of students report that they engage in binge drinking – while UMBC students report binge drinking at half that rate.

We are very proud of the good choices most of our students make, but we are also very concerned about those students who do make decisions that put their lives at risk. Data from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism tell a chilling story: each year, while under the influence of alcohol, more than 1,800 college students die; that is five deaths per day. It is also the case that 78 Americans die from opioid overdoses every day. We take the harmful and often illegal use of alcohol and drugs very seriously. The message I want you to hear is that UMBC is an academically serious place – and it’s a place where students find creative ways to have fun. If you choose not to drink, you will find plenty of company. You can help maintain this community standard by encouraging those around you not to drink or, for those who are of legal age, to drink responsibly. We want you to use your freedom wisely and grow in character. We believe deeply in the importance of academic and personal freedom and integrity.  We want you to make good choices. “Be Your Best Self!”

You’re entering UMBC at a time of great change. I could never have imagined, as a young adult, that one day I would have an opportunity to welcome this very special group of university students from all over the world. Just over fifty years ago, in 1963, I was a 12-year-old math nerd and in my first year of high school in Birmingham, Alabama. That May, while I was solving math problems in church, I heard a man speak about the Civil Rights movement that was dividing our town, and our country. If the children march, Dr. King said, the country will see that all they want is dignity and opportunity – and the chance to receive the very best education. After all, where would America be without an educated citizenry? I marched peacefully, alongside dozens of other children – and we were all thrown in jail.

After several days, Dr. King led our parents on a march to the jailhouse for an evening vigil of song and prayer for all the children. I remember looking out the windows of the jail at our parents and hearing Dr. King say, “What you do this day will have an impact on generations as yet unborn.”

The reason I continue to tell this story is that it lets people know more about who I am, where I come from, the challenges I have faced, the dreams I have. I challenge you to know your story. Stories inspire us. I want each of you to reflect long and hard over these coming years on your story and its significance in your life – but not just reflect, I want you to tell your story. The college experience allows us to go deeply into the meaning of self, of life, and of the big questions we will face.

Beyond knowing yourself, get to know the stories of people at UMBC – and especially people beyond these hallowed walls. Yesterday, many of you took part in the New Student Book Experience about Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn – a moving call to action against the oppression of women and girls around the world. We read these new books to broaden our thinking and to reflect on the challenges of the human condition. Half the Sky shows how powerless women around the world sometimes are, but at the same time, we see inspiring stories of women becoming inspired to transform their lives and their communities. The book experience, like your UMBC experience, is designed to challenge you intellectually and personally and to take you beyond your comfort zone. You’ll have opportunities to explore new ideas and meet people different from yourself. UMBC is a microcosm of the world – our students, faculty, and staff come from every state and more than 100 countries, and they have wide-ranging backgrounds in terms of academic interests, race, ethnicity, religion, politics, sexual orientation, and culture. I want you to visit a new online resource, diversity.umbc.edu, where you can learn about events and programs focused on diversity and inclusion, as well as resources focused on those issues. If you keep an open mind, you will enjoy learning about others – their cultures and religions, interests and attitudes, strengths and weaknesses. You’ll also learn about characteristics we all share – our fears, hopes, and dreams – and you will grow.

UMBC is committed to preparing leaders who will help the nation reduce inequality. Our BreakingGround initiative focuses on community engagement and social change. Through our Shriver Center students can engage with the local community and participate in service learning. For example, students can connect with the center’s Choice Program, which provides mentors and 24-hour support services for hundreds of Baltimore youths, mostly boys and young men, who have been involved with the justice system. Our Women’s Center offers a wide range of programming, support and discussion opportunities, as does our Mosaic Center, which supports cross-cultural education and collaboration. Across departments on campus, you will find more than 150 courses and projects focused on the challenges of Baltimore and issues of diversity and social justice. I encourage you to get involved. You have the opportunity to make a difference in the world – supporting a child, helping a senior citizen, reaching out to others in need, and creating lasting change in your community. You are preparing to be a leader in our country and in the world.

To be truly educated means that we always keep asking questions and learning, and we stay focused on that which is yet to be understood. In Samuel Beckett’s Molloy, one of the main characters speaks of watching the dancing of the bees. “Here,” he says, “is something I can study all my life, and never understand.” That is the essence of education.

At Commencement, I always ask students what they are planning to do now that they have graduated. One year, a woman came across the stage and, when I asked her that question, she looked at me with such conviction and said: “I’m going to change the world.”

There is my challenge to each of you – to think broadly, to dream about the endless possibilities for your own lives, to seek the truth, and to prepare to change the world. The ineluctable question is, What will you do during the next 50 years of your life? Dreams and values. Welcome to UMBC.

Watch your thoughts; they become your words.

Watch your words; they become your actions.

Watch your actions; they become your habits.

Watch your habits; they become your character.

Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.

-Anonymous

Again, welcome to UMBC. The journey begins.