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Convocation Address 2013

Freeman A. Hrabowski, III
President, UMBC
August 27, 2013

At UMBC, Convocation is that special time each year when the campus community assembles to welcome new students. In Latin, the word “Convocation” means a “calling together.” We’re excited you’re here.

In my meetings with new students over the years, I always ask them to give me advice to pass on to other students. My point is that you already have a wealth of knowledge about what you need to succeed. Here’s what students say:

Keep an open mind.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help – we all need help.
Get involved.
Show interest in your classes.
Get to know your professors 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.

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 UMBC the nation’s #1 “Up and Coming” university – the fourth year in a row – and in the top ten in the country for excellence in undergraduate teaching, tied with such universities as Duke and UC-Berkeley. We’re also among the 100 “best values in public colleges and universities” according to Kiplinger magazine. Most important, we’re nationally recognized as a model for innovation, particularly for supporting students – from first-year seminars, the Honors College, undergraduate research, and course redesign to special scholars programs, service-learning, living-learning floors in our residence halls, and intellectual competition (from the ethics bowl and the American College Theatre Festival at the Kennedy Center to chess, the Baja vehicle design competition, and cybersecurity challenges).

Each of you is entering a new stage of your lives, and it’s important to appreciate the significance of going to college and of attending UMBC. Most other American colleges and universities were founded when education throughout America – at all levels – was largely segregated; but when UMBC was established in 1963, the law of the land insisted that qualified students from all backgrounds could attend. Thus, we refer to ourselves as a “historically diverse” institution – and today we’re one of the nation’s most diverse.

During the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement and the anti-war movement were reaching a crescendo. Tomorrow, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and three months ago we marked the 50th anniversary of the Children’s March in Birmingham, Alabama. The year 1963 was a tumultuous, even deadly, time – with the assassination of President Kennedy and the bombing murders of four little girls one Sunday morning at the 16th Street Baptist Church in my hometown, Birmingham. These horrific events riveted America’s attention and rocked its conscience. These events led to sweeping social and political change, including the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – outlawing segregation of public facilities and schools, discrimination in housing, and literacy tests for voter registration – and the 1965 Higher Education Act, which made it possible for many more Americans – of all backgrounds – to attend college and earn degrees. It was also in 1963 that the State enacted legislation to establish UMBC, and the first students entered in 1966.

As a result of the Higher Education Act, over the past nearly five decades we’ve moved from just 10% of American adults having four-year college degrees in the 1960s to about 30%, or nearly one in three, today (35% white, 21% African American, 15% Hispanic, and 51% Asian American). And in response to the emergence of China, India, and several other countries as global competitors – largely because of the huge strides they’ve made in education and technology – 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 global prominence, 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 college degrees is not increasing substantially – the opposite of what’s happening in other countries. American adults, in general, are the second most educated people in the world, behind Norwegians. But younger Americans, 25 to 34 years old, rank 11th globally in college-degree attainment, behind their peers in Australia, Finland, Korea, Japan, and several other nations. 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 generation before it. In fact, nearly half of all students who begin college do not graduate.

At UMBC, however, we fully expect that you will graduate – and we will do everything we can to support you. As a college freshman in 1966, I remember the Convocation speaker saying to our class, “Look to your left; look to your right; one of you will not graduate.” At UMBC, we say, “Look to your left; look to your right; our goal is to make sure all of you graduate.” And we don’t intend to fail.

Setting high expectations for all of us is a major priority at UMBC. We set high expectations for you – both in your studies and in your life – and for us in how we support you. So, please keep the following themes in mind: you are important to us; we’re determined both to challenge you and to provide the support you need; get involved in and outside of the classroom; and support each other. Our goal for each of you is that you graduate prepared to lead a meaningful, productive life. You are here chiefly to prepare for the rest of your life – and you will have the greatest influence on your own success.

Yesterday, many of you took part in the New Student Book Experience involving Hot, by Mark Hertsgaard – a sobering book not so much about the science of climate change, but about how we choose to live and what it means to be human. Hertsgaard writes: “Humans have changed the weather on this planet, and that will change everything – from how we grow food to how we construct building and fight disease; from how we organize economies and control borders to how we manage transportation systems and deploy armies … to how we talk with our children and plan for the future.” The message is that our choices have a profound impact, not just on our individual lives – but also on our world. In the words of Aristotle, “Choice, not chance, determines your destiny.”

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 approximately 150 countries, and they have wide-ranging backgrounds in terms of academic interests, race, ethnicity, religion, politics, sexual orientation, and culture. If you keep an open mind and are willing to move beyond your comfort zone, you’ll learn other people’s stories – 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.

Some of you may be a little anxious, which is perfectly natural. The longer you’re here, though, the more comfortable you’ll become, 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) – what’s most important is that you learn how to learn, and become passionate about learning and life.
Many of you may have decided already on a major or particular field of study, while others are undecided. Regardless, before the year is out, I hope you all will have met with the superb staff leading our career and internship programs. Now, not when you’re about to graduate, is the time to start honing your aspirations and seriously exploring careers. The Career Services Center, which is located in Mathematics & Psychology Building, has walk in hours every weekday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. I also want to encourage all of you to take advantage of service learning programs through the Shriver Center, which is located in the Public Policy Building. All of you also 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 even more important than your major; it’s a critical part of your education. What you are receiving is a liberal education.

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 graduate and professional programs at top schools across the country. Other graduates are launching careers with major corporations, agencies, public school systems, 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. And faculty will know you well enough to write impressive letters of recommendation for you.

The fact that you were admitted to UMBC means you are well prepared to be here. In fact, you’re part of one of the largest, highest achieving freshman classes in the University’s history. Many of you are valedictorians or salutatorians with GPAs well above 4.0, with large numbers of AP credits, and with research experiences. And yet our youngest freshman ever was nine years old. What is my point? The point is that there is always someone smarter than any of us, but that’s not what’s most important. What’s 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. Reach out to others, supporting and learning from them. I want to thank many of you for participating in our iCubed@UMBC initiative, which is exploring the factors that promote student success in the sciences, technology, engineering, and math. This will not only help us better serve you, but also the students who follow. 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.

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. Be sure to explore our new Performing Arts & Humanities Building. 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. Last year’s winner was an app that helps students and visitors navigate the UMBC campus and local community. The students who created the app just sold it to a local company, and they will be donating some of the proceeds from the sale back to UMBC. 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 Humanities and Social Sciences Forum lectures and athletic events (from basketball to lacrosse and soccer). I want to congratulate both the Men’s Soccer and Swimming & Diving Teams for winning America East conference championships this past year.

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. That starts with 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 month, 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. 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 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.  Make good choices. “Be Your Best Self!”

You’re beginning college at a time of great change. 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.”

When I think about my involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, I think about BreakingGround, UMBC’s new civic engagement initiative to focus students’ attention on bringing about social change on this campus and beyond. Through BreakingGround, and in other ways, 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.

I could never have imagined, at age 12, that one day I would have an opportunity to welcome this very special group of university students from all over the world. Every year at graduation, I ask students coming across the stage what they plan to do, and the most inspiring response is from the graduate who looks in my eyes and says, “I’m going to change the world.” That is my challenge to each of you – to dream about the endless possibilities for your own lives and to prepare to change the world.

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.


Again, welcome to UMBC. The journey begins.