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Convocation Address 2014

Freeman A. Hrabowski, III
President, UMBC
August 26, 2014

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

Over the years, students have given me great advice to pass on to new students. That advice reminds me that, as students yourself, you already have a wealth of knowledge about what it takes to succeed. Here are some suggestions:

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 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. Those of you who will be living in the residences have already bonded over a rainy – but successful – move-in, while those who will be commuting made connections on a challenging ropes course. Students transferring from other colleges made wonderful connections with Baltimore during their day at the National Aquarium. 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 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 the nation’s #1 “Up and Coming” university – the fifth year in a row – and in the top ten in the country for excellence in undergraduate teaching. In addition, the Fiske Guide to Colleges just named us a “Best Buy,” citing excellence in the social sciences, the visual and performing arts, and computer science. The guide also recognized our deep commitment to undergraduate research and entrepreneurship across all disciplines. 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.

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.

America is a very different country today than it was 50 years ago, when UMBC was founded. Last month, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 – a landmark piece of legislation that followed years of tumult and violence, including the assassination of President Kennedy. These horrific events riveted Americans and not only led to the Civil Rights Act, but also the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed segregation of public facilities and schools, discrimination in housing, and literacy tests for voter registration. Another piece of very important legislation was the 1965 Higher Education Act, which made it possible for many more Americans of all backgrounds to attend college and earn degrees. The first students entered UMBC 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 to more than 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, 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 second in the world for bachelor’s degree attainment. But younger Americans, 25 to 34 years old, rank 11th globally in bachelor’s attainment, behind their peers in Australia, Finland, Korea, Japan, and several other nations. What’s especially troubling is that college completion among younger Americans is heavily influenced by family wealth, with 80 percent of those from the top income quartile earning a bachelor’s degrees by age 24, but only 10 percent from the lowest income quartile doing so. Additionally, nearly half of all students who begin college do not graduate. All of 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.

At UMBC, we fully expect that all of 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 here. 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, and we are determined both to challenge you and to provide the support you need; you own your education, so 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 “Enrique’s Journey,” by Sonia Nazario – a book that is at once sobering and uplifting. The story is particularly timely, and it asks us to think deeply about our laws, our politics, and our place in the world. The mothers and children who come to this country, Ms. Nazario writes, “become our neighbors, children in our schools, workers in our homes. As they become a greater part of the fabric of the United States, their troubles and triumphs will be a part of this country’s future.” The book is a story about immigration – but more important, it is a story about the strength of the human spirit.

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. If you keep an open mind, you will enjoy learning about the stories of 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.

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. All of you 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 getting here 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 their studies at the top graduate and professional programs 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. 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 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. 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. 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 Humanities and Social Sciences Forum lectures. Be sure to explore our new Performing Arts & Humanities Building, the second half of which is opened this semester. Attend athletic events, from basketball to lacrosse and soccer; you’ll see that we take pride in having increasingly exciting athletic activities. I want to congratulate both the Women’s and Men’s Soccer teams and the Men’s Cross Country team for winning America East conference championships this past year. Building on that success, the Women’s Soccer team won their first two games of this season – including a win against Loyola yesterday, led by freshman forward Lisa Nanov. I encourage you to attend their next home game on September 5, and to cheer on the Men’s team in their season opener at home this Friday against Long Island University.

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 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. 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. Make good choices. “Be Your Best Self!”

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

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. When I think about the Civil Rights Movement, I also think about BreakingGround, a UMBC initiative focused on social change, and our Shriver Center, which is focused on community engagement and service learning. Through those initiatives, 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.

That spirit was embodied by one of our graduates whose life we recently celebrated in the new Concert Hall, which you will all have a chance to visit. Dr. Rita Sloan Berndt was an excellent example of what it means to be an educated human being and a person who led an examined life. She grew up in Catonsville and attended high school at the Institute of Notre Dame. After starting a family, she studied psychology at UMBC and went on to earn her Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins. After teaching at Hopkins for a number of years, she moved to the University of Maryland Medical School, where she quickly earned tenure and later became a full professor. She was a brilliant scientist and scholar, focusing on understanding aphasia, a class of disorders involving language loss among victims of stroke and other forms of brain damage. Her work was funded consistently by the NIH for more than 20 years – a remarkable accomplishment.

But as deep as her knowledge of her specific field was, Rita was broadly educated. She had an abiding interest in literature, music, and the natural world – and she thought deeply about her place in the world. Most important, Rita Berndt had a full life. She was a wife and a mother, a scholar and a friend. She had a passion for living and for learning. She loved and was deeply loved – and she made a real difference in the world. At the end of the remembrance event, I couldn’t help but think, “This is what I would hope for each of our students – that they will live their lives in such a way that, at the end, each can say, ‘I did my best. I made a difference.’”

This is my challenge to each of you – to think broadly, 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.