Convocation Address 2015

Freeman A. Hrabowski, III
President, UMBC
August 25, 2015


The Rock Cries Out to Us Today (Excerpts)

Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.

Give birth again
To the dream.

Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands.

Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts
Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings.

Here on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister’s eyes, into
Your brother’s face, your country
And say simply
Very simply
With hope
Good morning.

Maya Angelou


Convocation is that special time each year when our campus community assembles to welcome new students. We’re excited that you’re here.

Over the years, students have given me great advice to pass on to new students. Here are some of their suggestions.


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 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. Those of you who will be living in the residences have already bonded . 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,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 life, 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.

The university was founded at a critical point in our nation’s history.  Between 1963, when the Maryland General Assembly approved legislation for the creation of UMBC, and 1966, when we admitted our first students, the nation saw passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Higher Education Act of 1965, both of which promised greater educational access.

When UMBC’s first students entered this campus in 1966, I was starting as a freshman in college also.  I was an excited 15-year old.  One of my heroes was a young civil rights leader, Julian Bond.  Mr. Bond died this week.  He represented young Americans in fighting for social justice. He fought for major causes, from civil rights to marriage equality for all Americans.  We can all be inspired by his legacy.

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 3. 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 college degrees is not increasing substantially – unlike 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 1 in bachelor’s attainment, behind their peers. What’s especially troubling, college completion among younger Americans is heavily stratified by wealth – with 80 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. 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. In fact, nearly half of all students who begin college do not graduate.

In contrast, at UMBC, we fully expect that all of you will graduate. 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.

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 about “An Unquiet Mind,” by Dr. Kay Jamison – an illuminating and powerful book. Dr. Jamison’s story is at once deeply personal and universal. It calls us to think deeply about the health of our own moods – and our own minds – while at the same time endeavoring to understand those of others. Almost 44 million adult Americans – 18.5 percent of adults – have some mental illness, and more than 10 million, 4.2 percent, have a serious mental illness. Millions more Americans are affected through family members and friends. Yet, we are all too often reluctant as a society to discuss the role of mental illnesses, like manic-depression, in our individual lives and in major issues facing our country. You are doing your part to change that through the conversations you had yesterday and those you will continue to have throughout the year.

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 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. 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). 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 and athletic events. You’ll see that we take pride in having increasingly exciting athletic activities. I want to congratulate the men’s soccer team on their historic run this past year to the Final Four of the NCAA College Cup. In fact, UMBC made it to three Final Fours last year – in men’s soccer, in game design, and in chess.

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. UMBC is committed to preparing leaders who will help the nation reduce inequality. For example, you will find more than 150 courses and projects focused on the challenges of Baltimore. I encourage you to get involved, whether through the Shriver Center, the BreakingGround Initiative, or any of a number of other opportunities. 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.

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.