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Convocation Address 2018

Freeman A. Hrabowski, III
President, UMBC
August 28, 2018

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. In 2018, we celebrated our first Rhodes Scholar and, as you just heard from Coach Odom, we were involved in “March madness” as our Retriever men’s basketball team made history by being the first 16 seed to beat a number 1 seed in the first round of the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Just this week, we have had record-breaking attendance at our soccer games, and our men’s team has beaten both Temple and Rutgers. It is an exciting time to be a member of our community, Retriever Nation, and you will be an important part of shaping who we become in the next few 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 poem 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. In the ’60s, we were living 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 our commitment to 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 simply about anecdotes and what’s popular, but about what is real. We welcome discussion and debate about the challenges our society faces. We must talk with one another, lest we lose sight of the whole truth. We also encourage the development of critical thinking. We 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 and to develop judgement as a citizen.

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, has spoken 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 talks about three sets of skills needed to perform the duties of the office of private citizen, and each is developed by a liberal arts education.

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 an educated citizen.

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 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. For some of you, this is the first educational experience after high school, and you are at the “traditional age,” somewhere between 17 and 19. Others are transfer students, having come immediately from another institution, and some are returning to college. I know that some of the things I say may be more appropriate for our traditional-age students, but I hope you know that we care deeply about all of you, whether you are 17 or 30.

When we were founded, only 10% of American adults had four-year college degrees. Today, 33% of Americans hold a bachelor’s degree. In response to global competition, America has substantially raised its educational goals to 60% of American adults having two- or 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 13th globally in bachelor’s attainment. For the first time since the middle of the 20th century, we cannot say that each generation of Americans will be better educated than the one before it.

One of the biggest challenges we face as a nation is that about half of students who started college do not finish. (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.

UMBC is a community in which 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 the larger community. 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 July, the Boston Globe profiled UMBC as a national model of excellence in higher education. This past year, U.S. News & World Report ranked us #7 among the nation’s “Most Innovative Schools,” and #13 in the country for excellence in undergraduate teaching. And according to the 2019 U.S. News Best Graduate Schools rankings, twelve of our graduate programs are ranked among the best nationwide. We are consistently named a “Best Place to Work” by numerous publications, and the Princeton Review has 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. This year, we celebrated our first Academic All-America Division I Men’s Basketball player and our men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams were selected for the Scholar All-America award from the College Swimming and Diving Coaches Association of America. We’re very proud of our athletes, half of whom are on the Dean’s list.

How many of you are a little 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.

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 this: 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 the arts. 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. 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. 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. As you’ve learned, our Chesapeake Bay Retriever is named “True Grit” and 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 5th, 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 in our new Event Center or at Retriever Soccer Park. 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, exercise 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 upperclassmen 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 an average of 115 Americans die from opioid overdoses every day (up from 76 last year). 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. 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. Make sure you listen and learn from each other’s stories. You’ve heard my story before about being a child leader during the Civil Rights Movement. I was inspired through my experiences to believe that the world can be better.

The reason I’ve continued to tell my 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 and tell 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 to talk about Kindred, the story of a modern day black woman who is transported back in time to the antebellum South, written by Octavia Butler. We read and discuss books like this each year to broaden our thinking and to reflect on the challenges of the human condition. 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 countless opportunities while you’re here 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 invite you to visit our 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.

We are committed to preparing leaders who will help the nation and the world 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 real-world challenges, whether in Baltimore or rural Kenya, and on 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, not just in this country but 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.

One of the reasons that UMBC has been so successful is that we listen to students. Over the years, I have asked returning students what advice they’d give to the entering class. Here are a few 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 – 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.

Renowned New York Times journalist Frank Bruni, who visited UMBC during our 50th anniversary, offered similar suggestions in his recent article, “How to Get the Most Out of College.”

  • Widen your circle. “Diversity opens you to a wealth of ideas, and being comfortable with it is an asset in just about any workplace or career.”
  • Connect with faculty and staff.
    • Katherine Dillon, who graduated in May and works as a software engineer at Google in San Francisco, took advantage of every opportunity to connect with faculty and staff. Katie came to UMBC with an interest, but not much experience, in computer science. Through the Center for Women in Technology, she was able to rapidly expand her knowledge of the field. Before long, she was conducting computer science research, taking graduate-level courses in artificial intelligence and machine learning, serving as a teaching assistant in computer science and interactive media, and volunteering through outreach opportunities, to inspire and support future computing students.
    • Todd Cox, who came to UMBC as a Navy veteran, graduated in May with a financial economics degree. Todd joined Northrop Grumman as a business management analyst. Throughout his time on campus, Todd worked very closely with the UMBC Career Center to connect with top-performing companies where he could apply his knowledge, drive, and ever-expanding skill set. In an interview, he said, “one of the greatest assets on campus that facilitated the achievement of my goals was the Career Center.”
    • Maia Schechter, a Linehan Artist Scholar and a member of the Honors College, came to UMBC focused on her goal of pursuing a career in dance. Her drive and talent helped her secure a place at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as part of the American College Dance Association National Festival. When she graduated, Maia noted, “The UMBC dance department has offered incredible support. In addition to cultivating my dance technique, many teachers have introduced me to renowned dance companies and intensives that have helped me network and develop as an artist. Thanks to my teachers, I am setting and achieving goals I never thought would be possible.”
  • Take time to laugh. A recent special issue of Time on “The Science of Laughter” features the work of neuroscientist and UMBC professor of psychology, Robert Provine. According to one of the scientists, Lee Berk, “Laughter appears to cause all the reciprocal, or opposite, effects of stress. Including improved blood flow and memory.”
  • Get involved. A Strada-Gallop Alumni Survey suggests that “establishing a deep connection with a mentor, taking on a sustained academic project, [or] playing a significant part in a campus organization” can all be “game changers.”
  • Take care of yourself. Depression and anxiety are real challenges. Don’t become isolated. Challenge yourself to reach out and connect with other students, faculty, and staff. Exercise. Get adequate sleep. Seek help when you need it. What you do to be fulfilled outside the classroom is just as important as your coursework.
  • Your major may change a couple of times. And that is ok. When considering a major think about what speaks to your heart and what you’re passionate about.
  • Storytelling is key. Storytelling goes beyond just communicating. Take courses beyond your major that challenge you to learn how to tell stories. Bruni refers to Greek mythology, British literature, political rhetoric. Whether you are an artist or a scientist, storytelling skills are important.
  • Think interdisciplinary. Humanities majors take some science classes. Computing majors take some arts classes.
  • Take risks. We talk about grit and resilience on this campus. If you fail, get back up and learn from the experience.

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.

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

Welcome to UMBC, the House of Grit. The journey begins.