Matriculation Address to the Class of 2021

August 30, 2017

Thank you, David, for that kind introduction, and thank you all for that warm welcome. It is a privilege to join our distinguished faculty and staff and accomplished alumni as we welcome you—Tufts University’s Class of 2021—onto our campus and into our community.

First, though, I would like to extend a warm welcome to the parents and families gathered here today on the academic quad to help our new students begin this next phase of their education and growth. And students, I know that some of your families are not able to join us this afternoon, but we send them warm wishes as new members of the Tufts community.

Class of 2021: This is an exciting moment—and one that you have worked tremendously hard to reach. You’ve challenged yourselves in high school with schedules packed with demanding courses plus many co-curricular activities. In addition, you have taken standardized tests, written personal essays, scoured college guides, toured campuses, and revised your essays multiple times. You hit send on your applications—and then you waited.

Today, the wait is finally over. You are here, in your new home, and I could not be more excited to say: welcome. Class of 2021, you are on the threshold of an amazing journey—one that will help you to develop intellectually, socially, and personally, just as it has done for Jumbos before you.

You are following in the footsteps of generations of accomplished Tufts students. Our alumni have negotiated peace treaties and won accolades in the performing arts. They’ve written best-selling novels and traveled into space. They have left their mark on the world. But first, Tufts made its mark on them.

Now it’s your turn. You are inheriting a tradition of academic excellence, intellectual achievement, and civic life that has defined Tufts University since our founding. Entering Tufts is a great privilege. But it’s also a daunting prospect.

I know that as you prepare to begin the next chapter of your lives, your minds are full of questions like, “Am I ready for this? Did I make the right decision to come here? What classes should I be taking? Does everyone else already know each other? Will I make friends? Will my parents make a scene when they say goodbye?” (The answer to that last question, by the way, is, “Probably”—and there’s nothing you can do about it.)

Let me assure you of this: everything you’re feeling is normal. The combination of doubt and anticipation that you’re experiencing right now has been felt by every single Jumbo who has sat here before you. They felt every bit as nervous and overwhelmed as you do—and they turned out just fine.

In many ways, this moment is common ground between you, because those feelings of anxiety and excitement are also being experienced by every one of your classmates—even if they’re trying hard not to show it. You are all beginning this journey together. This is a shared experience, and no matter how different you may be from one another, you all have that in common.

I’d like to assure you of something else, too. Whether you believe it or not, you are ready for this challenge. How do I know? Because we chose you. Your selection was no accident. We didn’t make a mistake. After all, we have 165 years’ experience in assembling classes of bright and talented young people.

Now, Karen Richardson has already noted that your accomplishments are remarkable—outstanding scores, championships, leadership positions, civic engagement. And, rest assured, we were deeply impressed by your resumes and transcripts. But they are not really why we chose you.

Out of the 21,101 applications that we received last year, we chose each of you because we saw in you the curious minds, compassionate hearts, and commitment to action that we prize in our students and alumni. We saw scholars motivated to learn and explore. We saw artists and musicians on fire with creativity. We saw entrepreneurs brimming with new ideas. We saw leaders who turn challenges into opportunities. We saw the qualities that bring life into this campus, and light into this world. That’s why you’re here. That’s why we chose you. And we intend to give you an education that harnesses those qualities, expands your horizons, and prepares you for the challenges of today and tomorrow.

Here at Tufts, we believe that an undergraduate education should give you skills that will allow you to be an active and effective participant in life after graduation. And we believe that those skills include the ones that define citizenship. That’s why we challenge you to hone your ability to listen carefully, to think critically, and to write clearly. That’s why we push you to examine the assumptions that underlie your beliefs, and to learn how to explain why you believe what you believe to others—and to yourself.

The liberal arts will be integral to the Tufts experience for all of you—even engineers. They will allow you to navigate diversity of background, thought, and perspective. They will teach you that your way of viewing things is not the only way, and that the goal of debate and conversation is not to win points, but to gain understanding. They will equip you to sort good arguments from bad ones, and separate fact from fiction.

At the same time, quantitative skills and an understanding of scientific reasoning will also be essential for all of you. We live in a world increasingly shaped by the use of big data, and our era’s most pressing challenges require us to engage with technology, the environment, and economics.

For many of you, this is the last time in your life when you will be encouraged to learn purely for the sake of learning. Here at Tufts, you have leading professors who are eager to impart their knowledge and guide your learning. You have world-class libraries, and extraordinary facilities for teaching and research like the new Science and Engineering Complex. You have opportunities to study abroad, and clubs to fit every interest, from a cappella to sketch comedy, from journalism to sports.

It will never be easier to discover a new discipline or to try new ways of understanding the world than it will be at Tufts during the next four years. I urge you to take full advantage of that opportunity.

That will mean stepping outside your comfort zone. So here’s some advice: each semester, try to take at least one class in a subject that you’re curious about but haven’t really examined before. Maybe you’d like to know more about astronomy, or medieval literature, or software development. Maybe you never imagined being interested in any of those things—but are willing to give your professors and your peers a chance to change your mind. Ask questions, and acknowledge when you don’t have all the answers. Go out of your way to say, “I don’t know” once a day, and then listen—really listen—to the answer. Be wrong often. As a scientist, I can tell you that being wrong can be the most efficient way to learn something you didn’t know—and you often learn more from being wrong than you do from being right.

Get to know your fellow students. Your classmates hail from 45 states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, and 44 countries outside of the United States. The relationships you form with them will enrich your experience and expand your horizons. In fact, going outside your comfort zone is an essential part of your Tufts education.

Of course, this is not always easy. And survey results suggest that views among today’s college students are more polarized than at any time in at least the last half-century—mirroring the national climate that is discussed in this year’s Common Reading book on The Outrage Industry, by our distinguished faculty Jeff Berry and Sarah Sobieraj.

Here at Tufts, we want you to develop the skills to grapple with challenging ideas, and engage in informed and civil discussion and debate on issues on which you may disagree profoundly. You will be hearing more this fall about an initiative led by the Provost to do just this—a project we call “Bridging Differences.”

In addition to encountering new ideas, as students you will also often find yourself in new and unfamiliar circumstances. You will be asked to make choices that affect the kind of experience you have and the direction of your life in the future. You won’t always know what to do.

If and when that happens, please remember: you are not alone. Tufts is a good, caring place, full of helpful, thoughtful people who are committed to ensuring that you get everything you can out of your experience here. If you’re struggling with academics, talk to your professors, the deans in Dowling Hall, or the Academic Resource Center. If you feel more comfortable with a spiritual leader, take advantage of the University Chaplaincy or Hillel. Our Health and Wellness Center and its Counseling and Mental Health Service are excellent resources if you’re feeling run down, or isolated, or just plain overwhelmed. The Group of Six provide spaces for you to address your identities and how they impact your lives. There’s no downside to asking questions, and no shame in asking for help. All of these people are here because they want to see you grow and thrive.

Now, one thing to keep in mind is that we aren’t just preparing you to be good citizens of the world. We’re expecting you to be good citizens of Tufts University, too. That is a real responsibility, and I hope you will take it seriously.

While Tufts will always be there to support you and to offer advice, you are responsible for your own conduct—how you treat others, and how you treat yourself. That means being considerate of our neighbors in Medford and Somerville. It means being responsible about drinking, and respectful and consensual in your personal relationships. And it means setting your own boundaries and limits even when nobody is there to set them for you.

And speaking of boundaries, I want to say a word to your parents and families:

Thank you for everything that you have done to bring our new students to this moment—through toddler years and teen-aged rebellion; through athletic events in the rain and dance recitals that may have lasted a little too long. Your support and your sacrifices have been essential to everything that our new students have achieved so far, and will be the foundation for everything that they accomplish during their time here. You have done a wonderful thing by bringing them to this moment—but now I have to ask you to do something equally challenging: let them go.

I don’t make that request lightly. I’m a parent myself, and I just dropped my oldest son off at college last year. You will be tempted, over the next four years, to stay as close to your children as you have for the last eighteen—to know where they are at all times; to make sure they’re following the rules; to help fight their battles and keep tabs on their choices. But the ability to make their own decisions and have their own experiences—good and bad—will be one of the most important things that students gain from being here, and supporting them and giving them space to do that is one of the best gifts that you can offer.

And, Class of 2021—make your families’ job easier by staying in touch. Remember that they’re going through a transition, too, with less support and fewer peers than you have. Give them a call tonight, just to check in. And if they want to cry when they leave you today, let them. They’ve earned it.

Now, in four years, we will come together again at your Baccalaureate service. And the following day you will become members of our world-wide alumni community, which is shaped by the enduring bonds of friendship and shared experience.

I know that graduation sounds far away right now, but I assure you, it will arrive faster than you think. And when that day comes, I hope you look back in awe at everything you’ve accomplished. I hope the obstacles that look enormous now will look small in retrospect. I hope you will be proud of how far you’ve traveled and the person you’ve become.

For those of you who came here full of confidence, determined to march quickly down your predetermined path: I hope we can expose you to new ideas that make you ask questions about the things you know, and wonder about the things you don’t. For those of you who are unsure of your place at Tufts and in the world: I hope we can help you start down a path that fires your imagination and stirs your soul.

And even if, four years from now, you can’t remember a single word I’ve said today, I hope that all of you will remember how today feels. I hope you will remember a sense of excitement; a sense of wonder; a sense of infinite possibilities stretching out before you. I hope that you will cherish that feeling, and keep it with you—not just during your time at Tufts, but every day. You are at the start of an extraordinary adventure—and I could not be more excited or more proud to welcome you as you begin.

So congratulations, once more. And welcome to Tufts.

Thank you.