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August 28, 2013

A very warm welcome to you, the Tufts Class of 2017, and our entering transfer students; to parents and family members; and to our faculty and staff as we officially begin the academic year. It is an honor and a privilege to greet you on this happy occasion.

Entering Tufts students:  You have a great adventure ahead of you. You will dive into your classes and make new friends. You will be able to take advantage of an enormous range of activities on campus that play to your current interests. And you will also find opportunities to explore areas completely new to you.

The academic community you are entering is truly collegial.  Tufts is defined by people who care deeply about each other and the world in which they live and work, and who take great pride in the academic mission of the University. By engaging fully and collaboratively in their studies, in their groundbreaking research, and with communities both near and afar, Tufts’ people are having a great impact on society.

That commitment to society is embedded in our Jumbo DNA. In fact, it goes all the way back to the university’s establishment by the Universalists in the 1850s. They were visionary in their dedication to social justice, the abolition of slavery, and an education that was open to men and women of any creed or social background. Our founders challenged their era’s stereotypes, and the tone they set for Tufts endures to this day.

This summer, you read the book Whistling Vivaldi as part of our Common Reading Program. In that book, Dr. Claude Steele—a renowned social psychologist—detailed his research on stereotypes and how they can diminish our performance and limit our opportunities. Last spring, we had the privilege to hear Dr. Steele speak on this quad at our Commencement. During his address, Dr. Steele shared with us the story of an experiment he conducted to better understand how stereotypes affect our relationships.

To explore this issue, he asked students of different racial backgrounds to discuss sensitive issues of race and then analyzed how these challenging conversations affected them. Dr. Steele found that many students of all races felt uncomfortable during difficult conversations about diversity, and their body language showed this. Those students physically pulled away from their peers out of discomfort. But students who used these tough conversations as learning experiences leaned in closer, demonstrating their engagement and comfort. They used their conversations as an opportunity to grow, and they felt better about themselves for having done so.

Dr. Steele’s parable could not be more appropriate for Tufts. Students at Tufts seek to break molds, and lean in. They seek to learn from each other.

You will, indeed, find that your classmates have much to teach you. As Dean Coffin demonstrated, you are in the company of students from countless different geographic, racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and religious backgrounds—to say nothing of the innumerable life experiences that make us unique.

However, Tufts students are not content to be different just for the sake of being different. They bring a sense of purpose to their individualism. Here, you will learn from your fellow students, exchange stories, and hear perspectives you otherwise never could. Sitting next to you in these chairs are men and women with insights into cultures and lifestyles you’ve never experienced. Take advantage of their insights. They’ll help change you for the better.

To do this, you’ll have to challenge the stereotypes you may carry. College provides a unique opportunity to test your preconceived ideas about the world.  It’s also a time to challenge your notions of other people and yourself. Understand that what you observe by looking at peers is an imperfect indicator of their perspectives and experiences. Get to know one another. You’ll be surprised to find ways that peers are similar to you, ways they differ from you, and how peers from similar groups differ from one another.  

I hope that you will bring an openness to change to your whole Tufts experience, academics included.

We see the world facing great changes and challenges:  from global warming and continuing financial turmoil to political instability and conflict in regions around the globe. Tufts is engaged in all these areas, and you will be too. Many of these challenges require solutions that go beyond individual areas of study or traditional academic disciplines such as history, sociology, chemistry or engineering. However, it’s excellence and depth in our disciplines that allow us to work together to find innovative solutions to the big problems facing our society.

One of the most distinctive aspects of the Tufts experience is the opportunity to engage fully with your professors. Besides their passion for teaching, Tufts faculty are excited about scholarship and research, and they bring that excitement into the classroom. They will expect you to challenge them just as much as they challenge you.

You should start by getting to know your professors outside the classroom. Take them out to Brown and Brew, or the Library Café and let Tufts pick up the tab. You can try your hand at research with them through the Summers Scholars Program. I first got involved in research by working in a lab over the summer as an undergraduate. It was an exciting experience and one that was formative in my career choice. So, take advantage and get involved in the academic pursuits of Tufts faculty in the years ahead.

Make sure you also consider the advice of your professors and mentors when you’re choosing courses and areas of study. I’ll never forget when my undergraduate biology advisor told me that I needed to take a course on genetics. Having decided to study Neuroscience and behavior, I just could not see what relevance genetics had for the understanding of the brain, and we argued about it. I mean really argued about it. Little did I know I’d spend the remainder of my career using genetics as a powerful tool to understand the workings of the brain and how it affects our behavior. So trust your advisors and professors to help you find your path of study. They have experience and wisdom, and they want nothing more than to help you succeed.

At Tufts, we don’t tell students what to think. Instead, our teaching is designed to produce intellectual self-reliance—to teach you how to learn and how to take charge of your thinking. We want you to be independent in your judgment, critical in your analysis, and innovative in developing solutions. We work to help you develop these skills here at Tufts, and we hope you’ll retain them for life. They will continue to serve you as you navigate a world that is constantly and rapidly changing.

You must also make sure that you don’t stereotype yourself, and settle for a static college experience. Students often develop strong friendships and define their co-curricular interests early on at Tufts. Those early choices can be enduring and wonderful. But don’t allow yourself to fly on autopilot for the next four years. Each year of college should bring new friends, new opportunities, and hopefully, a new perspective. Remember to stay open to all the opportunities that will present themselves to you over the course of your time here. Remain open to new and transformational experiences, and your adventure may take you down roads you never dreamed of traveling.

Being a Jumbo is a lifelong membership. It starts here today and extends beyond graduation—because as alumni, we want you to remain engaged with the University and its mission. We hope that you will remain active citizens throughout your life, as a natural outgrowth of your involvement in clubs, activities and community service on campus. You will be ambassadors for Tufts in everything you do, and we are immensely proud of that relationship. Tufts is continually growing, and from here on out, you’ll be a part of shaping this community just as this community will shape you.

All of these experiences, of course, will change you. Often times, it’s scary to leave our comfort zones behind in order to allow ourselves to grow. Don’t fight this change; embrace it. Use it to learn about yourself: your strengths and your weaknesses. And as you grow, question your existing beliefs and question others. At times self-discovery will be difficult, but with confidence and an open mind, you’ll develop a depth of character and a richness of personality of which you will be proud.

You should also remember that you won’t be embarking on this journey alone. You will form close friendships and make many enduring relationships during the next four years. The bonds you will form as you help one another grow will fortify your friendships for many years to come. These friends will be with you through all your major life events from new jobs to career changes, from marriage and new families all the way through to seeing the next generation off to college or the workforce. I still get together with my roommates and friends from college, and you will too.

Entering Tufts, you are also saying goodbye to your families and friends, many of you for the first time. You will now have responsibility for everything from eating right, keeping fit, and getting enough sleep to doing your own laundry and getting to classes on time. It’s important to remember that it’s up to you to make good choices. Though there are others around you to offer guidance, no one but you can keep you healthy and safe and successful. Over the next four years, you will learn how to become self-sufficient.

While self-sufficiency is important, remember to look out for one another. Use your cell phones to let each other know where you are, especially if you are off campus. There is nothing more important than keeping one another safe. There’s a community of people who are here to help: a network of fellow students, RAs, campus police, and Tufts staff. But there will be temptations. Many of you will find yourself in situations you’ve never faced before, and they will require you to use your best judgment. No matter how wonderful your friends are, you are still your own best asset, and it is up to you to take care of yourself. After all, you’re the one who must live with the consequences of your actions.

The most obvious temptation you will face, is binge drinking. Much more important than any regrets the morning after, or an embarrassing and expensive emergency room bill, you compromise your safety and the safety of others when you drink too much.  Don’t do it. It would break my heart to see any of your lives forever altered because of alcohol.

College is a very special time. But that does not mean that the usual rules of social interaction do not apply.  One issue that we take very seriously is sexual misconduct—especially sexual assault.  We are committed to working with students to help prevent sexual assault, and we take every allegation seriously—conducting full investigations and providing the support our students need and deserve. We expect you to respect the law, and our neighbors off campus. Please live up to the standards by which we judged you on your application, and which your families expect of you.

Now, parents: bringing your sons and daughters to campus is one of the biggest changes you can face in your lives. The car will seem emptier on the way home and the house will seem quieter this evening. Although it’s not an easy transition, your children’s independence here on campus is an important step towards responsible adulthood. You must truly let go. Don’t worry. They will sort out their classes, their activities, their friends, their social life, and even their laundry. Give them that freedom and you will be astounded at the result when you see them at Parents Weekend or they visit home on their next break.

That said, it will not be easy to say goodbye. I know that my mother cried the whole way home after dropping me off at college. It must have been one of the longest drives of her life. So whatever you promised, it is OK to share that emotion with your sons and daughters today. Secretly, they expect it and want it; though it just might kill them to admit it.

Class of 2017, before you go off to explore the campus with your new classmates, don’t forget to call your parents this evening after they get home and make sure they are OK. You are not the only ones who are experiencing a big change in your lives.

I have met many Tufts alumni during my time as President and many of them have said to me: “Tufts changed my life.” As you chart your course over the coming years, make sure you open yourself up to all the new friends, new disciplines, new challenges, and new activities here at Tufts. And most of all, do as the students of Dr. Steele’s experiment did, and lean in.

I look forward to getting to know each of you better during your time at Tufts. Today, you begin a new chapter of your life and it is a privilege to be part of it.

Thank you.