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Awe, Joy, and an Intense, Rewarding Adventure


Swarthmore College President Rebecca Chopp

In her first public speech (listen: speech) of the new academic year—and her newborn presidency—President Rebecca Chopp asserted Swarthmore’s Quaker heritage and told members of the Class of 2013 at their First Collection that “Our founders believed that everyone should tend his/her own conscience, to ‘mind the light’ within oneself. Tonight, we induct you into the Swarthmorean tradition of minding the light: Critical thinking, questioning your own judgment and that of others, being skeptical but not cynical, taking risks in your exploration of the arts, sciences, humanities, and social sciences, and participating vigorously in this intensely scholarly community.”

Chopp, who is a scholar of American religious movements, has steeped herself in College history since arriving on campus in July. She told the first-year students about one of Swarthmore’s famous founders: “She was 4 feet, 11 inches tall and weighed not quite 90 pounds. Over the course of her lifetime (1793–1880), Lucretia Mott would not only help found Swarthmore College but also shelter runaway slaves in her home, co-found with her husband the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, advocate for peace rather than war, and sign the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiment at the first women’s rights convention, which she and Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized in 1848.”

Chopp read Walt Whitman’s poem “Beginning My Studies” from Leaves of Grass (1872):

Beginning my studies, the first step pleas’d me so much,
The mere fact, consciousness—these forms—the power of motion,
The least insect or animal—the senses—eyesight—love;
The first step, I say, aw’d me and pleas’d me so much,
I have hardly gone, and hardly wish’d to go, any farther,
But stop and loiter all the time, to sing it in extatic songs.

The new president concluded: “I hope you share with the faculty, students, staff, and alumni the awe and joy in the midst of the intense and rewarding adventure that awaits you. May your first step please you so much.”

First Collection has evolved in recent years into a quiet ceremony held at dusk in the Scott Amphitheater. Following President Chopp’s remarks, Reid Wilkening ’10 welcomed the new class on behalf of the student body; Associate Professor of Sociology Sarah Willie-LeBreton spoke for the faculty; and Garakai Campbell ’90, acting dean of students and associate professor of mathematics, presided over the closing ceremony—a symbolic passing of the light, candle to candle, until each member of the entering class held his or her own light as darkness spread under the canopy of trees.

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