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First Collection 2009: Rebecca Chopp

In welcoming the Class of 2013, President Rebecca Chopp invoked the College's founders, who "believed that every one should tend his/her own conscience, to 'mind the light' within oneself. "Tonight," she added, "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." Joining President Chopp at the event were Reid Wilkening '10, sociology professor Sarah Willie-LeBreton, and Acting Dean Garikai Campbell '90.

President Chopp's full remarks

Welcome to Swarthmore College.  It is my pleasure as president to greet you on behalf of the faculty, students, staff, board of managers and alumni of this remarkable place. Like you, I am new to Swarthmore. Over the last several months I have been reading Swarthmore history and talking to people on campus. Some describe this place as "an endless conversation" or as one of "the finest scholarly communities in the nation," others talk about the respect persons have for one another in this warmly welcoming and diverse community. Through all the histories and all the conversations the commitment to provide the best possible education to students always comes first.

Many people invest of themselves to make sure you get the most of your Swarthmore education.  Our faculty, who are distinguished at teaching and research, will challenge and support you to do your best and to set your goals high. You have already experienced the incredible effectiveness of our admissions staff and the Dean's office. You will come to know those who work in our kitchens, who care for our grounds and facilities, who support our technology and our libraries, and who steward our borough, who are also dedicated to making sure you flourish here. Our alumni, including our board of managers, invest their time and resources to assure that you will join their ranks in four years. Thousands of Swarthmoreans, from the founders of this college to the current faculty, staff and alumni, want you to find truth, goodness and beauty through the life you live in and out of the classrooms of this community.

This gathering, First Collection, ushers you into the community by celebrating Swarthmore's distinct heritage and values. Tonight I want to tell you briefly about one of our founders as a way of initiating you as bearers of our traditions and aspirations both as a student, and in four years, as a proud Swarthmore graduate.

She was 4'11" and weighed not quite 90 lbs. Over the course of her life time, 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 Fall's Declaration of Sentiment" at the first women's right convention, which she and Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized in 1848. Elected as a delegate to the World Anti-Slavery Conference in London in 1840, she and several other women were denied their seats. Finally a throne-like chair was built at the back for her so she could participate. As an unintended consequence of being placed on the margins of the convention, she had a unique space from which to speak and to guide many of the delegates. She came to be known as the "Lioness of the Convention."  Today Lucretia Mott is revered as the progenitor of women's political advocacy and social action in this country.

In 1864 Lucretia Mott joined John Hicks and others to found Swarthmore. These Hicksite Quakers were devoted to seeking and applying truth, to equality and simplicity, social justice, generous giving, the peaceful settlement of disputes and respect for the natural world. These are the same values we strive to live today. Our founders believed that every one 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.

Liberal arts colleges were founded to pursue knowledge as the means to educate citizens to build the common good in this country and, at Swarthmore, minding the light joins moral questing to the intellectual quest. Gene Lang, emeritus chair of our Board of Managers whom I hope you will have a chance to meet, has said, "The philosophy of Liberal Arts is the philosophy of a democratic society in which citizenship, social responsibility and community are inseparable."  The Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility supports our students and faculty building the common good through community based learning, social transformation, internships and community-based partnerships in our country and around the world. Our students and faculty actively engage in minding the light both intellectually and morally.

One of the most fascinating aspects of our heritage is our distinct way of living together in community. For our founders living in community meant learning to be rigorous in self-reflection and continuous in the acquisition of knowledge. But the individual can accomplish this only by respectfully listening to others, by patiently conversing with those who hold different opinions, by peacefully settling our differences even as we engage in what the philosopher Michael Sandel calls a clamorous dialogue. "Getting a sense of the meeting," another phrase from the Quaker tradition, expresses the process by which we discover and build the common good in our search for truth, goodness and beauty.

Our founders believed in simple living for the individual and our community. While the contemporary version of simple living cannot be the same as theirs, I hope you will join me this year in thinking seriously about how we can live simply as a way of modeling sustainable living. Can we live more simply with our earth, seeking to sustain the environment and enjoy the beauty of the good earth? Can we live more simply in this community as we face the fiscal restructuring underway around the globe, in this country and on this campus? Can each one of us engage in sustainable living by taking seriously her or his health and well-being and reflect on how our own choices can effect others?

Our community, like the beautiful arboretum in which is it is located, is varied, dense, lush, ever changing, intense, casual and here for us to enrich and enjoy. Use our seven libraries, explore our unique honors program, dance, sing, perform and get serious with ultimate frisbee or soccer. Join the debate team, hunt for pterodactyls, engage in the primal scream, and cheer on our dedicated athletes. Challenge each other and yourself, try to see the world through the lenses of others, experiment and take risks, listen intently with your heart and head.

Walt Whitman, a great friend of many of our founders, represents someone who lived Swarthmore values and aspirations without being a Hicksite Quaker. Let me close my remarks with his short poem entitled Beginning my Studies from Leaves of Grass published in 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 awed me and pleased 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 ecstatic songs.

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 2009: Rebecca Chopp

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