Scott Amphitheater, Swarthmore College
Tuesday, August 23, 2016
One of the most popular stories of orientation features a forbidding figure – a dean or a distinguished professor -- looking out at a room full of first-year students. The person at the podium surveys the students – usually a dean or a professor – and then says – “look to your right, look to your left. By the end of the academic year, one of you will be gone.” This story is meant to strike fear into the hearts of the students, to drive home the fact that they have just entered a cutthroat, competitive environment. Everyone is a rival; trust no one, because the number of spots is limited and the person sitting next to you may well be in yours. There are so many versions of this story – the Harvard Law School, Columbia Business School version – that one might actually doubt that anyone ever really said it. But in fact, I heard those very words when I was a graduate student in English at the University of Virginia more years ago than I care to count. This is a story that advises students to close themselves off from each other.
Thank goodness the days of those kinds of orientation speeches are long gone. I’m not up here to warn you that either the person on your right or the one on your left will be gone by the end of the year, and I don’t think any of the other speakers is planning to say that either! We admitted you, and we are committed to ensuring that you will all succeed.
I want to use my time with you this afternoon to encourage you to be open – to people you don’t know and who may be very different from you and from anyone else you’ve ever met; to ideas, no matter how unfamiliar; and to experiences, even if they are outside of your comfort zone. That spirit of openness is critical to a liberal arts education, and it will allow you to be transformed during your time here.
As I’ve met with alumni around the country and internationally, they often remark that they made their most important and long-lasting friendships or met their life partner either among their classmates or within the larger student body right here at Swarthmore. As much as they valued the academic experience and the extraordinary education they received here, they will often say that the relationships they forged here, with their peers, with faculty, with members of the administration or the staff, transformed their lives and made them the people they are today.
So let me challenge you to a different exercise from the classic one. Look to your left, look to your right, look behind you, look in front of you, look down the row, and if you want stand up and look around this entire amphitheatre. There are people in this place who will become some of your closest friends, and those friendships will last your lifetime. Your life partner may be in this place. There are people here who will expand your view of the world. And the beauty and the wonder of this moment is that right now, you don’t know who those people will be. My challenge to you today, as you enter a new world, and stand on the verge of this next stage in your life, is to be open to everyone you meet.
Take advantage of the intimacy of our community to greet people you don’t know, your classmates, students in other class years, faculty members, members of the dining staff, the facilities and ground crew, administrators, the arboretum staff, visitors to campus. At a minimum greet them, and when time permits, engage them in conversation, listen attentively to what they have to say and tell them something about yourself. In that way you will help to build the kind of warm community we seek to foster, and you will open yourself up to the rich opportunities this place has to offer.
Let this spirit of openness infuse your entire experience here. I encourage you to be curious about new ideas and areas of study. This is your time to take a course in a department that is totally unfamiliar to you but about which you have some curiosity. If art history is your passion, take a course in biology. If you know you want to study economics, take a philosophy course. If you are a budding physicist, take a course in political science.
This is your time to engage in conversation with people who may hold different religious, cultural, political or philosophical views and beliefs than you. These conversations need not be threatening. They have the potential to overturn stereotypes, add nuance to your opinions, or perhaps even change your mind.
This is your time to explore the world around you. Start with our beautiful campus. Take advantage of the fact that the natural environment has many lessons to teach us and provides us with places for reflection and contemplation. And take advantage of our proximity to Philadelphia to experience the cultural riches the city has to offer.
The experience of being new to a place reminds us that life is always full of wonder and serendipity. When we’re new we are reminded of the joy that comes from encountering the unexpected if we allow ourselves to remain open to unfamiliar experiences, and if we welcome the strangers among us.
During my sophomore year of college I made one of the most important decisions of my life. I decided to spend my junior year abroad, and went off to Oxford England. I’d never been out of the country before then – had never even been on a plane, so this experience took me way out of my comfort zone. But the experience of uprooting myself and coming to feel at home in a different country had a powerful impact on me. It gave me confidence in my ability to navigate new situations, and it turned me into someone who loves to travel. During my travels since then I have met so many people who have extended their kindness and hospitality to me, that it has made me (to borrow a phrase from the book of Hebrews) “careful to entertain strangers.”
At this moment when you’re new to Swarthmore, remember that, as the poet Emily Dickinson writes, we
dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –
Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –
Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –
As I look out on all of you I am reminded of the wonder of possibility. I’m eager to get to know you and to see how we evolve as we settle into this community. May all of us remain open to what this new world has to offer us - the grand opportunities and the chance encounters, the soaring triumphs as well as the moments of despair. May we draw inspiration from the words the poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes in The Book of Hours:
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
In our next four years together, let us be open to change one another, to change ourselves, and to accept that it is in the unknowing that we come to know and become our truest selves.