As I write this blog on Labor Day, I am looking forward to the next day when fall semester classes will begin. For me a campus during the time period after summer sessions are over and before fall student move-in/the first day of classes is lacking in energy. I’m not suggesting that administrators lack energy; they don’t, but without students and without faculty, a campus has lost its heart and soul.
This time of year is exciting to me for another reason. Despite hurricane Irene, my excitement has nothing to do with now being hurricane season or the fact that the end is in sight for the hot and humid weather. Instead it is because on the Friday before classes begin, I had the opportunity to address new undergraduate students and this is often my favorite speech of the year. What do I say to these students who are less than half my age? What do I say to this group of students who are so different from the Baby Boomers that I grew up with? What should my message be?
My message has varied over the years. Last year, I spoke about the importance of academic honesty and why cheating and plagiarism has no place on a University campus. We know that plagiarism is unfortunately part of the fabric of many high schools and often is also present in middle school. We know that often it can start with parents being overly zealous in helping with homework; or it can start with students looking for the easy way out — copying takes less effort than learning; or on occasion, it even can originate from teachers being overly zealous in this environment when more and more they are being judged by their students’ test scores. However it starts, the message must be clearly delivered that students will be judged on their own work and that academic dishonesty and plagiarism will not go unnoticed and of course there will be consequences. I also spoke last year about the importance of diversity, all kinds of diversity, in promoting the best possible education. We all benefit from the value of difference; different points of view, a multiplicity of voices, different backgrounds, different orientations, multiple perspectives all serve to broaden our horizons and help us better understand the world we live in.
This year’s speech once again had a focus on diversity. I just feel that the importance of a respect for diversity needs to permeate all that we do and all that we say. But my other main theme this year was the opportunities that higher education provides to expand horizons, discover new fields, and stretch outside of your comfort zone at what is an ideal time in a new undergraduate’s life to do so. Courses as varied as ballroom dancing and personal finance enlighten and shape students. Others such as interpersonal communication, stress management, LGBT studies, contemporary art, and animal ethics all serve to increase understanding and expand horizons.
And how do I package my themes so that I can more easily relate to our new students? What I share with many of our new students is a passion for the Harry Potter books and films. I begin with comparing my years of service with Dumbledore’s years as headmaster of Hogwarts and end with a comment that Dumbledore makes to Harry about the importance of the choices we make. In between I make the critical points noted above. Without a spell or a potion, I’m not sure that the message always gets through but I know the message makes a difference and I hope the students were listening.
P.S. For a copy of the speech, please click here.