The Convocation for New Students and Families features an academic procession; recognition of faculty; and welcoming remarks by RIT President Bill Destler, new Senior Vice President for Student Affairs Sandra Johnson, and RIT Student Government President Ashley Carrington. Sean Hansen, assistant professor of management information systems in the Saunders College of Business and recipient of the 2013-2014 Richard and Virginia Eisenhart Provost’s Award for Excellence in Teaching, served as keynote speaker. The full text of his remarks is below.
Allow me to start by saying “Welcome!” I want you to understand that I don’t mean that in the off-hand, “hi” sort of way that we often use that word. I mean welcome in a more profound sense, as when we speak of parents welcoming a new child (rest assured, I’m not calling any of you children). We are so happy to have you join this community, because that is what we are—a community. Sure, this is an organization—a university, an institute—but at our core we’re really just a human community, tied together by shared values. Values such as collaboration and teamwork, innovation and the advancement of knowledge, respect for one another in all of our depth and richness of experiences, and above all else commitment to the intellectual and personal development of those who study here. As with any community, our vibrancy is conditioned on change—the regular infusion of new blood, new ideas, new perspectives. That’s what you bring to this community. You are the promise of growth and reinvention for us, and we vow to work every day to return the value that you provide. So, welcome to RIT!
When I was asked to give this address, I was extremely honored, but also a little apprehensive. How could I provide some small pearls of wisdom that would stick with you forever? Then, I realized that such a lofty goal was more than a little delusion of grandeur. Plus, I figure that introductory addresses involve much less pressure than commencement addresses, so I’ll just give you what I’ve got and you can make of it what you will.
Today I want to suggest four key principles that you might keep in mind as you start your RIT journey. Fortunately, these four principles reinforce one another.
The first principle is the one that I opened with: community. I’m a professor of management information systems. I recognize that most of you probably aren’t sure exactly what that means, and don’t worry I won’t try to explain it today. Just suffice it to say that in the study of systems, the connections between things—the relationships—matter as much as the things themselves. That idea is true of your university years as well. The relationships you form matter at least as much as the “things”—the books, the classes, the grades, all of that. Twenty years from now, you probably won’t remember the grade you got in Computer Science I or Differential Equations, but you just might remember who sat next to you, or the friend that helped you cram for the exam, and hopefully the professor who guided you through it.
For many of you, your college years will be your first extended time away from your family. While I recognize that can be daunting, I can also tell you that it holds an opportunity—the chance to create your own “family.” Before any of the parents in the audience freak out, let me explain what I mean. I mean you get to choose the people that you will surround yourself with, the close friendships which, if nurtured well, will last you a lifetime.
But to achieve that means that you have to jump in with both feet. You have to get involved—join clubs, participate in intramurals, get involved with this zombie hunt thing which has me dodging rampaging bands of students for a couple weeks every fall. Just get your hands dirty!
We are a technical university, so I know we have our share of introverts. You know who you are. Be proud of it, because we need all types of personalities here at RIT. But don’t let it stop you from reaching out to others—your peers, your advisors, and certainly your professors. Embed yourself within this community.
Jumping in requires some courage, and indeed that is the second principle I want to discuss. College is a time to build and exercise your courage. I’m not talking about the zombie hunt again, although I’m sure that’s quite scary. I’m talking about taking chances, doing things that you’re not quite sure are within your range. This might mean using an elective to take a class that is way outside your domain, or taking a leadership role in a class or a club, or starting a business.
Your time here is like a sandbox. You can test things out; try out different ideas. Sometimes you’ll succeed; sometimes you won’t. Either way, you can stomp out the castle and build a new and better one. Compared to the professional pursuits that lie ahead, this time is relatively low risk, so be courageous and explore.
On this point, I want to share with you a quote that is sometimes attributed to the great German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. I’m told that he never actually wrote it, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that the best way to connect with young adults in the 21st century is to reference 18th century German writers. Whoever said it first matters little, but the idea is valuable:
“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred … Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”
The third principle I have to offer today is curiosity. Ask questions. Challenge assumptions—especially your own. I don’t say this as a professor who dreads that moment of silence when I call for questions. Actually, I’m lying, that is part of my motivation. But the more important point is that questions are what move us forward as a society. Where would we be if Einstein had not been plagued by questions? Newton had already said it all. Why did Einstein feel the need to upset the apple cart? Because it was in his nature. The natural world was an endless source of wonder for him, and he could not help but ask questions and seek answers. I would like you to do the same, no matter what field of study you choose. This is what we call the idea of “constructive discontent”—not being satisfied, always looking for new opportunities.
When a professor says something that you don’t understand (or better yet, don’t agree with), ask a question. Pose a challenge, respectfully of course, but insistently as well. Your professors will frequently tell you, “If you have a question, chances are that someone else is thinking the same thing.” So be the curious (and courageous) one who puts voice to it. All of us will learn more as a result.
On my last principle, I’m cheating a bit, because it doesn’t easily start with a “c” and the other three did. So, for the sake of symmetry, I’m going call it caring. And what I mean by that is giving a … darn. Work hard. Try hard. My nephew tells me that that is a disparaging label that gets used in his school—“try-hard.” So and so is a “try-hard;” meaning that they are mocked for trying too hard in school. I just hate that. Now some of you are probably thinking, “Sure, he hates it. He’s obviously a try-hard.” But that isn’t why I hate it. I hate it, because we need the try-hards.
We need the people who are willing to pour themselves into a task; people who want to excel and are willing to invest the blood, sweat, and tears to achieve their goals; people who want to do something that nobody else has done before. Those are the innovators and the heroes!
I’m sure you’ve heard it before in many other aspects of your lives, but a university is really a place where you get out of it what you put into it. I am a member of the generation that has lamely been dubbed Generation X. We were the original “slackers.” I urge you to reject that element of your cultural inheritance. To counterbalance my pseudo-Goethe quote, I’ll offer you an insight from the great but diminutive 21st century philosopher, Kevin Hart: “Everybody wants to be famous, but nobody wants to put the work in.” That’s just not the way it works, unless your last name is Kardashian. In convocation sessions like this, we talk a lot about dreams. Indeed, dreams are important; we must aspire to something. But dreams without work tend to go unfulfilled. Work hard and you will achieve great things.
That is all I have to give in the way of wisdom. Now as you start this great new chapter in life, I would like you try a little exercise: Close your eyes (you don’t really have to, but it will be more fun if you do). You’re standing at the edge of a high-dive platform. It’s a little scary and you kind of have that uneasy feeling in your stomach. But down below, everybody’s having a good time—lots of games, a little bit of horseplay, you get the picture. Now jump in! The water is great, and there are plenty of people to help you if you happen to belly-flop.
So, again, welcome to your community. Welcome to RIT!