Keynote speaker addresses crowd at 2019 New Student Convocation

'Faculty member in regalia speaks at podium.'

A. Sue Weisler

Jennifer Connelly, lecturer in the School of Physics and Astronomy in the College of Science, was the keynote speaker at New Student Convocation on Aug. 21 in the Gordon Field House.

Jennifer Connelly, lecturer in the School of Physics and Astronomy in the College of Science, was the keynote speaker at New Student Convocation on Aug. 21 in the Gordon Field House. Below is the full text of her speech:

Good morning! Welcome Tigers and Tiger families and friends to our Community!

You’re going to receive a lot of information this week. When classes start, you’ll begin to receive even more; years’ worth of knowledge and insight, acquired inside and outside of the classroom. Some of that acquisition will feel like a slow and steady trickle. Other times, more like you are attempting to drink from a fire hose.

I’ve been asked to speak today about what incoming students can expect from the academic environment here at RIT and specifically, the partnerships between students and faculty. I will resist the urge to turn the fire hose on, telling you everything I have gleaned that could be called wisdom in this area over my past six years here, but instead I’ll give a few pieces of advice in more of a sprinkler effect – short, steady bursts.

I’m sharing today *collective wisdom*, having spent the last few weeks speaking with current students and recent graduates that I’ve had the honor to teach or mentor about how they view the partnerships between students and faculty here. What follows are the common themes from those discussions with a few of my own examples thrown in for support.

So, before switching on the sprinkler, I want to make clear that I am directly addressing the members of the incoming class. But, families and friends, and even my colleagues, I’m hoping you’ll be able to act as an external memory source of sorts for these students. They will be challenged here at RIT, and I am hoping you will be willing /able to remind them to think back to the advice offered here in their moments of struggle, self-doubt, loneliness, or even panic.

Ok, so let’s turn on the sprinkler of insight. There are a total of six settings.

  1. READ THE SYLLABUS. The faculty you take classes with will give you a contract on the first day of class to lay out expectations and requirements.

We call it a syllabus, which really just means list, but it is an outline of rights and responsibilities for both students and the instructor. The syllabus is a roadmap that gives details needed for students’ success and it encodes much of the philosophy of teaching of the instructor. Faculty can spend years refining one. Amazing! Aaand no one seems to want to read them. I get it. The language can be boring. They can be sooo long. I am working on making infographics versions of mine but, in whatever form you get them, read them all anyway. Perhaps aloud to your roommate in a theatrical manner if that helps and they are willing to listen. Just always read the syllabus. It connects you to faculty in ways that may not be obvious.

  1. Yes, YOU CAN GO TALK TO FACULTY.

You aren’t expected to have all the answers all the time. If you did, there’d be no need for professors. It’s also okay to not understand things on the first try and to *gasp* fail at some things.

And further, you don’t need to be struggling in a class to talk to the professor or go to their office hours. If you are interested in their research or something touched on in class, it's fine to talk with the professor about it. Communication does not have to be restricted to your questions about specific course content.

If you are worried about how to start a conversation, recall what the professor shared with you about themselves on the first day of class. Or look at what they’ve got in their office. I’ve got Legos in mine. Come build stuff. It can lead to deeper conversations and help build rapport that will translate to the classroom environment, too. 

And I tell my students on the first day of class that I am an observational astronomer. Remembering that may help motivate them to get up for that 8 a.m. class with me, knowing that I may have just spent the whole night before up taking data. Dedication can be contagious. So can excellence. Talk to your profs.

  1. YOUR FACULTY ARE NOT YOUR ONLY ACADEMIC RESOURCES.

There are lots of places where you can seek help -- academic or otherwise—at RIT. Not sure where the Academic Success Center is and what services are offered there? Inquire. Going there may help you with your calculus quiz prep or to build skills like better time management. There are many such invaluable sources of academic support that you should access without hesitation. They are for you, and everybody needs help. Your professors and advisors will be able to point you towards these resources so ask us if you aren’t sure where to go.

Also, study with others! You are in a stadium full of academic resources right now. Use all available resources.

  1. FIND MENTORS.

Some professors have active research programs. Some have extensive experience in industry. And some have expertise and passions that may not be obvious at first glance. I have a Ph.D. in astronomy, but I started out getting a bachelor’s in political science, as an example. Some faculty members have had amazing careers in everything from film to philosophy before ever arriving at RIT. As an example, I worked at the American Museum of Natural History in N.Y. with scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson. Some faculty are among the most well respected and influential minds and talents in their field. But here’s what’s most important for you to know right now, many are ACTUALLY willing to be your MENTORS. Yes, you. Even the students checking their phones right now.

Talk to faculty about what they're doing, what they're passionate about, the things they work on outside of classes/research, and the paths they've taken so far in their careers. This can be really helpful when you're thinking about your own future goals and allow you to identify possible mentors. That professor might have a T-A position they think you’d be great for. Perhaps they will write you a glowing recommendation letter someday, etc. Seeking mentoring early on will open doors for you. Find the courage to do it.

  1. REPRESENTATION MATTERS, and it's OK to seek out faculty that get you and that you relate to.

When I was an undergraduate student, I struggled to see myself as an astrophysicist, to feel like I belonged in the field.  At my small college there were no women faculty in physics and no faculty that I knew of who were out and proud. Those are both fundamental aspects of my identity that affected how I was and to some extent still am perceived.  Finding those role models and anchors can give you firmer footing in your field of study and in life in general. Seek them out. And never stop looking.

  1. Like students, FACULTY ARE HUMAN BEINGS and, as such, deserve respect and to be valued as whole, diverse people, with whole lives. They are not robots without feelings or flaws.

You may question this at times – maybe after you pluck up the courage to go to their office but they are too busy to talk or say after reading the syllabus -- but I promise it is true.

On my very first day teaching here, I was 10 minutes into my university astronomy class, talking about who I was, how incredibly excited I was to be teaching the topic, and digging into the syllabus, when a hand went up in a back row.

I called on the student, who then asked the following simple question, “When will the real professor be here?” To which I replied, “I am as real a professor as they come!” I could have easily said, “I am not a robot professor.” Now, this student probably didn’t mean any disrespect by their question. Talking with them later, it was clear they thought I was a staff assistant or graduate student because they had in mind a particular picture of what a physics professor is – a static image that I did not fit.

When someone assumes you are less qualified or competent than you are because of how you look or that you are nothing more than your role, you can feel less valued. It is so important that we all feel like we are valued and that we belong here at RIT and in our field of study. To help foster that, we need to remember that all of us, students, staff, and professors, are complex humans who bring many identities to RIT. We are also all humans who make mistakes.

So, at the end of my time here with you today, while I hope you will recall all of my points, I saved the end for what I think is the most important part of student-faculty partnerships – that we all bring with us different backgrounds, expertise, perspectives, experiences, and identities and that we strive to achieve excellence *together*. Sometimes we will stumble or hit road blocks. But, we are stronger and smarter, *together.* 

Knowing that, we’ve gotta be thoughtful and intentional in our words and deeds. We need to center kindness, compassion, and integrity. And be willing to work hard and learn continuously how to do even better.

Unlike wild Tigers, we do not lead solitary lives here at RIT. The partnerships you forge with faculty can be among the most empowering of your lives. And of theirs. I can’t wait to work with you and to see what we can accomplish together.

Thanks, and go get ’em, Tigers.