Convocation 2014 Speech

August 23, 2014

Members of the class of 2018, I'm going to begin our relationship by asking you to humor me with a poll. I know you've spent most of the last few days humoring a lot of people—well meaning parents and relatives, impatient siblings, and what must seem like an indecipherable array of campus administrators. I promise we all mean well and I also promise that this won't take long.

Raise your hand if you're from Louisiana. [pause]  

Raise your hand if you're coming from another part of the country. [pause]

Raise your hand if, in the last 24 hours, you've watched one or both of your parents cry. [pause]

Now raise your hands if you're a little bit worried your parents might not go home. [pause]

And finally, raise your hands if you're wondering whether you really should've delayed this whole college thing and taken that backpacking trip across Europe. [Pause] Go on, I won't judge.

Well I am here today to tell you that those feelings and experiences are normal and you've made the right choice. Not just by coming to college, but by coming to Tulane.

Whether you have made your way to New Orleans from Metairie or Milan, from California or Kalamazoo; from Boston or Belize: You are now a member of an incomparable family—the Tulane family.

It is an intellectually daring and innovative family that will challenge you to justify your ideas and beliefs.

It's a supportive and resilient family that celebrates its matchless traditions, all while building a better world. You are now a Tulanian for life. Welcome home.

And so lets hear it now, for the first of hundreds of times. ROLL WAVE!! We can do better than that—let's do it again. With some feeling now: ROLL WAVE.

Let me also start with a confession. I have a special insight into how you must be feeling right now because we're in the same boat. I am also a freshman at Tulane—a freshman president.

I may be a little more wrinkled than your classmates. Okay—a lot more wrinkled.

But, like you I am unbelievably excited and inspired by this venerable institution—and inspired by all the opportunities that await us here.

Like you, I've mapped out a 5-step plan to avoid the well-known freshman 15—pounds that is. And to avoid creating a new tradition—the Fitts 40.

And, like you, I packed my bags this summer and relocated from the place of my birth, a city where I spent almost all my adult life, to come to this university.

I made this decision for a simple reason. Tulane is magical.

It is a place that will profoundly transform who you are today and how you live the rest of your life. It impels you to engage like no other institution in the United States: intellectually, socially, professionally—even gastronomically.

Tulane and New Orleans are incubators for change and innovation. That is what education and personal growth are all about. How should you take advantage of this once in a lifetime opportunity?

As you heard, embrace Tulane's one-of-a-kind resources—its students, faculty, staff and location. They—and their diversity—will serve you well. It's that diversity that allows you to get a wider perspective on almost everything. I have learned again and again in my own life that escaping my preexisting mindset invariably gives you richer experiences. Given my background, I've been lucky enough to have had these kinds of encounters time and time again.

My father and his family grew up on a farm in rural Tennessee. My mother, a Quaker—one of the first women of her generation to earn a college degree—was raised in a secluded suburb a few miles away from the predominantly African American neighborhood in Philadelphia, where I grew up. My wife is from a New York neighborhood inhabited by Eastern European immigrants. Our family spans the breadth of religions—Jewish, Catholic, Presbyterian, Quaker, and last but not least, Agnostic. And our politics range from the left to the right. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, right? But you know what, I am decidedly a more thoughtful person for knowing, arguing and connecting with this sweeping range of personalities. So pay attention to the people you meet over these next few weeks—they are individuals who may make a profound and lasting difference in your life, and potentially the world. (You might even meet the most important person in your life—your future partner. As you've heard, Tulane is a very friendly place.)

At Tulane you have the opportunity for these sorts of experiences like no other school in the country.

Tulane attracts more students from more than 300 miles away than any other institution. That speaks volumes about the range of ideas, philosophies, and yes, even dialects you'll find in this community. So in addition to your future partner, you may also meet, as classes before you have, future:

- Nobel & Pulitzer Prize Winners
- Supreme Court Justices
- Heads of State
- Major Hollywood Actors, Writers & Directors
- Pro Athletes and even …
- Astronauts.

(Tulane is really out of this world.)

And outside Tulane's campus is a city that is testament to what is possible when people of different backgrounds come together. It's a place built upon European, African, South American and Asian influences that symbolize the American melting pot—and what it can create. This intersection between people and ideas makes New Orleans famous around the world for its music and history, its culture and spirit. This diversity is the gumbo that makes this city so special.

Of course, that is why Tulane asks that you to immerse yourself in the city. We are the only university in the country that requires its undergraduates to pursue public service. It is why Tulane is at the center of the renaissance of New Orleans—we are building houses, writing business plans, tutoring in the school system—the list is infinite. That is how Tulanians over the years have developed the skills and philosophies to succeed in life and make a difference in the world.

You should also employ the same determination to your classes. Sorry—you knew I would say that, but it is absolutely true. We have a world-class faculty. Engage them. Indeed, take a few classes and pursue fields that you might find scary. In high school I was a wrestler. Wrestlers spend weeks and months training. But the difference between good wrestlers and great wrestlers happens in the last two minutes of the match. It's the point when your muscles have grown weary, and the other wrestler—uncannily—is starting to look a whole lot bigger. The great wrestlers summon every ounce of strength in this last, difficult moment.

That quality is a thing called grit. Social scientists tell us that the greatest determinant of success, in school and life, isn't necessarily your intelligence or creativity—it is your grit: your ability to persevere against the obstacles that will come your way in life. So, put yourself in situations that will require you to summon your strength. If you're an aspiring scientist—take that Spanish literature course. If you're an English major, take the time to develop a rigorous understanding of economics. Crossing academic boundaries expands your mind and gives you perspective on life. Tulane specializes in these academic opportunities. And if you don't succeed magnificently the first time you pursue such a course, you can easily explain the situation to your parents: Mom and Dad, I was just developing my grit.

Of course, it goes without saying that Tulane and New Orleans have grit—like no other community. We rose out of the devastation of Katrina and rebuilt ourselves into social and innovative role models for the country. Tenacity is in the DNA of this institution and this city. It's a powerful example from which we all can learn. As much as anything, it is why I decided to come to Tulane.

Since my arrival I have explored our campus and city and found special places that, to me, express the magic and uniqueness of our new home. This has inspired me to present you with an unusual presidential challenge—to spend the next month matching your knowledge about Tulane and New Orleans with my own.

Submit photographs of your favorite spot at Tulane or in the city to me at by September 23. Not necessarily famous locations, but ones that are meaningful to you, that illustrate the grandeur, the diversity, the grit and the innovation of the Tulane or New Orleans community. I will post all the submissions, that is, all those that are appropriate enough for your grandparents—and choose two that are the most memorable and unique. I'll host the creators of those photos and two of their friends for dinner at that famous New Orleans restaurant: Commander's Palace.

Members of the class of 2018, I recognize your talents and see your potential for greatness. And let there be no doubt: You made the right move. We made the right move. We ended up at a university that is unlike any other educational institution in the country. Tulane is a place that will change us for the better—intellectually and professionally and personally. And will enable us to succeed in life and to make a difference in the world. That is what the college is about. So congratulations. You are engaged, you're inquisitive, you're curious. You are evergreen. You are Tulane. Welcome to the family.