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Convocation 2015

President Michael A. Fitts Tulane University August 22, 2015

 

A heartfelt welcome to the class of 2019! And my first instruction will be…Please be seated.

So here you are, gathered as a class for the first time.

Right here, today, is where your lifelong membership begins in a global network and a new family – the Tulane family.

I can’t wait to learn more about you.

So I’ll get right to it.

I have a short survey for you.

So raise your hand if you know what you plan to major in at Tulane. (Pause.)

Very good.

It’s great to see that focus and determination.

Now, raise your hand if you don’t have a clue what your major will be. (Pause.)

That’s OK.

If history is a guide, half the people who said they were certain will change their minds anyway.

When I started college, I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do.

College – especially at Tulane – is about exploring.

Final question. Raise your hand if you’re just a little bit worried your parents will stay around and start following you to all the classes that you’re starting on Monday.

That’s OK.

That’s a natural concern.

This weekend, after all, you are participating in a time-honored tradition.

This is the storied moment when your parents drop you off at college for the first time.

So please - Help your parents get through this.

This is a big transition for them. (Pause)

So I can tell you, since my days as a student, the process of starting college has changed.

You probably visited campus while you were deciding on schools.

You attended orientation here over the summer.

You met your roommates at orientation, or online, or both, and started talking.

Your parents followed along, up to and including this convocation.

By contrast, when I arrived at college, my parents kicked me out of the car and drove away as fast as they could.

They were halfway down the highway before convocation even started.

So I applaud you for having a much closer relationship with your parents.

Not only that, but my arrival as a freshman was the first time I ever set foot in the place.

I found out who my roommates were when I met them in my room.

Back then, a school's idea of orientation was to point you to the bunk bed on top.

There was a big advantage, though, to the randomness in how I met my classmates.

It introduced me to backgrounds and perspectives I wasn’t expecting.

That included people from different parts of the country, different kinds of upbringing, political views, religions, talents and interests.

Meeting different types of people is the greatest way to test your own thinking and ideas, and to grow.

This opportunity makes the college experience unique.

Many of us spend the years before and after college surrounded by similar viewpoints.

At Tulane, we specialize in reaching across lines of thought and making connections, both intellectually and personally.

Our theme for this year at Tulane is Crossing Boundaries.

We do it with joint majors, study abroad, reaching into the community for public service and much more.

We’ve placed collaborations between schools among our highest values.

In the last year we’ve been rethinking and redoing our undergraduate program to tie different aspects of college life more closely together – integrating living and learning.

We also reach across the country with one of the most national student bodies.

I once attended a commencement at a college in the Northeast where a speaker said, “We’re one of the most diverse institutions around.

We have students coming from every county in New Jersey.” (Pause.) No offense to New Jersey. I love New Jersey.

Here at Tulane, our students across the undergraduate student body come from every state and more than 85 countries.

Tulane students travel on average 900 miles from home—farther than any other student body in the country.

So, although you’re more prepared than I was, Tulane will deliver new experiences.

Your job is to seize this chance to see the world from other angles.

And let me underscore: when people come together to share ideas and blend approaches, that’s how the world changes.

As the rising leaders of the 21st century, you will need this background to take on the big challenges.

Top economists predict the most successful people will be those who combine different skills.

Engineers who have backgrounds in the humanities.

Artists who know computer programming.

The world advances when creative people join forces with people skilled at turning ideas into realities.

You see this in countless stories about innovations that changed our lives and how they came into existence.

Look at the World Wide Web.

A visionary computer programmer worked with an adept project manager.

They complemented each other.

The web thrived out of the harmony of their partnership.

At Tulane, you, too, can make gainful connections, through several outlets.

- As you heard, choose classes that are unfamiliar and varied.

Our unified Newcomb-Tulane College encourages this.

- Embrace Tulane’s commitment to public service.

This introduces you to a New Orleans community like no other and shows you how knowledge applies in the field.

- Dive into extracurricular activities that exercise different aspects of your mind and body.

- Get involved with research.

It’s not just for graduate students.

At Tulane, undergraduates are deeply engaged. (Pause)

I can tell you, college gave me some incredibly eye-opening experiences.

I was on the wrestling team – hard to believe.

I served as a research assistant to a professor.

Perhaps most memorable of all, though, was the time I helped intervene in a prison uprising. (Pause.)

Now, parents listening might be getting a little worried about where I’m going with this.

I assure you, I will not recommend your children get in the middle of prison riots.

I’m pretty sure my parents didn’t even know what I was up to.

Prisoners at a nearby detention center staged a takeover to protest conditions there.

Then the guards went on strike.

Teams of volunteer observers went to meet the prisoners and calm the crisis.

A professor suggested I might join in.

So I went.

I talked to the guys.

I heard about their daily lives.

I never thought I would learn much from spending time with convicted criminals.

Listening to them, however, reminded me of their humanity.

It showed me their experience of the world wasn’t so alien to my own.

This episode broadened my intellectual horizons in quite surprising and unexpected ways.

Again, I’m not saying you need to do the same thing.

Really, I’m not.

But I can tell you – for new perspectives, you have come to the right place.

I am starting my second year in New Orleans.

One of the most powerful things I noticed when I arrived was the creativity of this storied city.  

Tulane simply wouldn’t be Tulane if it was in Cleveland.

(My apologies to anyone from Cleveland. It's a lovely city.)

But New Orleans was, after all, the place with the right mix of cultures to produce jazz music, a distinctly American art form.

Collaboration and improvisation have flourished here for generations.

The city and university also share a striking mix of tradition and innovation.

Streetcars have clattered along St. Charles Avenue by Tulane’s campus longer than any other such line in the U.S.

Yet, in the last 10 years especially, New Orleans also wins attention for giving rise to the new.

Tulane and New Orleans are intertwined as symbols of determination and innovation in the era since Hurricane Katrina.

Surely, you’ll hear a lot about Katrina this week.

Now that we have 10 years of perspective, we know the city has reinvented itself in so many ways.

National observers call New Orleans a top center for entrepreneurship.

Tulane and its students have been deeply involved all along.

We attract adventurers.

We attract risk-takers.

That’s why you are here.

You are among the explorers.

To start harnessing your dynamism, I’m going to issue you a challenge.

Spend the next month exploring Tulane and New Orleans.

Take pictures of places that intrigue you.

They can be the grandest locations or the finest details.

Submit your best images to the president’s website by Sept. 12th.

I will share some of the pictures online and select five of my favorites.

Then I’ll host the creators of the winning photos and two friends each for lunch at one of the most famous New Orleans restaurants, Commander’s Palace.

A quick warning about places like Commander’s Palace.

You’ve probably heard about the Freshmen 15. Fifteen pounds.

As I enter my sophomore year, I can attest that with all the glorious food around town, you might look out for the Tulane 20.

Now, before you step outside here today, there’s another tradition I invite you to join.

You will see the Victory Bell. It’s right behind you.

We ring it to celebrate Tulane athletic victories and other major occasions.

Your arrival qualifies as one of these momentous times.

So as you pass the Victory Bell, touch it.

You will join all the Tulanians who passed before you.

You, now, are Tulane.

You are initiated into this vast network of accomplished and compassionate people.

You are adding to the fabric of one of the most colorful and interesting places in the world.

To symbolize your new membership in this network, on your way out you also will receive a Class of 2019 commemorative token.

This is inspired by a venerable New Orleans tradition - doubloons that Carnival parading organizations give to the crowds to mark their annual celebrations.

Hold on to this as a marker of this moment, your arrival here.

Let’s keep creating this community together.

Welcome, not just to college, but to our family—the Tulane family. ---------------------------