President's Speeches & Writings

Welcome to the Denison Class of 2023

by

Adam S. Weinberg

August 25, 2019
Students chatting on the academic quad

To the Denison Class of 2023: 

Welcome to Denison, welcome to Granville and welcome to college! You are now Denisonians. As I start my seventh year at Denison, I am keenly aware of how deeply I have fallen in love with this college. I am excited for you. I want you to have a great four years, but, more importantly, I want you to have a four-year experience that helps you develop the agency and autonomy to become the architect of your life. 

The power of a Denison education happens as you become highly engaged in the academic experience, focused on one or two co-curriculars, and surround yourself with peers, faculty and staff who challenge you in different ways. 

Let me put some context around this. There are 4,000 colleges and universities in the United States. Private residential liberal arts colleges occupy a unique place in the higher education landscape.

It starts with a total focus on undergraduate education. We have no graduate programs or medical centers. Our sole focus is on providing students with an undergraduate education. But not just any education. We immerse students in a challenging, engaging, and broad-based education that develops a set of attributes that allows graduates to think critically, understand profoundly and connect broadly. 

We want you to learn to write and communicate; work with numbers and data; weave disparate ideas into new ways of thinking; frame questions; solve puzzles and problems; connect with a broad range of people and ideas; and identify and follow a line of logic.  

But, as worthy as those abilities are, the power of the liberal arts is much deeper. Over the next four years, we want to help you create a way of being in the world. Liberal arts students experience the beauty and meaning of intellectual pursuits; rigorous scholarship and sharp thinking; the thrill of knowledge for its own sake; and the impact of learning when standards are high and classmates are engaged with the course material and each other. 

Of course, this type of learning extends across campus. We require students to live on campus, because we believe campus life deepens liberal arts learning. Athletics, residential halls, the arts, campus organizations and other co-curricular activities serve as design studios for students to further develop and practice liberal arts skills, values, and habits. We also believe that there is something powerful about living with high-achieving peers who are committed to the liberal arts, who want to do well in life, and who bring a wide range of views, perspectives and life experiences to campus. Students challenge and learn from one another.

Lastly, liberal arts colleges differ from many other forms of education in that we purposefully strike a balance between the individual and community. We want to provide students with the skills, values, habits, networks, and experience to succeed in life. And we seek to instill within students a sense that we all should strive to do this in ways that contribute beyond ourselves. 
 
Here is my advice on how to use the gift you have given yourself, a Denison education, to become the architect of your life. 
 
First, devote your time at Denison to four primary activities:

  • Make your academic courses the centerpiece of your college experience. Nothing is more important. Academics are why colleges exist. The liberal arts can strengthen and open your mind and imagination in powerful and life transforming ways, but only if you take advantage of the opportunity to immerse yourself in the academics. This means taking a wide range of classes and prioritizing your academic work. Our classes are small and we use active pedagogies. But classrooms only work if students come prepared to be fully engaged. At a large college with lecture classes, participation is optional. At Denison, the quality of the academic experience is shaped by the faculty, but also by the commitment and engagement of every student in every class. 

    Let me place a huge footnote on this priority - placing courses front and center is not about grades, but rather about taking a wide range of challenging classes and getting the most from each of them. Find power and joy in the books you read, the papers you write, the discussions you have in class, and the conversations with faculty in and outside of the classroom.

  • Get involved in co-curricular activities – but not overly involved. Denison students are doers, and much learning comes from co-curricular involvement. But the goal is not to do a large number of things but to learn to do a small number of things well. Value depth, commitment and excellence, and avoid busyness for the sake of busyness. The learning and fun from co-curriculars come from being committed, and working with others to win games, put on performances, improve campus, and so forth.
  • Savor the intellectual and cultural events. Our campus is filled with extraordinary intellectual and cultural events, including lectures, plays, concerts, art openings, and panel conversations. Don’t lose sight of this amazing part of college life. Intellectual and cultural experiences expand your mind, imagination and world views. Attend a Vail concert, check out performances at the new Eisner Center, and/or attend lectures and events that expose you to new perspectives. Savor the plethora of unique opportunities to be exposed to people, ideas and artistic expressions that provide ways of seeing the world, or some part of it, in an entirely new way. 
  • Focus on career exploration, especially between semesters: Denison should help you develop ideas for the kind of life you want to live; an understanding for how careers allow people to build lives; and to acquire the skills, values, habits, networks, and experiences to successfully get started post-graduation. Use the academic courses, co-curriculars, and campus events to examine unfamiliar topics and help you identify and explore interests and passions. And also use part of your time at Denison to engage with the Knowlton Center. Do this early and do it often. The Knowlton Center will help you focus on career related programs, connect with alumni, and have experiences that will enhance career exploration, preparation and launching. Make career exploration and the Knowlton Center a priority. The best part of the Knowlton Center is that it allows you to major in anything you want. Take the courses that interest and challenge you, while allowing the Knowlton Center to help you take what you have learned and translate it into an internship or first job.

Second, your ability to effectively do these four things will be greatly enhanced if you do the following:

  • Seek out faculty and staff who will challenge you. Our faculty and staff care about our students and want to see them excel. As such, they provoke, inspire and demand, as a way to lead students in a process of self-discovery, personal growth, and learning. They won’t always tell you what you want to hear or give you what you want. Faculty and staff will purposefully push you to develop attributes that will help you develop the agency and autonomy needed to thrive both in college and beyond. This isn’t always going to be easy, but it will be both purposeful and powerful. We believe that our students are outstanding and have incredible potential – and faculty and staff are here to challenge you to that potential.   
  • Develop a wide set of friendships, especially with people who are different from you. Friendships run deep at Denison. Typically, students start by developing friendships with people who have similar life experiences, but that should be the starting point, not the end goal. Denison works best when students seek out and form friendships with people who have a different set of life experiences and world views. This means proactively seeking out those peers in residential halls, classrooms, and other campus venues who see and live in the world differently than you. The wider your network of friends, the more you will learn from your peers.  
  • Develop good life habits. Liberal arts colleges are designed to develop whole people. Life habits are crucial, especially allocating time for relaxation and sleep; committing to nutrition and exercise; and avoiding the traps of technology by putting your phones down, unplugging from social media and spending more face-to-face time with friends. We are also going to talk to you about emotional agility, which refers to a mindset that gives people the resiliency, perseverance and tools to transform challenge into success. Take advantage of the mindfulness and wellness programs we will be running this year.
  • Learn to Fail Forward. Part of a transformative college experience is learning to see and use stumbles and failure as part of the process of self-discovery, personal development, and eventual achievement. Everything is not going to go well all of the time. When things don’t go well, avoid the temptation of believing that everybody else is succeeding at every aspect of their life, while you are not. It’s not true! College is about growing as a person. This happens as you challenge yourself at a high level and in new ways. Failing is a normal, healthy, and positive part of doing this well. When things don’t go well, follow the advice above: seek out faculty and staff who can help you learn from the experience, participate in some of the programs we are offering across campus on developing good life habits, and be with peers. And most of all, try again.

And third, as you are doing all of this, help us create and recreate a strong community at Denison. We depend upon members of our community understanding, appreciating, enjoying and respecting the differences that are a huge strength of Denison’s, while also seeing beyond the differences to find the connections that create a campus community of Denisonians. Be excited to connect with and to learn from each other, but most of all treat one another with respect and kindness as members of a single community. Connect with others who might be struggling. And express yourself in ways that are mindful of how others might hear you. Cultural competency and appreciation for cultural, political, intellectual and other forms of pluralism are core to your Denison education and to preparing for life after Denison.  
 
College is not a spectator sport. The college experience you have will be the one you create. 

Your time here will not always be easy. You are going to have to balance challenging classes, time consuming co-curriculars, and myriad relationships with peers. There will be lots of fun moments and lots of deep friendships formed. But also remember that much of the self-discovery, personal growth, and learning comes as a result of the stuff that does not go as planned – especially the missteps, struggles, and failures. 
 
I am a product of the liberal arts. As I look back on my life, the lives of my friends and the students who I have worked with over the years, it is clear to me that a liberal arts education will help you identify the kind of life you want to lead. And it has the power to help you develop the skills, values, and habits that you will bring to that life and be successful. You are about to experience a type and caliber of education that every student deserves, but very few receive. Take advantage of it.  

Lastly, a plea. You will see me around campus, and when I ask how things are going, it is not a rhetorical question. I really want to know. I am excited to welcome you to Denison and excited to get to know you. I will also ask you, if you are forging friendships with people on campus whose life experiences are different from your own and if you are taking a wide range of classes.

May you cultivate habits of mind, share in our commitment to community, and embrace the values of our mission statement as autonomous thinkers, discerning moral agents, and active citizens of a democratic society.  Welcome to Denison!!
 

Read more of Adam Weinberg's speeches and writings.