President's Speeches & Writings:

Imagining Your Denison Experience: A Message to Our Incoming Students

President's Office
August 24, 2014

Welcome to Denison, to Granville, and to college!

In coming to Denison, you have made a wise decision.

You have selected a college where people make life-long friends. Chances are you are sitting a few feet from someone you do not know, who will become a close friend for the rest of your life.

You also have selected a college where students develop incredibly close relationships with their faculty. Student-faculty relationships run deep here. They anchor the student experience.

And you have selected a college where people follow their life-long passions, develop new passions and, at graduation, look back with pride on what they have accomplished, with nostalgia for how much fun it has been, and with excitement for what Denison has prepared them to do with their lives.

If you take advantage of Denison, it will open opportunities and ways of being that you cannot even imagine. Or, as an alumnus said to me last year, “If you love this college, it will love you back.”

At Denison, there are multiple paths to your education. You are going to be the architect of your own Denison experience. I offer three pieces of advice. Or, stated slightly differently, I ask three things of you. This is my charge to the Denison Class of 2018:

First, take full advantage of the academic journey.

Your classes are the foundational element of your education. You have chosen to come to a liberal arts college. At its root, a liberal arts education gives you a broad-based education that seeks to develop the whole person. We want to help you become a human being who can think critically, understand profoundly, and connect broadly.

The historian William Cronon defines the liberally educated person as someone who is possessed with some simple but rare qualities. They can listen and hear, read and understand, talk with anyone, write clearly and persuasively and movingly, solve a wide variety of puzzles and problems, and respect rigor as a way of seeking truth. They act from a place of respect and humility, treating others with tolerance and practicing self-criticism. Because they possess these qualities, they are people who understand how to get things done in the world, nurture and empower the people around them, and see the connections that help one to make sense of the world and act in creative ways.

The essence of your education will come from learning to ask the right questions. Answers are important, but only if you get the questions right. Getting the questions right turns out to be the hard part. To do this, you have to tap into your sense of wonder and your creativity.

The faculty who will guide you on this journey are among the best educators in the world. They are master teachers who came to Denison because they believe in the power of the student-faculty interaction. My biggest piece of advice is to dive into your classes and get to know your faculty. They are amazing and they care deeply about students. They are the best faculty in the country, bar none.

Second: Seek out challenges. These are what you will remember most.

Every semester, make it a point to seek out a few experiences that push you outside your comfort zone. Take a class that you are not sure you will like. Or maybe even take a class you are not sure you can pass. Make it a point to participate in a campus activity that will show your vulnerabilities. Life is so much easier once you get over the fear of being embarrassed!

Do this in your interactions too. Make it a point to sit with people you do not know and strike up a conversation before class. Find the person in your residence hall whose life experiences are most different from your own and work to develop a friendship. Seek out professors and peers whose views threaten you from your very core and learn to hear them.

Do not be afraid to fail. The Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho wrote, “There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.” The athlete Michael Jordan once said, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

Recently, a member of the Denison community said to me, “In our best moments, members of the Denison community provoke each other. We inspire, demand and challenge each other to get out of our comfort zones, move away from our myopic views of the world, and take a chance on believing we might have more to offer to ourselves, each other and the world than we think we do. We do self-discovery and excellence well.”

Denison will give you amazing opportunities to follow your passions as students, athletes, artists, scientists, community builders, and innovators. But also make it a point to find new passions. Leave here different than you arrived. All of this requires being willing to take risks and being resilient in the face of failure.

Take risks. Accept failure and embarrassment as part of the path towards a life worth living.

My third piece of advice: Step up and participate in this community.

Make this college stronger because you were here, and be a wise and ethical steward of our standards and ways of being. The Denison community is special. It has wonderful traditions. You will learn about the many values of our community. Let me mention a few important ones to get you started:

We have a culture of performance and excellence. We expect people to show up and participate. From classrooms to athletic fields, studios and stages to residence halls, we expect students to contribute. This community is comprised of the sum total of the people within it. Every year, we remake the community through the actions of the people who are here.

In doing so, we always ask every member to strive for excellence. From all kinds of people in many different ways, you are going to receive the mentorship and opportunities needed to practice and learn to excel, and you are expected to mentor others to do the same. Failure is fine. Mistakes are common. In fact, it is expected. But all of this should be done as part of the process of learning to do things the right way, the ethical way, on the road to success.

Respect and integrity also are important here. We make good decisions for ourselves and the larger community. Look around. These are your Denison classmates. You will spend the next four years together. You will stay in touch with many of these people well beyond Denison. Put most simply, you will have a bond with this group of people for the rest of your life.

Your Denison experience will be shaped by how you treat each other. My charge to you is to be a great Denison class that always shows care and respect for each other. I want you to have a great college experience that is exciting, rewarding, and fun.

To make that happen I ask you to remember that this is a place where people make good and smart decisions for themselves, and where we intervene when we see other members of our community getting ready to make a bad decision for themselves or for others. This is a community where people genuinely care for each other and have no tolerance when people make bad decisions that negatively impact others.

All of the data we have about college in the United States suggests that these principles are most crucial during the first few weeks of your college experience, especially as it relates to issues of alcohol and sexual assault. Over the next few weeks, be a class that looks out for each other during those initial weeks of college. If you see a classmate struggling, step up by stepping in. Tell someone when they are getting ready to make a mistake. Sit with someone who is sitting alone. Do your part to make sure the Denison Class of 2018 gets off to a great start.

You are talented and amazing people. Be a friend, early and often. And see each other as friends and treat each other as such. This is how a great community is made.

The last value I want to stress relates to our respect for differences of all kinds. This is an incredibly diverse place by race, ethnicity, class, religion, geographic origin, interests and passions, and religious and political views. At Denison, diversity is not just what we are; it guides how we act. Learn to live, work and enjoy the companionship of people who are different, and you will graduate with one of the most important skills of the 21st century.

That is my advice: Take full advantage of the academics, seek out challenging experiences both inside and outside the classroom, and embrace this community and the values that shape it.

I am excited to get to know you. If you see me in the dining hall, sit with me. If you see me walking across campus, let me know how things are going. And if you walk past Monomoy Place and you see my family and me sitting outside, come to say hello and meet our awesome dog, Ellie. My family and I fell in love with this college during our first year, and we want the same for you.

Class of 2018, welcome to the Denison family.

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