President's Speeches & Writings:

An open letter to new liberal arts college students: what you should know on day #1

President's Office
August 9, 2016

Dear Class of 2020:

On your first day of college, there is almost too much to think about. Your room. Your roommate. Your family back home. Your course schedule and books and the location of all those buildings with names that still sound unfamiliar. The people around you seem different from the ones you knew in high school. Everyone you meet, and everything you see, is new and interesting. It’s exciting, maybe even anxiety producing.

So why am I giving you more to think about? Because you are about to experience a type and caliber of education that every student deserves, but very few receive. You have enrolled in a liberal arts college, and you should make the most of this. Your goal is to get a world-class education, one that prepares you to lead a great life.

But it will not happen by accident. It will happen when you step up, and step in. To get off on the right foot, here are a few things that will help you. For college to matter, you need to focus on three things:

First, academics. Your classes are the foundational element of your education. They will do more than seek to pour content into your head or prepare you for boring standardized tests. Liberal arts classes engage you in ways that will prepare you to think critically, understand profoundly, and connect broadly. In doing so, you learn to ask big questions about the kind of life you want to lead, while also developing the capacity to build that life for yourself. 

One of the great advantages of this particular kind of education is that it prepares you to adapt as your life unfolds. Liberal arts colleges pride themselves on small classes and interactive classrooms. We expect everybody to contribute to the intellectual life of the college. To do this, it is important that you take a wide and adventurous mixture of courses. Do not make the mistake of coming to a place with so much to offer and then locking yourself on a narrow path. Throw yourself into your classes. Tap into your sense of wonder and your creativity.

We also ask students to push themselves in the classroom. Use every class and every assignment to learn to communicate effectively, especially to write well. Work with numbers and data. Weave disparate ideas into new ways of thinking. Frame questions. Argue. Create. Do research. Once you get settled (and before your first set of exams and papers) take some time to carefully read William Cronon’s classic essay on the liberal arts, titled Only Connect.

Most importantly, get to know your professors. Faculty members at great liberal arts colleges are among the best scholars and educators in the world. They are master teachers who believe in the power of student-faculty interaction. At Denison, for example, our professors are experts in their fields. They are world class scholars and educators, who care deeply about our students. Mentorship is more than just something we say—it’s what we do. Our faculty will seek to connect and catalyze you, but you have to be open to this experience for that to happen.

Everything we know about college and success in life, suggests that one of the most important things you can do is to connect with your faculty early in your college career.

The second major part of your liberal arts education is co-curricular life. It is the full range of learning experiences that happen, not only inside our classrooms, labs and studios, but all over campus, off campus, and perhaps in other parts of the world.

Many of you already have interests that you are passionate about. You play a sport or have a passion for music, theatre, art, or you love to do community service. Liberal arts colleges give students amazing opportunities to follow those interests. At the same time, be sure to try new things. Join a club or try an activity that is totally new for you—something you never would have done in high school.

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.”

The sociologist Irving Goffman put it differently when he wrote that the fear of embarrassment is a major driver of human behavior. Here is a piece of advice — life gets much easier when you get over your fear of embarrassment!

And the third major part of the liberal arts experience is community. A residential college is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We expect you to be part of the campus community, to contribute to it actively, and to be shaped by it.

To do this, focus on getting the relationships right. You will make a close group of friends. That is a liberal arts thing. But do not narrow yourself to a small group of friends. Make it a point to seek out the person in your residential hall whose background is the most different from yours and become friends. Enjoy your differences, and find out what you have in common. You will be expected, not just by us, but also by your peers, to engage with the range of people around you. Remember, your experience will be shaped in part by the relationships you make — or don’t make.

You are going to graduate into a world where differences will be everywhere and where the ability to work in diverse teams, live in diverse communities, and connect diverse ideas will be a defining skill and value. It will separate those who thrive from those who do not. College campuses are a great place to learn the excitement of difference and to learn to navigate people, situations, and communities marked by differences.

Values are important at great liberal arts colleges. There are some values that we demand, including integrity, respect for one another, and respect for difference. And there are some values upon which we disagree. That is what makes liberal arts colleges interesting and fun.

By getting involved and making all sorts of friends, you will give yourself the opportunity to develop who you are. Use your classes, co-curricular pursuits, and experiences living with others to develop your own set of very clear values, commitments, and guideposts. They will guide how you think about yourself and how others perceive you.

We all have something to offer. One of the great things about liberal arts colleges is our size and the commitment of the students who come to our campuses. In ways large and small, our students push and prod one another. We inspire and challenge one another to get out of our comfort zones and, in doing so, to enlarge our view of the world. To quote a Denison faculty member, we want students to “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.”

Now onto something a little less upbeat, but equally important.

Your experience at a residential college will be shaped by how you treat one another. Be the generation that always shows care and respect for one another. Remember that a college campus is a place where people make 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. Do not stand idly by. We expect more. We need students to hold each other accountable and to look out for one another. Frankly, the community you live in will be the one you create.

Much of the data we have about college in the United States suggests that these principles are most critical during the first few months of your first year, especially as related to the issues of alcohol and sexual assault. We need to rid our campuses of sexual assault. That means a particular focus on the start of a student’s college career. Be the class that looked out for each other and ensured a great start to your college career. If you see a classmate struggling, step in. Ask for help when you see that someone is getting ready to make a mistake. Sit with someone who is sitting alone.

Put most simply, be a good friend, early and often. See one another as friends, even the people you haven’t met yet, and treat each other as such. This is how a great community is made.

Now let me say a bit about the anxiety over jobs and the value of a college education. Those anxieties are real, and they are based on changes in the economy. If you take all this advice to heart, you will join generations of liberal arts alumni who have found extraordinary success in their professional, personal and civic lives. To make sure that happens, take advantage of the career center. Don’t wait until your senior year, and don’t think you need to have a lot figured out before you visit for the first time. In fact, stop by that office during your first year. That’s a great time to just ask how they can help you along your way.

You will be amazed at the resources available to you. Liberal arts colleges have invested heavily in career service centers over the last few years. You will be on campus about 60 percent of the year. Use that time to focus on your courses and campus life. Use the 40 percent of the year between semesters to explore careers and professions through internships, externships and other activities. Your career center can guide you.

Here is a suggestion for your parents: for those who want to understand this more, check out three great new books: There Is Life After College, by Jeffrey Selingo; Practice for Life: Making Decisions in College, written by a group of faculty members from liberal arts colleges, and How College Works by Dan Chambliss and Christopher Takacs. 

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 to take on that life and be successful. It may sound like a lot to think about on day one, but if you take full advantage of all that lies ahead, your liberal arts experience will open opportunities and ways of being that you cannot even imagine — yet.

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