To the Denison class of 2020: Welcome to Denison, welcome to Granville and welcome to college! You are now Denisonians.
When you decided to attend Denison, you made the choice to come to a college where relationships run deep and the education is transformative. This is a place where students form friendships that often last a lifetime. This is a college where student-faculty relationships form a kind of mentorship that is powerful and, too often, rare in higher education. This is a place where students look back at graduation with pride on what they have accomplished and about who they have become, and they get a bit teary-eyed about leaving the Hill. I am excited for you.
As I start my fourth year at Denison, I am keenly aware of how deeply I have fallen in love with this college. For me, Denison offers the heart and soul of a traditional liberal arts college (mentorship, community, broad-based and deep curriculum, and engaged co-curricular learning) with the relevance, vibrancy and intellectual heft of a small university. As you will quickly learn, we are a bit bigger than many liberal arts colleges. Our diversity, by every definition, makes us dynamic and creates powerful moments of lateral learning. We are building new academic programs and pathways, innovating throughout the co-curriculum, giving students new opportunities through expanded global programs, enhanced intellectual life, and access to the thriving City of Columbus. And we are ensuring that our students are ready to succeed across the professions, enabling them to build for themselves the kinds of lives they aspire to lead.
Denison alumnus and former Princeton University President Bill Bowen once said the purpose of college is educate students with an “openness to new ideas and new friendships, respect for both evidence and the beauty of language, appreciation of ‘difference’ and an ever-deeper awareness of the pure joy of learning.” I believe we do this well, and we are taking steps to do it even better. In fact, we are committed to providing you with an educational experience with several important components:
- a critical grounding in the skills, values and habits of the liberal arts;
- the active mentorship that defines a great college experience;
- a multiplicity of pathways to engage in rigorous academics;
- co-curricular activities that allows you to follow passions while developing new ones;
- a campus culture that is welcoming and diverse;
- programs to explore careers and professions and alumni/parent networks to get started;
- and a setting that allows students to go from reflective classrooms to metropolitan environments, both here and abroad, at multiple moments during your time as a Denison student.
You have arrived at Denison during an exciting moment in our history. If you take advantage of it, you will have a fantastic four years that will help you to build a life that you may not even be able to imagine—yet.
So let me give you five pieces of advice on how to get the most from Denison.
#1 Go to every class. Go prepared. And be engaged. Your classes are the foundational element of your education. At Denison, you will study with some of the best professors in the world. Your classes will be challenging in the right kinds of ways. Liberal arts colleges pride themselves on small classes and interactive classrooms. We expect everybody to contribute to the intellectual life of the college. This starts by asking students to push themselves in the classroom. This takes more than showing up. We expect every student to be prepared and to be engaged. This also means being open to and excited about hearing a variety of ideas and being challenged to think anew. There will be times at Denison when you are pushed outside your comfort zone. That’s part of the academic experience. Take full advantage of the academics at Denison. If you only do this, the next four years will transform you as a person.
#2 Embrace the Liberal Arts. Liberal arts classes will engage you in ways that will prepare you to think critically, understand profoundly, and connect broadly. In doing so, you will 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. To do this, it is important that you take a wide range of courses. Do not make the mistake of coming to a place that has so much to offer and then confining yourself to a narrow path. During your first year, take some classes in disciplines that you are excited about. But also stretch yourself and take some classes that are outside your comfort zone. The wider the array of classes you take, the sharper your liberal arts skills will become. As the historian William Cronon reminds us, the liberal arts is about learning to connect desperate ideas. To do so, you have to be exposed to a wide range of views, perspectives and academic disciplines.
#3: Get to know your professors and Denison’s staff, all of whom make this a great college. Our faculty are among the best scholars and educators in the world. They are master teachers who believe in the power of student-faculty interaction. 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 for that to happen. We have more and more data that documents the power of student-faculty interactions and mentorship. For example: the Gallup-Purdue study finds that these relationships in college are the single most powerful predictor to success in life. Make it a point during the initial three weeks of classes to see every one of your professors during office hours.
And then also get to know the staff across the college. From the folks who maintain our residential halls, to Campus Safety officers, deans, and administrators, this is a place filled with outstanding people who care about students and undergraduate education. Seek out mentors and be open to being mentored.
#4: Follow a passion and develop a new passion. At Denison, the learning starts in the classroom and then permeates every corner of campus life. Learning happens everywhere from labs and studios to athletic fields and residential halls.
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.
And two pieces of advice:
First, dive deeply into your activities, but don’t sign up for everything. There is a lot to do at Denison. You cannot do it all. Especially during this crucial first year, follow a passion and try a few new things, but also break the high school habit of getting involved in everything. Your job is to commit yourself to learning, which means not overcommitting yourself. Remember that to get the most of your time here, you need to stay healthy — and that means finding a good balance.
Second—and this one may be a little surprising—you have to embrace failure and embarrassment as necessary steps on the road to success. There is a wonderful quote, whose author I have not been able to find. It goes as follows: “Take risks: if you win, you will be happy; if you lose, you will be wise.” You will be both happier and wiser when you graduate. And life gets much easier when you get over your fear of embarrassment!
#5: Be good to each other and build the community you want to live in. You will make a close group of friends. That is a Denison tradition. But do not narrow yourself to one small group of friends. Make it a point to find the person down the hall whose background is really different from yours and become friends. Enjoy your differences, and discover what you have in common. You will be expected, not just by us, but also by your peers, to engage with the diverse range of people around you and to be open to being challenged on your own views. This is a college where we learn from each other, because we are open to hearing different views, voicing our own, and reconciling differences into new ways of thinking.
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, and frankly the community you live in will be the one that you create. We need students to hold each other accountable and to look out for one another.
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 issue of alcohol and the issue of sexual assault. It is imperative that we rid the nation’s campuses of sexual assault — including this one. That means a mindful focus on the start of a student’s college career that should extend through all four years. Be the class that looks out for each other and ensure that you get off to a great start. 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.
#1 Go to every class. Go prepared. And be engaged.
#2 Embrace the Liberal Arts.
#3: Get to know your professors and the staff who make this a great college.
#4: Follow a passion and develop a new passion.
#5: Be good to each other and build the community you want to live in.
Let me close with a bit of a personal reflection.
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: dive into the academics, get to know your professors and be open to mentorship, follow a passion while you develop new passions, and be an active, engaged member of our community who expects the best from themselves and helps those around them to do the same.
Your education will not happen by accident. It will happen when you step up, and step in.
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.
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.