Thank you Professor Daubman, and good evening. My name is John Bravman, and I am honored and privileged to serve as the 17th president, and a professor of electrical engineering, at Bucknell University. On behalf of my wife, Professor Wendelin Wright, and all of my colleagues on the faculty and staff, welcome to the 2015-2016 academic year.
Let’s all offer a special welcome to the Class of 2019 and our new transfer students, along with a number of new faculty and staff members joining our community.
To my colleagues in the faculty and staff: Your commitment to teaching, to scholarship, to challenging our students so that they grow and learn and succeed is the foundation of our great institution. For your countless hours and contributions to fulfilling Bucknell’s mission, I am so thankful.
My remarks tonight are directed primarily toward our new students, but I hope that what I say will resonate with everyone here, for it is together as a community that we engage in the noble and essential endeavor of learning, and teaching, and building stronger and better versions of our own selves, and of Bucknell.
From our earliest interactions with you, Class, and throughout your college search process, we dared you – quite explicitly – to consider all that you might accomplish if you were to become part of the Bucknell community. In emails, on postcards, online and when we met with you in person, we dared you to dream big, to share your creative energy, to join our community of achievers, to explore new ideas and concepts, and to soar like so many of our alumni have before you. You took the dare, and here you are.
But this is just the beginning. We have a lot more to ask of you, starting now.
Tonight, I’m going to challenge you — to dare you — to fully embrace the tremendous opportunities that lie ahead.
You are joining us at a time of great momentum at the University, where we are making a number of investments in our community, our campus, and our programs. These investments are ultimately for your benefit and the benefit of the Bucknellians who will follow you.
The most obvious changes are physical. We have been building and remodeling facilities to enhance your learning experience. Academic West, for example, is entering just its third year of providing a range of classrooms, along with spaces in which you can meet and collaborate with each other and with your professors. The South Campus Apartments, which just opened this month, are an independent-style living option where mainly seniors will prepare for life after Bucknell. The Carnegie Building, now being restored to its former magnificence, will add even more academic, program, and social space to campus. And the Graham building, whose construction is just underway, will provide a new and greatly improved campus health center. These and future projects will create some dust and noise, but it’s all for the higher purpose of providing you with the best possible spaces to study, to learn, to collaborate, and to develop as the person that you were meant to be.
Your academic experience is of course our top investment priority. To that end, we have expanded our stellar faculty with more than 60 tenure-line positions in the last decade to ensure that you have direct access to accomplished scholars who are passionate about undergraduate learning – your learning. The faculty embodies the very reason why you are here. We have also revised, expanded or created new curricula in the colleges of Arts & Sciences and Engineering, and in the School of Management, and we have added minors and majors, the most recent of which is the interdisciplinary Africana Studies major that launches this year. In complement to this, we invest in centers, institutes, labs and residential life programs that focus on diversity, religious and spiritual life, counseling and student development, writing, teaching, learning, service, the arts and entrepreneurship. These are all highly intentional decisions designed to provide you with an educational experience that prepares you for a lifetime of meaning, insight and success.
But the truth is, none of what we’ve done or will do matters unless you invest in yourself.
Invest in yourself. Since you are here at one of the nation’s finest academic institutions, you have proven you can earn high grades. You’re all intelligent, and you’re accustomed to succeeding in the classroom. You have the potential to become Fulbright scholars, just as two of our recent graduates did this year. You have the capacity to achieve top honors at a conference or competition in your field, or to be recognized with a prestigious scholarship or award, like many of your fellow students in the classes ahead of you. Perhaps you will design a device to improve medical treatments, or develop an app to connect people to the arts, or publish a research paper or poem, or start your own company or nonprofit organization. Bucknell students have accomplished all of these things, and so many more.
But along the way they also floundered at times... and so might you.
You’ll confront your limits when you have trouble understanding a concept, a process or a theoretical framework. The sheer scale of the things you do not know will at times terrify you. You might find yourself in the middle of a reading assignment when a new idea will shake your faith in your worldview and cause you to question your own assumptions and beliefs.
And I can almost guarantee you’ll struggle with the clock and the calendar. You are about to have massive amounts of unstructured time conjoined with unparalleled personal freedom. What you do with them — and not what you say about them — will define who you are, and more importantly, who you are becoming.
Struggling is OK. The prolific novelist Stephen King captured this, I believe, when he said, “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” Well, class, it’s time to go to work. The faculty here tonight can assure you that they have experienced their own intellectual defeats, as I certainly have, and they will tell you that identifying and addressing your blind spots and weaknesses and gaps in knowledge is an essential part of the learning process. They will also tell you to fail, but fail to forward. Grow and learn from those difficult times when you fall short of your own expectations. It’s a lesson I’ve held since my own days as an undergraduate. Failure is uncomfortable, but it leads to the intellectual victories that you have come here to earn. As Japanese author Haruki Murakami has written, “Life is not like water. Things in life don't necessarily flow over the shortest possible route.”
Your education is not like water, either. In fact, it is the last place you should look for the path of least resistance. If, for instance, you excel at math but are less confident in your writing abilities, too bad: We require you to take writing intensive courses to develop your critical thinking and rhetorical skills. If you’re passionate about the arts, that’s wonderful! But you’ll have to learn some science, too, so you can understand the natural world, build your reasoning skills and learn how to separate facts from assumptions.
These notions, of course, and many others like them, are at the core of a liberal arts education. So whether you are here to study poetry or physics, English or engineering, math or marketing, film or French, here at Bucknell, we won’t let you avoid confronting your limits, and you’ll be better off for it. In fact, after more than 30 years in this profession, I’ve never seen a stronger correlation with intellectual growth — and thus true academic success — than a willingness to risk failure.
You’re fortunate that you get to grow in an environment where you have access to numerous support systems to guide you, including our talented faculty and staff, offices and centers, mentoring and research programs. These are all part of our comprehensive investment in you and, if you take advantage of them, your investment in yourself. But you have to take advantage of them, because learning is an active, not a passive endeavor.
If you read this year’s first-year common reading, The Good Food Revolution by Will Allen, you may already be thinking of how you might take action to achieve your goals. As an aside, if you haven’t read the book, I recommend it as an example of how collaborative community action can address systemic problems in our society. Allen concludes the book by asking us to pick up our shovels and get our hands dirty.
The beauty of a Bucknell education is that it is intentionally designed for you to learn through hands-on experiences that complement the core academic practices of reading and lectures and discussion. There are a number of ways you can do this within and beyond campus. These include opportunities that will quite literally make your hands dirty, such as investigating the impact of fertilizer runoff, community gardening, river water testing, sculpting, painting, set and costume design, prototyping, running an experiment in the primate lab, or uncovering ancient artifacts at an archaeological site. There are also experiential learning opportunities that do not require soap and water. They are practically countless and span all of the disciplines. You might find yourself investigating autism, or language acquisition or archival film footage or the history of pirates, or volcanic landscapes, or maps of social networks. The possibilities are as exciting as they are endless.
And, sometimes, active learning means engaging in difficult conversations. We’ll likely have many of those this year on our campus.
As some of you know, a public, racist incident last semester brought long-overdue attention to longstanding issues of discrimination that exist on this campus, just as they do throughout society. Bucknell begins this year knowing that we must engage in continued soul-searching, and perhaps gut-wrenching discussions. But that’s what life requires of us, and so we will need to wrestle with uncomfortable and sometimes painful topics to make sure this campus is a safe and welcoming place for every single member of our community.
Having those difficult conversations will allow us to build on the positive momentum that emerged from what I believe was a turning point in Bucknell’s history: the solidarity event that our students organized last April. These students — your fellow Bucknellians — courageously critiqued each other and the University — and me — as they stood up for justice and equality. I admire these students so much, because they know their words and actions have an impact far beyond their own selves. They understand that investing in yourself, as I’ve dared you to do, is ultimately a limited endeavor, and that to truly be part of a learning community, you must invest in that community by contributing to it your ideas — your energy — your passion.
As the momentum toward a better Bucknell continues to build, I present you with yet another challenge that I hope you will take on as we enter a new year with hope and promise.
It is your responsibility to contribute to the wellbeing of this community. We expect you to show a relentless commitment to equality and to community. Speak up if you witness inappropriate or hurtful behavior. Hold each other accountable. Remember, too, that your responsibilities to each other extend beyond the boundaries of this campus to the communities in which you will live and work and travel throughout your lifetime, because your life is bigger than you.
You can look to your fellow Bucknellians for inspiration. Among them are Jessica Jackley, Class of 2000, who founded the micro-lending site Kiva.org; Muyambi Muyambi, Class of 2012, whose organization, Bicycles Against Poverty, provides vital transportation to Ugandan communities in need; and Golf Sawatphanit, Class of 2013, who is organizing palliative care education in Southeast Asia because he believes nobody should have to die alone.
And there is Carolyn Miles, from the Bucknell Class of 1983, whom you’ll have an opportunity to hear when she speaks on campus on November 5 as part of the Walling Lecture Series. Carolyn left her position as a successful business executive to help create better opportunities for children living in poverty. She is now CEO of Save the Children, an organization that provides aid and relief to families around the world, and she maintains a vibrant social media presence to keep the light shining on crises affecting children globally.
Like so many Bucknellians before and after her, Carolyn discovered the value of her education, and she invested in it. She has said that, like lots of college students, she didn’t at first appreciate what college could prepare her to do. But then Bucknell showed her a bigger world and gave her the confidence to think, “Maybe I could be out there in it.”
Now it’s your turn.
Throughout the Admissions process, we dared you to choose Bucknell because we saw your remarkable academic credentials and personal achievements. We knew you had potential to make the most of a Bucknell education. But what happens next is up to you.
Think about the person you were four years ago. Back then, you probably had a vague dream of going to college and probably a glimmer of an idea of what you wanted for your future. So you worked hard to make your college dreams a reality, and you have arrived at this defining moment on the eve of your first day of classes at what is now and forever your University. Now imagine what you can do in the next four years with the phenomenally powerful set of people, resources and opportunities that await you within and beyond the doors of this auditorium.
The 19th-century author Henry David Thoreau wrote, “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”
Thank you for being here tonight. Thank you for choosing Bucknell. My best on the start of what will be an exciting, prosperous journey. I promise that if you give it your all during your time on campus, if you take up the challenges with which I have presented you tonight, if you invest in yourself, you will you will find success. So starting tomorrow — or, better yet, starting even this evening as you engage in the activities following this Convocation ceremony: Confront your intellectual limits. Get your hands dirty. Be part of something bigger than yourself. Go be out there in it. And work toward your dreams to live the life that you have imagined, but also one that the world needs you to lead. I dare you.