Speeches & Writings

2019 New Student Convocation Address

by Martha E. Pollack, President

As prepared for delivery
August 24, 2019
Ithaca, New York


Hello everyone. Welcome to Cornell!

As excited as all of you are to be here, we are just as excited to have you here: all 3,218 of you, from 39 countries and 49 US states, plus Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and the US Virgin Islands. (Since I know you’re all wondering—the state we missed this year is Montana.)

You are members of the classes of 2021, ’22, and ’23; you are freshmen and transfer students; you are from urban, suburban, and rural communities; you are military veterans and new ROTC cadets; you are from an incredible diversity of backgrounds and experience. You speak more than 40 languages, and many of you are the first in your families to attend college. You are here with interests that span all of Cornell’s hundred-plus academic departments—and beyond.

And the first thing I want to say to all of you is that no matter where you came from, or what path brought you to Cornell: you belong here.

From today, all of you are Cornellians.

Over the course of the days, and weeks, and then the months and years ahead, every single one of you will have the chance to make your mark on Cornell—just as Cornell will have the chance to make its mark on you.

And at the end of that time—you and I will be back here again, on Schoellkopf Field, at your Commencement. You won’t be sitting in the bleachers, but in chairs on the field, with your fellow graduates, waiting to receive your degrees.

I want you to close your eyes, just for a moment, and imagine that day. It’s eleven o’clock in the morning on a sunny Memorial Day weekend. Instead of wearing shorts and t-shirts, you’re wearing caps and gowns. And instead of looking forward to your time at Cornell—you’re looking back, on the experiences you have had here.

Okay—you can open your eyes.

I want to tell you something about that moment, and about how you will be different then. You will have just completed your education at Cornell, and a Cornell education is something that can and should change your lives. It should help you develop not only a capable intellect, but also a mature conscience; it should prepare you not only for your careers, but for your lives as citizens of your nation and the world.

There’s a fabulous line by the author Richard Russo from a graduation speech he gave a few years ago, that “sending kids off to college is a lot like putting them in the witness protection program. If the person who comes out is easily recognizable as the same person who went in, something has gone terribly, dangerously wrong.”

But to truly have the transformative experience you came to Cornell to find—you need to seek it out. Becoming educated is not a passive activity!

I could talk to you for a very long time today about everything that you should do, if you want to make the most of your time at Cornell. I could tell you to try new things: to take courses in subjects you never even knew you could study, from the language of honeybees to the code of Hammurabi.

I could urge you to try one of our more than one thousand clubs, where you can learn improv or Japanese Taiko drumming, entrepreneurship or organic farming, sign language or sustainable design.

I could tell you not to be afraid to fail. In fact, I can almost guarantee that you will have moments here where you will struggle, have setbacks, perhaps even hard failures. And that’s okay. You’ll learn from them, and you’ll also learn how to pick yourself up and move on. If you never fail, you haven’t been pushing yourself hard enough.

I could also tell you to take care of yourself—to eat well, exercise, and yes—get enough sleep. Your health and your happiness depend on it, even though there will always be something else you could be doing instead of turning out the light.

I could tell you all of those things. In fact, I just did! And while there’s more advice I could give you, I don’t think you’d remember much of it—you’ve got enough on your minds already.

So I’m just going to give you one piece of advice that I hope you will remember, and will take to heart. One piece of advice, to help you make the most of your time here; to enable you to engage more fully with the opportunities you will have at Cornell; to ensure that you leave Cornell with the education you came here for.

If there’s one piece of advice you remember from everything I say today, it’s this: Take off your headphones.

Let me explain.

It was about seven or eight years ago that I first noticed the phenomenon of people walking around with earbuds in. I was in DC, and I needed directions to the Metro, but everyone I passed on the street had earbuds in. And those earbuds signaled to me, as earbuds do, that this person was otherwise engaged. Unavailable at the moment. I was shut out, and I shouldn’t be asking them for directions.

I did find the Metro, eventually. And over the next few years, I noticed that the earbuds moved over a little bit, and those big Beats style headphones moved in. As I drive into work each morning at Cornell, I see dozens of students wearing these as they walk to class. They’re all walking in the same direction, but they’re not walking together. They’re not talking to each other:  they’re listening to whatever comes in through the headphones.  The visual image is even more striking: I am in my world, not the world around me; I am listening to someone else, not the humans beside me.

Most recently, the shift is to Airpods. These are at least smaller than the big headphones but they represent a different kind of distraction, since they often are left in constantly. They say: I may be partly there, but I’m only ever partly there.

Well, you might ask: so what? This is 2019, and we’re the tech generation. We’re connecting to the larger world; we’re connecting in a new and different way to something beyond our immediate environment. Why isn’t that a good thing?

It’s a fair question—with a few answers. But I’ll start with the one that’s specific to Cornell. You came to Cornell for an experience you could only find here. What I’m really asking you to do, when I ask you to take off your headphones, is not to block that experience out—but to open yourselves to it.

So when I say “take off your headphones,” first, I mean it literally. When you’re attending to your headphones, you’re not attending to the world around you. You’re not hearing the birds, or the wind, or the airplane overhead. I used to attend a concert series whose motto was “Be present.” The idea was that when you were at the concert, you should not only turn off your phone, but also turn off your mind to all the distractions beyond the music, and fully immerse yourself in it. If you’re multi-tasking, if you’re listening to music, or a podcast, or whatever else while you’re walking, you’re not present. You’re somewhere else.

And you’re also telling everyone around you that you’re somewhere else. Sometimes, that’s OK. Sometimes you don’t want to give directions to the Metro. If you’ve got a prelim tomorrow and you don’t want anyone to talk to you unless the library’s on fire, by all means, put your headphones on. But keeping them on all day sends that signal all day. It says, don’t talk to me. I’m not available. I’m not here to connect to.

Over time, the result of that choice is going to be much more significant than just never being the one to get asked for directions. Ultimately, it means that you won’t connect—or at least, you won’t connect as deeply or as often—with the people and the experiences you came here for. You won’t strike up conversations with the people sitting next to you in class, or standing in line for stir-fry, or waiting for office hours. No one will ask you, what did you think of that book? Or tell you, I think they’re out of chicken, but the tofu is great. Or say, do you want to try and work on that problem set together, while we’re waiting for the TA?

Now, you might not need help with the same problem. And you might not have wanted chicken anyway. But those conversations that in the moment may seem lightweight and even trivial, ultimately link us together in ways that are critically important. Because relationships, and community, are built over time—in seeing each other, and connecting to each other, again and again. And to connect, you need to be available. You need to be present in the moment—for, and with, the people around you.

So take off your headphones. But it isn’t enough to just take them off physically. You also need to take them off in that larger sense I mentioned. Don’t shut out what’s around you. Listen to it.

Listen to ideas that may seem to you to be wrong—even offensive. Shove those headphones deep into your backpack, and seek out those people with different perspectives and backgrounds. Listen to them, and make it a point to engage in reasoned discussion with them. Find out why they think what they do. Because it’s only by hearing, and engaging, and grappling with different ideas that we learn.

A reasoned debate might just change your mind. Or you might find, as you share and listen, a thought that leads you to refine your own thinking, or to want to learn more. You may not come to agree at all with the other person, but you may learn something interesting and important about their motivations, leading to you to thoughtfully agree to disagree. And even if you end up still in vehement disagreement—even disgust—you will have flexed your mental muscles in clarifying exactly why you disagree. You will have learned how to engage and respond in a way that is productive.

And when you do that—you’ll be getting the education you came here for.

At Cornell, we have six core values, articulated and formalized last year through a community-wide process of reflection and feedback.

We value

You’ll hear more about those values as you participate in your orientation experiences over the course of the next week. But for now, I want to talk to you just a little bit about the first three.

First: purposeful discovery. You came to Cornell to discover—in a way you could not anywhere else. Take advantage of what is here. You may never again find yourself in a place that is so full of incredibly talented and intelligent people, of opportunities to try new things, of scope for new interests. So talk to your fellow students. Get to know your professors and your TAs. Purposeful discovery means not just seeking, but valuing knowledge and truth—wherever they are found.

Second: free and open inquiry and expression. Ezra Cornell aspired to found an institution where any person could find instruction in any study. Cornell is a uniquely American university built on uniquely American ideals of diversity, openness, and free speech. “Any person, any study,” is a reflection of that legacy—of our founding principle that an institution that is open, to people and to ideas, will create a better environment for learning than one that is narrow in whom it will admit or what it will teach.

Those ideals are now our responsibility.

And third: a community of belonging. The first thing I said to you today was that all of you—no matter where you are from, no matter what your background, interests, or experience—all of you belong here. You all have the right to study and to learn, to speak and to be heard.

But in order to speak, and to hear, and to be heard—you can’t have your headphones on. So when you sit down in your classes this week, and you’re waiting for the professor to start, leave your phone in your pocket. Say hello to the person sitting next to you. Ask their name, where they’re from, what they did over the summer. And at your next class—do it again. Keep your headphones off—and your minds open, to everything that is here for you at Cornell.

And if one of these days, you see me walking along on campus—I probably don’t need to ask you for directions. But say hi to me anyway. I promise I won’t be wearing headphones.

We are so glad to have you as new Cornellians. Welcome to you all.

And now, please rise and join me in singing Cornell’s alma mater.