Speeches & Writings

2018 New Student Convocation Address

by Martha E. Pollack, President

As prepared for delivery
August 18, 2018
Ithaca, New York


Welcome! Whether you’re a member of the Class of 2022 or a new transfer student, I want to add my welcome to those you’ve already received this morning. We are so happy to have you as part of the Cornell community.

You’ve probably already spent some time exploring the campus and surrounding area.  So let me ask: How many of you have already been to Collegetown?

The next time you’re there, be sure to look for Eddy Gate. It’s an interesting structure. Some people call it “Andy White’s chocolate layer cake.” “Andy White” is Cornell’s first president, Andrew Dickson White, and he had Eddy Gate built in 1896 as the main entrance to campus. The reference to it being a “layer cake” comes from the layers of red and white stone used in its construction.

Eddy Gate is at the end of a quiet street, but it’s well worth looking for, because of the message inscribed on its west wall. It reads: “So enter that daily thou mayest become more learned and thoughtful; so depart that daily thou mayest become more useful to thy country and to mankind.”

Those words may sound a bit archaic, but they capture our hopes for you as you begin your time at Cornell.

“…enter that daily thou mayest become more learned and thoughtful”:  Most of you, along with your parents, expect that you will become more “learned” here.  You have come to a university known for its distinguished faculty. Your professors will be women and men recognized the world over for their research, scholarship and creative work. And, as you will quickly discover, they are also enthusiastic about teaching and passionate about making a difference in both the lives of their students and the broader world.

You are here at Cornell in large part to “become more learned.”  This means developing an appreciation for knowledge that has been created over millennia, and it means developing an ability to apply that knowledge in the world today.

But the inscription at Eddy Gate speaks of becoming “more learned and thoughtful”—and these are not the same. Becoming more thoughtful requires not just obtaining and being able to apply knowledge.  Becoming more thoughtful involves learning to think critically about what we “know”—and about what we think we know.  It requires learning when to ask questions, and what questions to ask—and when to stay silent, and listen. All of that, in turn, requires being open to hearing the ideas of others, and being willing to listen to and consider perspectives that are different from one’s own.  This is critically important, so let me repeat it:  you are here in part to become more thoughtful, and that happens only when you are willing to listen to and consider perspectives that are different from your own.

True to its founding aspiration of being a university for “any person,” Cornell today is a very diverse place. Members of the Class of 2022 come from 47 states plus Washington DC, Guam, and Puerto Rico, and from 43 other countries around the world. Fourteen percent of the class are the first generation in their families to go to college, and 27 percent self-identify as underrepresented minorities.

In addition to gender and racial and ethnic and religious and geographic diversity, you will also have the opportunity to interact with students who are differently abled, students with various sexual orientations and identities, and students who hold different political beliefs.

Among your classmates and your floor mates, your professors and your teaching assistants, and all the others you will meet at Cornell, you will find people who have perspectives you’ve not considered before, forged by their own unique backgrounds and experiences. You will not agree with them on every issue, but, if you listen with an open mind, you can learn from them, and they from you.

As an institution whose very mission is tied to the free interchange of ideas, Cornell will support and encourage you to be open to all thought and to think critically about what you see and hear.

The Intergroup Dialogue Project for first-year students and the Identity and Belonging Project for transfer students that are part of Orientation will help you learn to communicate and collaborate across difference. We will guarantee your freedom to express your own points of view, and we will encourage you to speak out forcefully against speech that is at odds with your core principles or the principles that we share as members of this academic community.

But we will also expect you to assume a key responsibility that comes with free expression: the responsibility to discuss even the most hotly contested topics with civility and an attitude of respect towards one another so that a true exchange of knowledge and ideas can occur.

And, thus, you will become, as Eddy Gate promises, more thoughtful.

Before I end, I must return to the second part of the Eddy Gate inscription.  Remember that it says that you enter to become learned and thoughtful, “so depart that daily thou mayest become more useful to thy country and to mankind.”

As New York’s land grant university, Cornell takes seriously our responsibility to develop and deploy knowledge in the service of humankind. Throughout our history, we have reached out into the world and have had an impact through the discoveries of our researchers and scholars as well as through the good work of Cornell alumni around the globe.

But there is no need to wait until you graduate to begin this useful work. During the next few days or weeks, I hope you will explore the opportunities for community engagement and public service—on and off the campus—that are available to you right now. Through our Engaged Cornell initiative, faculty, staff and students collaborate with community organizations to address pressing issues both locally and globally. There are many courses at Cornell that offer opportunities for engagement—from researching and  building systems that provide sustainable supplies of clean water for developing nations, to utilizing social entrepreneurship to address issues of food availability and access in the local community, to carrying out fieldwork in urban archaeology at local historic sites.

And some of you already participated in POST—the Pre-Orientation Service Trip program—carrying out projects in the local community. This is one of the many volunteer programs offered through the Cornell Public Service Center.

There are many ways to get involved and make a difference during your time at Cornell, and long afterwards. To learn more about them, you can stop by Kennedy Hall tomorrow afternoon to attend the ice cream social at the Engaged Cornell Hub as well as a program on engaging with local and global communities. Details are in your Orientation guide.

If you are sitting here today, it is because we have recognized in you the capacity to take in all that a world-class university like Cornell has to offer you on the path to becoming learned.  We have also recognized in you an interest in becoming more thoughtful, and we expect you to act on that interest by seeking out those with different backgrounds and ideas, listening carefully, and engaging in thoughtful discourse.  Finally, we have recognized in you a desire to take your learning and your thoughtfulness and put them to use in ways that benefit the country and humankind. You are, in those regards, among kindred spirits here.  Class of 2022, and new transfer students, we welcome you to Cornell!

And now, for the first of many times during your Cornell careers, I invite you to join the Cornell University Chorus and Glee Club in singing the Alma Mater.  The words are printed in your program.