Presidential Archives

2007 New Student Convocation

President David J. Skorton

August 18, 2007
Schoellkopf Stadium

Good morning, Cornellians! Thank you, Rohan, for that introduction. And welcome, new students, families and friends, to Cornell. It is wonderful to have you here as part of the Cornell family.

As Rohan mentioned, my wife, Professor Robin Davisson, and I are now “sophomores,” but we are looking forward to our week in Mary Donlon Hall with first-year students. We’ll be off doing what we usually do during the day, but we’ll be around most evenings – and we hope you’ll stop us and introduce yourselves, get to know us, and tell us how things are going.

I want to thank Rohan, Jessica and all the members of the Orientation Steering Committee, as well as the 800 Orientation volunteers who helped you move in yesterday. The OSC members and volunteers put a human face on those glossy Cornell brochures and web pages that you’ve been looking at for many months. And they’ll help you get off to a strong start at Cornell. Let’s hear it for these volunteers!

I also want to thank Elan Greenberg and Mao Ye for their words of advice and for the campus leadership they provide. I hope many of you will follow their example and get involved in campus and community life while you pursue your academic goals.

With talents and interests that stretch from academics to athletics to the arts and everything in between, you have a great deal to contribute to the campus, and we’re very pleased and excited that you’re here. Three thousand fifty-five of you are members of the Class of 2011; 571 are transfer students. I send a special welcome to the transfer students. I transferred from UCLA to Northwestern as a junior, and I remember it clearly as a special experience. Males outnumber females in both groups, although not by much. More than 30 percent of the Class of 2011 report yourselves as students of color, along with nearly 23 percent of the transfers. You come from 46 states plus Guam and Puerto Rico and from 63 other nations, including Algeria, Brazil, Cambodia, Canada, Chile, China, Dominican Republic, England, Ethiopia, France, Haiti, Israel, Kazakhstan, Korea, Malaysia, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Singapore, South Africa, Uganda and Vietnam. And 35 of you are from right here in Ithaca.

Cornell’s founder Ezra Cornell intended to “found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.” That’s still the university’s motto – the best motto of any American college or university, according to Motto Magazine. And, as your varied backgrounds, interests and experiences demonstrate, our motto still has the power to inspire, with its promise of inclusiveness and intellectual breadth.

What can I add to the advice that Rohan, Elan, and Mao have given you? Let me offer just three observations about your new university.

First, Cornell is a caring community, and you can do well here. When we get together tomorrow—and then again on Monday in the small group sessions—to discuss Nadine Gordimer’s novel, The Pickup, you’ll likely be surprised by the insights that other new students have gained from the book. They will impress you as being smart, articulate, confident, and you may find yourself wondering if you are up to the challenge of Cornell. The answer is that you are—if that were not the case, you would not have been admitted—and every one of you can do well here.

At Cornell we work hard, often under the pressure of multiple deadlines and our own high expectations, but we also recognize the paramount importance of physical and emotional health as the foundation for scholarly pursuits. I want to stress how important it is that all of us take care of ourselves and also look out for each other as members of a campus community. There is no denying that this is a high-pressure environment, as is the case at every outstanding research university, and the transition to independence during the college years can be challenging. We have enormous leadership by professionals on our campus regarding mental health issues. These professionals are here to help us all. But all of us must acknowledge our interdependence and share responsibility for our own and others’ health and well-being.

When the pressure starts to build—with prelims and papers due—I urge you to find ways to reduce stress in your lives. Taking a walk or a jog through Cornell Plantations, exercising at a fitness center, spending time in a practice room playing a musical instrument, or curling up in a comfortable chair in the library are all ways to promote good mental and physical health. Or what I believe is the most relaxing and fulfilling of all—watching reruns of my speeches.

I hope you will also look out for your friends and classmates. When we are aware of someone who is in distress, we demonstrate compassion when we extend ourselves to that person, rather than ignoring the need. And when we care for ourselves and allow others to help us when we are in trouble, we ease our own burdens and enable each other to express compassion. That’s what it means to be part of a caring community like Cornell.

Second, Cornell’s emphasis on “freedom with responsibility” offers you a tremendous opportunity to mature and grow in wisdom and independence. Here you’ll find enormous freedom—to choose your educational program, your research projects, your friends, your extracurricular activities—and there are always more opportunities and ways to spend your time than there are hours in the day.

Sometimes you will make the wrong choice, and you’ll find that there are consequences. That party in Collegetown the night before a big prelim might not have been such a great idea after all… But in the process of making choices and assuming responsibility for the outcome, you’ll gain maturity and confidence that will continue to serve you well.

Let me also say a few words to the parents who are here this morning, because “freedom with responsibility” has implications for parents, too. For much of the past two decades or so, you have nurtured your sons and daughters. You’ve helped them overcome obstacles, provided opportunities and encouraged them to achieve their goals. The fact that your children are at Cornell today is a testament to the fine job you and they have done. And now, it’s time to let them apply all that you’ve taught them as they find their own way as young adults.

My son is about to enter his senior year at another university, and so I know that it is a fine line that we parents walk between trying to help our children succeed and cushioning them from the worst of life’s blows. No one approach is right for every family. But I’ve found it helpful to keep in touch with Josh by phone, e-mail, and text messaging; to listen carefully and sympathetically to what he has to say; and to react slowly—so that he has time and space to solve problems on his own. He has taught me that, and we have much to learn from our children, our young adults. Freedom with responsibility is one of the best things that you can encourage your sons and daughters to experience at Cornell.

Third, Cornell has a tradition of “looking outward” that permeates all aspects of the university—our teaching, research and outreach, and student life. Cornell is the largest and most comprehensive school in the Ivy League, the land grant university of the state of New York, and quite literally land grant university to the world. Our research and its spin-offs contribute to economic development in the region. Through Cornell Cooperative Extension, which has offices in all upstate counties and in New York City, we connect New Yorkers with the expertise of the campus in order to address the issues they face in their communities and their lives. Cornell also has campuses or programs in New York City, Geneva, NY, Appledore Island, ME, Arecibo, PR, France, England, Italy, Singapore, China, Tanzania, Qatar and elsewhere—more than 50 countries in all, including countries where students study through Cornell Abroad. We have a long history of working internationally, with partners from around the globe, on problems and challenges ranging from agricultural productivity to global health, and we are building new partnerships, with universities at their center, to address issues such as global inequalities, sustainability, and world health.

Students play important roles in Cornell’s tradition of looking outward through their involvement in outreach and public service, and this year’s new students are already off to a strong start. More than 50 new students arrived on campus a week early to participate the Pre-Orientation Service Trips program—the POST program. Continuing a tradition that began 12 years ago, they worked on issues of concern to the local community—including rural education, homelessness, health care, affordable housing and mental health—while making new friends, learning about Tompkins County, and performing valuable public service at the same time. The Cornell Public Service Center, which sponsors the POST program, can put you in touch with other volunteer opportunities in Tompkins County and beyond. The Public Service Center can also connect you with Cornell’s more than 55 “service learning courses,” where Cornell professors from across the university combine teaching with experiential learning and public service.

So welcome to Cornell: A caring community—inspiring and inclusive—where freedom and responsibility go hand in hand, and where our tradition of looking outward has a real impact on education, research and outreach, and on how Cornellians engage the community and the world. We’re very glad you’re here. We know that you’ll enrich and renew the university with your energy, your enthusiasm and your skills. Congratulations on choosing Cornell.