Presidential Archives

2008 New Student Convocation Address

by David J. Skorton, President

As prepared for presentation
August 23, 2008

Good morning, everyone, and welcome to Cornell. I had the pleasure of meeting some of you while you were moving in or on Rawlings Green yesterday afternoon, and it’s good to be together this morning to begin the journey of a new academic year, your first at Cornell.

I hope we’ll have many occasions to talk, and to exchange ideas, during your years at Cornell. Even though Cornell is a large and complex university, I believe it is very important that you and I get to know each other. You can email me at, and I promise that either I or someone on my senior leadership team will get back with you. I’ll be communicating with you through a monthly column in the Cornell Daily Sun; through periodic meetings with the leaders of the Student Assembly and other student groups, periodic student office hours in my office in Day Hall along with Vice President for Student and Academic Services Susan Murphy, and in many other venues. When we pass each other on campus or around town, please take a moment to introduce yourself or just to say “Hi.” We are all part of the Cornell experience. And starting tomorrow, my wife Robin Davisson and I will be moving into Donlon Hall for a week, as we do each fall, so that we can get to know you while you’re settling in to life on North Campus. We’ll be doing what we normally do during the day—Robin in her office and laboratory at the College of Veterinary Medicine, where she is a professor, and me in Day Hall—but we’ll be on North Campus most evenings, and we hope you’ll take a minute to introduce yourselves to us if you see us there.

I want to thank Andrew and Lorelei and all members of the Orientation Steering Committee, as well as the 65 Orientation supervisors, 650 Orientation leaders and 200 members of the move-in crew, for their efforts. They came back to campus early to make sure all of you would get off to a strong start at Cornell, and I know you’ll enjoy the orientation activities they’ve planned—from last night’s interactive icebreaker, to tonight’s session with “the Incredible Boris” and tomorrow’s Step Afrika event, and ending, on Wednesday, with Cornell Night, complete with Class of 2012 and transfer class ice cream and performances by some of the best talent on campus. All of this is a chance for you to become comfortable on campus and as a part of the worldwide Cornell family.

Let me tell you a bit about yourselves. The first-year students were selected from the largest applicant pool ever—more than 33,000 applicants for the roughly 3,100 places in the Cornell entering class. You are roughly equally divided between men and women. More than 32 percent of you identify yourselves as “students of color.” You are smart, talented, and come from a great variety of backgrounds.

I feel a special bond with the 616 new students who are entering as transfer students. I transferred from UCLA to Northwestern as an undergraduate. Like the Class of 2012, you transfer students are talented and diverse. You already know quite a bit about college life, from wherever you were before Cornell, and I know you are going to thrive here.

Let me also say a few words to the parents in the audience, speaking not as president but as a fellow parent. My son Josh is a student at another university—he’ll graduate this year —so I have some firsthand experience with being a parent of a young adult. While every family is unique, I think I can appreciate the mixture of emotions you’re probably experiencing today. So first let me say, congratulations! The fact that your daughters and sons are here today as Cornell’s newest students is a tribute to their accomplishments and yours. You’ve done your jobs well. Now it’s time to relax and learn along with your students.

Thanks to Josh and his fiancée Emily, I’ve become quite good at communicating via text messages and email as well as by cell phone. Parents continue to be important to their children’s success in college, and I urge you to stay in touch with them—and with me. My email address again is, and it works for parents as well as for students.

I also want to thank Ryan Lavin and Kate Duch for their words of advice and for the leadership they provide. I hope many of you will follow their advice and become involved in campus and community life as you pursue your academic goals. Students are a force for social change throughout the world, and this is very true at Cornell. If you haven’t already registered to vote, I urge you to do so during the voter registration drive on campus. If you registered before you left home, don’t forget to request an absentee ballot. And, whether you choose to register in your old community or your new one in Ithaca, when November comes, please remember to vote. In this Presidential election year, the opportunities for engagement and leadership outside the classroom—the possibilities for making a difference—are likely to be even more compelling than usual, and I hope you will take some time to become involved. More on that later.

Let me offer a few observations about Cornell, building on what you have already heard:

First, all of you can do well here. Let me say that again. Every single one of you can do well at Cornell. If that were not the case, you would not have been admitted. You’ll find that your classmates are as motivated and accomplished as you are – and eager to learn new things. That makes being a Cornell student more engaging and more fun than what you may have experienced in high school. You’ll challenge each other, compete with each other, stimulate and support each other — whether you’re working on a project team like the Solar Decathlon or the Formula SAE racing team or involved in a study group at the Tatkon Center on North Campus.

Second, Cornell, like every major research university, can be a demanding and stressful place. When pressure builds—when you are experiencing challenges in your academic or personal life or become aware that those around you are under great stress—I urge you to reach out in friendship and support. You’ll find that, for all its intensity, Cornell is a caring community. At the Tatkon Center, at Gannett Health Center, at the Learning Strategies Center, within the 25 faith communities affiliated with Cornell United Religious Work, at the Dean of Students Office, and elsewhere on campus, you’ll find dedicated professionals who can help you adjust to Cornell, help you deal with anxiety and stress, and meet the academic challenges of Cornell. Many of your professors, TAs and other students are trained to reach out to those who may be experiencing difficulties and direct them to appropriate support. As members of a caring community—all of us have a role to play in ensuring our own well-being and the well-being of other members of our campus. Before coming to Cornell I was a faculty member and administrator but also practiced medicine, caring for adolescents and young adults for 25 years, and I know how important it is for us to care for ourselves and each other.

I urge you, when you are experiencing the inevitable challenges of life as a college student, to reach out to others who can help. This is a mark of strength and self-awareness, not weakness. And if you sense that someone you know is under unusual stress or having difficulties, I hope you will reach out to them. The strength of our caring community depends on the efforts we all make to seek and to offer help and support.
Third, this is an infinitely varied place. Study hard, stretch yourself, get help when you need it, but also have fun. You’ve already heard from the student speakers about some of the opportunities available here. Check out the Cornell Daily Sun’s list of 161 things every Cornellian should do—and add some ideas of your own. Take Psych 101… or the wines course…or magical mushrooms/mysterious molds…or another course just because you think it would be interesting. Milk a cow. Play Frisbee on the Arts Quad. Eat at Rulloffs, then try to find his brain in Uris Hall. See a play at the Schwartz Center; attend an opening at the Johnson Art Museum; attend a lecture by a distinguished campus visitor. Eats lots of ice cream from the Cornell Dairy Bar—then work it off at a fitness center, the Lindseth Climbing Wall, by taking a run through Cornell Plantations, or walking up Libe Slope.

And find ways that you can stretch yourself through public service, which has been part of the Cornell culture since the university’s founding in 1865 as the land grant university for the State of New York. Kate Duch talked about beginning her Cornell career with a pre-orientation service trip—and some of you have had that experience this year. You’ll find that there are many other ways to augment your academic experience with service to the campus, the community and the world beyond.

The Cornell Public Service Center is a great place to start to find volunteer and work-study opportunities in the community, service-learning courses (which include outreach and service as part of the learning experience), and to connect with student service groups on campus. For example, the Alternative Break program organizes service learning trips to communities from Cape Cod to Tangelo Park, Florida during spring break; the Cornell Companions, sponsored by the College of Veterinary Medicine, gives “pet-less” undergraduates the opportunity to brighten the day for residents of local nursing homes and other facilities through visits with community members’ pets; Cover Africa, which aims to distribute malaria-preventing bed nets in Africa, offered a service learning course and winter-break trip to Ghana last year; the Translator-Interpreter Program trains bilingual and multilingual students and staff to serve as interpreters for community agencies in emergency and non-emergency situations. There are many other options on the Public Service Center website—and if don’t see a program there that fits your interests, you can always start one. Please remember that we are all looking to you and your generation for leadership, and there is no better time to begin to demonstrate that leadership than during the Presidential election year.

So welcome to Cornell: rural yet cosmopolitan; demanding but caring; remarkably diverse in its membership, its interests, its opportunities for personal and intellectual growth; rooted in a tradition of service and inspired by the promise of possibility.

Welcome to Cornell!