Presidential Archives

2010 New Student Convocation Address

by David J. Skorton, President

As prepared for delivery
August 21, 2010

Welcome, everyone, to Cornell University. As I think you could tell from the students’ presentations, this is a strong, positive, diverse, and supportive community, and we’re very glad that all of you—first-year students, transfer students, and your families—are going to be part of our family for the next several years.

You probably already know a great deal about Cornell. You’re aware of our longstanding, broad and deep academic excellence. You’ve met your roommates and hall mates, RAs and Orientation leaders. Some of you came early to volunteer in the local community through the Pre-Orientation Service Trips (POST) program or to take an Outdoor Odyssey through our nationally recognized Cornell Outdoor Education program. Some of you have even passed your swim test already—and many more of you will complete that requirement during Orientation—putting you one step closer to graduation even before your first day of class! (I remember taking the swim test my first year as president at Cornell and barely passing! You’ll probably do much better.)

My wife, Professor Robin Davisson, and I met some of you at events yesterday and earlier this morning. We’ll be moving into Mary Donlon Hall on North Campus for a few days next week —as we do every year—to get to know more of you on your own turf.

We’ll be leading small group discussions of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and I’ll be introducing one of the Tapestry of Possibilities sessions and also, via video, the “Real Students, Reel Stories” program next week. When you see us around campus during the year, please say hello and introduce yourselves. Although we are a large community—maybe because we are such a large community—it’s important that we put in the effort to get to know each other.

You are always invited to email me about a specific problem or concern that you’ve not been able to resolve through other means. My address is —and I promise that I or someone on my leadership team will get back with you. Of course, first check with the people most directly responsible for addressing your concerns—whether a professor, an RA, or a staff member. But know that you can contact me if you don’t know where else to turn. That goes for parents as well as students, by the way—the same email address will work for you—and I hope you’ll let me know about specific concerns, and also about things we are doing well.

You are joining an extraordinary university community—and you will make it even better with your energy, your background, and your varied interests and talents. Let me tell you a little bit about yourselves and about your new community.

In both the first-year and transfer classes, there are roughly equal numbers of women and men. First-year students come from 49 of the 50 states. For those of you who haven’t been following the debate about the missing state on Cornell’s Facebook page, it’s Montana. Rest assured that we have nothing against “Big Sky Country”—even though we don’t see the sky too often here in Ithaca, especially during the winter months—but that’s the way it worked out this year. They also come from the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, and from 42 other countries, including Austria, Botswana, Croatia, Ecuador, Ireland, Kenya, Nepal, India, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, just to name a few.

Some of our new students, along with members of the Muslim community on campus, are observing Ramadan and fasting throughout Orientation, and I wish you all a blessed holiday. All told, there are more than 25 faith communities on campus in which new students who are so inclined can find a spiritual home.

Nearly half the first-year students and more than a third of the transfer students were awarded need-based grant aid—making good on Cornell’s founding aspiration, put forward by Ezra Cornell nearly 150 years ago, that his university would welcome talented students regardless of their financial circumstances. You were selected from a pool of more than 36,000 applicants—the largest applicant pool in Cornell history—and you’ve already distinguished yourselves with strong academic records and achievements in everything from athletics to music to community service.

As diverse as you are, there is even more diversity in the university as a whole. Last year we had more than 3,400 international students at Cornell—graduate, professional and undergraduate—from 112 different countries. In addition, each year there are typically about 1,200 international scholars—faculty and academic staff—on campus, representing some 100 nations. You’ll find that learning, collaborating, and just “hanging out” with people from different backgrounds and experiences will broaden your own perspective on the world.

So my first charge to you this morning is to use these first few days before the start of classes, when all of you are finding your way and everything is fresh and new, to get to know people, including people who may be very different from the friends you had in high school. In fact, right now—while we’re together in Schoellkopf this morning—please take a minute to introduce yourself to someone you don’t know who is sitting near you. Now please remember to do that throughout your time at Cornell—because we build community on campus through personal connections, one person at a time.

My second charge to you is to get to know your professors—they will lead you on a great journey of discovery. Cornell faculty members are not only brilliant and creative researchers and scholars—international leaders in their fields or on their way to becoming such leaders; they are also great teachers and mentors who truly care about students. They’ve earned professional recognitions from Nobel Prizes to Emmy Award nominations to the so-called MacArthur Foundation “genius awards.” And you’ll discover that they are also committed and inspiring teachers who care about you as students and as people—especially if you make the effort to connect with them during office hours, after class, and through programs in the residence halls and at the Carol Tatkon Center, the intellectual, cultural and drop-in center on North Campus. Be sure to meet the faculty associated with your residence hall and take time to get to know your faculty advisor well.

My third charge to you is not to be overwhelmed by the vastness of Cornell, but instead to view it as the extraordinary opportunity it is—where you have almost limitless possibilities for academic exploration and personal growth.

Cornell comprises 14 schools and colleges: 7 undergraduate and 4 graduate/professional schools and colleges here in Ithaca, 2 medical graduate and professional schools in New York City and one in Doha, Qatar, in the Arabian Gulf. We also have programs in Geneva, NY; Washington, D.C.; Rome, Italy; Beijing, Singapore, and elsewhere.

We offer more than 4,000 courses, 70 undergraduate majors, 93 graduate fields of study, continuing education and outreach programs—some of the best and most wide-ranging academic programs in the world. Our undergraduate architecture program, applied and engineering physics program, and College of Veterinary Medicine, for example, are consistently ranked #1 in the country. For the past decade, we have generally been among the top five universities in funding from the National Science Foundation, and were #1 in FY 2008. And we are one of the top universities for graduating B.S. degree students who later earn Ph.D.s in science and engineering.

But Cornell is also a superb place for studying the arts and humanities, the social sciences and a wide range of professional fields. Last year, for example, Dorian Bandy, Class of 2010, won a Marshall Scholarship to study Baroque violin at the Royal Academy of Music in London, England. Another 2010 Cornell graduate, Melanie Redeye, a linguistics and German studies major who grew up on the Tonawanda Reservation in Western New York, was able to carry out research on the Seneca Amerindian language as a Mellon Mays Fellow at Cornell. After graduate school in applied linguistics, she hopes to work with her native community and elsewhere to encourage the preservation of languages threatened with extinction.

You can do great things at Cornell, no matter what program or major you decide to pursue. The sheer size and scope of Cornell give you unlimited opportunities to discover your true passion and to achieve your personal and career goals. Our research and educational programs span five continents. There is also a substantial study-abroad program—Cornell Abroad—and programs like Cornell-in-Washington and Capital Semester, which offer undergraduates a chance to study in the nation’s capital or the capital of New York State. And our Program in Global Health taps resources here on the Ithaca campus and at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City to address world health challenges such as malnutrition and HIV/AIDS.

Just as I hope you’ll take advantage of your time at Cornell to forge bonds with people who are different from those you knew in high school and to work closely with our world-class faculty, I hope you’ll explore some of Cornell’s many academic resources, here in Ithaca and throughout the world.

During your time here—and especially during Orientation Week—you’ll hear time and again that Cornell is a caring community.  And you may already be wondering what that means for you as the newest members of that community. It means, very simply, that we take seriously our responsibilities to look out for one another and take care of ourselves. We may have asked you to read an unusual science-fiction book for the new student reading project, but I want to assure you that Cornell is not populated by androids—or electric sheep. We don’t wake up each morning and adjust our Penfield mood organs, and we recognize that sometimes life at Cornell, despite all its opportunities, can be stressful. Your professors, the staff at Gannett Health Services and other highly trained staff members in the individual schools and colleges, the Dean of Students Office, and elsewhere on campus can help you navigate the challenges that come with college life and maintain your physical and mental health.

So my fourth charge to you is to check in with your emotional side from time to time, ask for help when you need it, and look out for one another. The Gannett Health Services website has many resources to help you through the inevitable challenges that come from being part of a large and complex university—whether they are affecting you directly or having an impact on someone you know.

Your families, who are here with you this morning and so proud of what you’ve already achieved, will continue to be important sources of support during your Cornell years and beyond, and I hope you’ll stay in touch with them regularly—by phone, email, Skype, IM, Facebook or whatever means works best for you.

And parents and other family members, take it from someone who has only recently completed the adventure of parenting a college student: you’ll continue to be a significant part of your student’s life at Cornell, and not only when the bursar’s bills are due. It will be important to listen carefully, to offer suggestions tactfully, to give love and support unequivocally—and, in the great majority of cases, to let your sons and daughters find a way to solve their problems for themselves. They will make mistakes, but in most cases they will be stronger and more resilient for having confronted a challenging situation and resolved it successfully on their own.

That said, you know your student better than we do. If you suspect that something is wrong, please utilize the resources listed in the Family Guide to resolve issues that may be of concern. You should have received a hard copy of the guide, but it is also available online. Just click on the “families” link on the New Student Programs page. And remember, if you don’t know where else to turn for help, you can email me directly at and I or someone on my leadership team will respond. Together we can make sure that the Cornell years are a time of positive growth and learning and the foundation of future success.

So members of the Class of 2014, transfer students, families: Welcome to Cornell. You’ve come to a unique and life-changing place: a place of limitless opportunity and great diversity; a place where people learn and discover and create and act to lift the world’s burdens; a place where we care about and support each other, even as we take responsibility for ourselves.

Welcome to the start of a great adventure. Welcome to a place of endless possibilities. Welcome to our caring community.

Class of 2014, new transfer students, parents and families: Welcome to Cornell University. We’re glad that you are here.