Presidential Archives

2011 New Student Convocation Address

by David J. Skorton, President

As prepared for delivery
August 20, 2011

Thank you, Hannah, and welcome, everyone, to Cornell University. Welcome to our new students, families, friends, and other Cornellians—welcome to our new academic year! For those of the Muslim faith, I wish you a blessed Ramadan. As I think you could tell from the presentations by Corey, Natalie, Darrick, and Hannah, this is a strong, positive, diverse, and supportive community. And we’re very glad that all of you are going to be part of our Cornell family.

Cornell’s founder, Ezra Cornell, aspired to establish a university—to quote our famous motto—”where any person can find instruction in any study.” In your diversity of backgrounds and interests, you—our newest students—are proof of the power of our founder’s vision, which has shaped Cornell for nearly 150 years.

You first—year students, in fact, already have a special place in Cornell history. Most of you will be graduating in 2015, during Cornell’s year—long celebration of its 150th birthday—and you will be known through generations as the Sesquicentennial Class of Cornell University.

Members of the Sesquicentennial Class come from 48 states, plus Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, and 45 countries worldwide. (We don’t know why Arkansas and Nebraska snubbed us this year.) You were selected from among 36,387 applicants for freshman admission—an all-time high and the largest applicant pool in the Ivy League. One fifth of you self-identify as underrepresented minorities, and about one tenth of you are international students. Transfer students, too, come from all across the country, and this year over 13% are international students.

Together, first-year and transfer students exemplify what our founder meant by “any person”—talented people from all backgrounds and circumstances. We have no doubt that all of you can continue to excel during your time at Cornell, and we look forward to the energy, distinctive perspectives, and good ideas that you will bring to our community.

The other part of our famous motto—”any study”—is also important to your experience at Cornell, and I encourage you to explore the broad and varied opportunities for intellectual and personal growth that are available to you as Cornell students on campus, in the wider community, and throughout the world.

Within Cornell’s 14 schools and colleges, we offer more than 4,000 courses, nearly 80 undergraduate majors, more than 90 graduate and professional fields of study, dual degrees, and interdisciplinary majors—some of the best and most wide-ranging academic programs in the world. Cornell is a science and technology powerhouse, but it is also a superb place for studying the arts and humanities, the social sciences, and a wide range of professional fields. We have educational and research programs all over the world, as well as strong ties to our local community of Ithaca, New York City, and the State of New York. So my first piece of advice is to take advantage of the university’s size and scope to discover your passion, challenge yourself, feed your intellectual curiosity, and achieve your personal and career goals.

My second piece of advice is “get to know your professors.” Next week’s “Explore!” workshops will introduce you to some of Cornell’s outstanding faculty members and the fascinating subjects they study and teach. The workshops are marked with an exclamation point in your Orientation booklet—and they will give you a taste of what is awaiting you intellectually at Cornell.

You’ll find that Cornell professors are not only the most informed and innovative in their fields but are also approachable and engaging—and they truly care about you as students and as people. Richard Light, in his book Making the Most of College, advises students to get to know one professor each semester very well, and I think that’s great advice. I encourage you to connect with your professors during office hours, after class, through residence hall programs, and at the Carol Tatkon Center on North Campus. You are likely to remember your time with them—and perhaps even keep in touch with some of them—for the rest of your lives.

To get you started on the right foot academically, I call your attention to “The Essential Guide to Academic Integrity at Cornell,” which all new students should have received, but you can find a copy on-line if you still need one. Academic integrity—honesty in how you represent your intellectual work and that of others—is expected not only in your course work, but in all aspects of the educational process. This guide will help you understand Cornell’s requirements for academic integrity and your responsibility to abide by them.

My third piece of advice is to take good care of yourselves while you are here. Especially in these last days of summer, enjoy our campus and the surrounding area, including our beautiful gorges, where you can read the geological history that shaped our region in the rock formations and refresh mind and spirit. But be aware of the dangers of the rushing water and slippery rocks. Stay on established trails, obey posted warning signs, and do not swim or wade in the water, no matter how tempting it seems. Swimming in the gorges is not only extremely dangerous, it is also illegal. Please don’t swim in these areas, for your own safety.

Cornell has a tradition of freedom, with responsibility. You will have extraordinary freedom here to pursue your dreams and to explore. But with that freedom comes the responsibility to behave in ways that reflect your intelligence and basic good sense— whether it is respecting the dangers of the gorges, saying no to high-risk drinking or avoiding other illegal behaviors, such as hazing, that can have serious and even deadly consequences.

And remember that your mental and emotional well-being is just as important as your physical well-being. Take time to check in with yourself periodically, and get help if you need it. Cornell is big and bustling, and quite possibly a long way from home, but it is a caring community. The Dean of Students Office, your residence hall director, Gannett Health Services, the faith communities that make up Cornell United Religious WorkCornell Career Services, the Learning Strategies Center, and your college advising offices are among the places you can turn for help.

Fourth, make an effort to get to know the students and staff in your new home, who come from all backgrounds and from all over the world. You’ll find that they are friendly, approachable, and eager to learn from you and share what they know. I encourage you to engage with and to enjoy the diversity of this community with an open heart and mind.

Tomorrow afternoon, my wife, Professor Robin Davisson, and I will be moving into Mary Donlon Hall for a few days—as we do every year—to get to know you better on your own turf. I also will be leading a small-group discussions of Homer & Langley—the new student reading selection—on Monday afternoon. I found it to be a fascinating book, by the way, but I hope you don’t take it as advice for furnishing your new rooms. Next week I’ll also be introducing one of the Tapestry of Possibilities sessions, in which a student theater troupe will get us all talking about the complexities and opportunities of diversity on campus. The session I’m introducing is for transfer students, and I’m looking forward to that because I was a transfer student myself way back when.

When you see Robin or me around campus during the year—or in years to come—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 extra effort to get to know each other. I invite you to email me with a concern or a suggestion. My address is Of course, first check with the people most directly responsible for addressing your concerns—whether a professor, an RA, or a staff member. But do not hesitate to contact me if you don’t know where else to turn.

And finally, a word to the parents and other family members here this morning. Sending a student to college is a major transition for most families, as it is for the students. And—take it from someone who has only recently completed the adventure of parenting a college student—you will continue to be a significant part of your student’s life at Cornell. Stay in touch with email, texts, and phone calls. Visit your student via Skype or FaceTime. Become Facebook friends. Come back to campus for First Family Weekend if you can. And throughout the college years, listen carefully, offer suggestions tactfully, give love and support unequivocally—and, in the great majority of cases, try hard, really, really hard, to let your sons and daughters find a way to solve their problems for themselves. They will make mistakes, but usually they will be stronger and more resilient for having confronted and resolved a challenging situation.

But if you suspect that something is wrong—beyond the normal, expected ups and downs of college life—please utilize the resources listed in the Family Guide. And if all else fails, you can email me at and I or someone on my leadership team will get back to you. Together—faculty, staff, students and families—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 2015—the Sesquicentennial Class—transfer students, families: Welcome to Cornell. You’ve come to a unique and life-changing place and the start of a great adventure: a place of unusual diversity and vast opportunity—where “any person, any study” still resonates after nearly 150 years; a place where faculty, staff and students together learn and discover and create and act to lift the world’s burdens; a place where we care about and support each other and take responsibility for our own well-being; a place of endless possibilities; a place that will become part of you—as you become part of Cornell.

The Sesquicentennial Class of 2015, new transfer students, parents and families: Welcome to Cornell University. We’re so glad that you are here.