Presidential Archives

2013 New Student Convocation Address

by David J. Skorton, President

As prepared for presentation
August 24, 2013

Thank you, Kevin, and welcome, everyone, to Cornell University. For me, and for many others on campus, today is the most hopeful day of the academic year—the day when the university, now almost 150 years old, is refreshed by our newest members and starts again. Whether you’re a new student, or a parent, a family member or friend of one of our new students, we welcome you to the university, and to what we hope will be a lifelong relationship with Cornell. I look forward to our journey together.

As Kevin, Jason, Ulysses and Darrick conveyed so well, Cornell is a strong, talented, positive, supportive community comprising people with wonderfully varying interests, backgrounds, perspectives and ideas. I am glad that all of you are becoming part of the Cornell family, and I look forward to getting to know you better.

Robin and I met some of you yesterday afternoon under the big tent on Rawlings Green, and there will be many other opportunities—formal and informal—to get together throughout your time here. Vice President for Student and Academic Services Susan Murphy and I meet regularly with student leaders and visit Student Assembly and Graduate and Professional Student Assembly meetings, and we host office hours in my office for students from time to time. I also try to keep in touch with students through the column I write for the Cornell Daily Sun about every other month—the next one is scheduled for September 3. And most important, when you see me around campus, please take a moment to say hello and introduce yourself.

Of course, I already know quite a bit about our new students as a group: Our 3,282 entering first-year students come from 48 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. I’m not sure why no one from Wyoming or Arkansas is joining us this year, but we’re not taking it personally. More than 11 percent of you first-year students are international students, representing 51 countries; nearly 41 percent of you self-identify as students of color, and just over half of you are women. You were selected from about 40,000 applicants—making this the most selective class in Cornell’s history. Congratulations! Our 561 entering transfer students are also diverse and accomplished, and your ranks include 153 students of color and 33 international students. Welcome all!

So how shall I describe this new community that you’ve selected as your home for the next several years? It’s large and cosmopolitan—as you might guess from the demographics I just mentioned. It’s an Ivy League university, and also New York State’s land grant university—creating an academic community with a unique commitment to excellence and service. It’s intellectually rigorous, unbelievably creative, and we engage the world, as well as the state and our local community, through our teaching, learning, research and outreach activities.

Cornell’s programs and facilities extend from Ithaca to Geneva, NY (where we operate the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station), to Doha, Qatar, where our New York City-based Weill Cornell Medical College has operated a campus for over a decade. We have programs and facilities in Washington, D.C., Rome, Beijing, Kathmandu and other locations around the world. Our newest campus, Cornell Tech, will be built on Roosevelt Island in New York City, and already is carrying out its mission of advanced education, research and entrepreneurship in space in the Chelsea section of Manhattan donated for our use by Google.

So Cornell is an exciting place to touch and learn about the world. And Cornell is also a welcoming and caring community where people look out for one another and help each other. You’ve probably already discovered this from your interactions with the hundreds of volunteers, orientation leaders and resident advisors who are helping you acclimate to Cornell during the first few weeks of the semester. You’ll continue to discover it during the many activities that the Orientation Steering Committee has organized for you over the next few days, as well as from your interactions with our incredibly dedicated and knowledgeable faculty and staff, whom you will encounter every day. Please join me in giving all these dedicated Cornellians a round of applause.

What does all this mean for you new students who are just starting out on your college careers?

First, Cornell is a place to pursue your intellectual passions. You have some 4,000 courses from which to choose, plus opportunities to pursue research, scholarship and creative work. Make time each semester to take at least one course for the sheer joy of learning about something that interests you. College is a time to discover what excites you, to learn about subjects far outside your major, and to take some intellectual risks.

Here’s one way to get started: Next Tuesday, check out the “Explore Series” workshops. They are marked with exclamation points in your orientation guide and you also received an Explore brochure. These are interactive sessions led by some of our great professors, based on the multidisciplinary University Courses they will be teaching this fall and next spring. The topics range from chemical ecology, to race segregation in America, to creating art in the plant world, among others. One of these courses just might open up a whole new area of intellectual interest, unleash a life-long passion for history, or music, or science or art, or otherwise enrich your life.

Second, get to know your professors. They will be a critical part of your Cornell experience while you are on campus, and often long after you earn your degrees. Cornell faculty members are world leaders in their fields or on their way to becoming such leaders. They include Grammy Award nominees, Emmy Award and Pulitzer Prize winners, Nobel laureates, recipients of the so-called MacArthur “genius awards,” members of the National Academies and other scholarly societies, and people you are likely to hear talking about the issues of the day on the nightly news. They are also inspiring teachers who care about you as students and as people.

You’ll meet some of them in your discussions about the New Student Reading Project selection, When the Emperor Was Divine. When classes start, be sure to ask your professors questions during or after class. Catch them during their office hours. See if you can participate in research and creativity activity in their labs or studios. Get to know your faculty advisor.

And reach out to the faculty beyond the classroom. There are faculty-in-residence and faculty fellows on North Campus and house deans and professors and house fellows on West Campus—all of whom eat meals with students and host programs on topics that might interest you. A number of these professors are teaching one- and two-credit courses on both North and West Campus as part of our “Learning Where You Live” initiative. This is a great way to get to know a professor and explore an interesting topic. Check out the Learning Where You Live brochure that you received. The Carol Tatkon Center on North Campus also provides opportunities for informal conversations with faculty members along with special programs, study skills sessions and a knowledgeable staff of upper-level students who can answer your questions.

Take advantage of whatever opportunities to connect with your professors work best for you, but make it a goal that before you leave Cornell there will be at least four professors—one each year—who know you very well.

My third piece of advice is to learn the culture and expectations of your new community so that you can participate fully and responsibly in life at Cornell. During these first weeks, there will be several required programs to help you understand what is expected. These range from the Cornell Essentials program, which will give you insights about how current students and recent alumni have navigated their way through Cornell, to the interactive Tapestry of Possibilities program, which aims to raise awareness about what it means to live and thrive and contribute to a diverse and inclusive community like ours. New this year is a program called “Speak about It,” which deals with issues of consent and sexual violence prevention.

Also required is a new program on academic integrity, which in the age of Internet search engines has become more critical than ever before. We have found that sometimes students may not understand that a particular behavior is cheating or what actually constitutes plagiarism. The new program, along with The Essential Guide to Academic Integrity at Cornell, which you will receive at the program, can help you sort it all out. But know that we will hold you to high standards and expect you to behave ethically in all that you do. We all hold ourselves to these same standards.

My fourth piece of advice echoes what this morning’s student leaders have said: To experience the full scope of Cornell, be an active member of the campus and the wider community.

Cornell has a strong tradition of outreach and public engagement that goes back to our land-grant roots and touches every aspect of our university. Each year Cornell students provide some 400,000 hours of service—through the Cornell Public Service Center and the activities of the more than 1,000 recognized student organizations on campus. Through Engaged Learning + Research—another university-wide center—you’ll find opportunities for academic service-learning, community-based research, and public scholarship across a wide spectrum of academic disciplines and programs. Consider how you might include in your program an extended time for study abroad. Studying or conducting research and scholarship are wonderful ways to build global competency in our interconnected world, and it is important to start planning early so that you’ll get the most from the experience while continuing to stay on track for earning your degree. Taking part in these programs can help you become even more creative, collaborative, and critically reflective leaders in your careers and your communities, and I hope you will find ways to participate during your time here.

My final piece of advice is for the parents and families here this morning. It seems like just yesterday that I sent my son off to college, and I can relate to the complex emotions that many of you feel: Pride that your son or daughter is now a Cornell student, but also a twinge of concern about the changes that will take place in your student and your family.

There is no doubt that the college years can be tumultuous and it is sometimes hard to let go—at least it was for me. But the fact that your sons and daughters are at Cornell means you and they have done your jobs well and that your daughters and sons are ready for this next step. The most helpful thing you can do now for these accomplished young adults is to step back and let them find their own way.

Of course, you should stay in touch with your students. Text, email, call and Skype with them. Come back to campus for First-Year Parents Weekend—the first weekend in November—if you can. Listen carefully, offer suggestions tactfully, give love and support unequivocally. But, in the great majority of cases, try hard—really, really hard—to give your sons and daughters the space, time and freedom to find ways to solve their problems for themselves.

That said, if problems remain unresolved or if you sense that something is truly wrong, please let us know. The Family Guide contains a wealth of resources that you may find helpful while your student is here. You also will find it helpful and reassuring to read the new publication for families – Voices: Stories of Insight and Experience. It contains personal stories, practical information, and tips from Cornell faculty and staff members, alumni, and students. If you didn’t receive a copy and would like one, send an e-mail to the Dean of Students Kent Hubbell. You can also purchase copies in the Cornell Store.But if you still haven’t been able to resolve an issue through the standard channels, you can always email me directly at and I will direct your message to someone who can help.

So new students and families: Welcome to the start of a great adventure and our journey together. Welcome to the academic breadth and depth, the intellectual rigor and societal engagement that are hallmarks of a Cornell education and a Cornell experience. Welcome to a place of high standards and personal responsibility. Welcome to a close-knit community whose members—faculty, students, and staff—come here from all over the world to learn and discover and create and make a difference.

And know that you are full members of this community, and we are excited, honored, and very pleased to have you here. New students and families—welcome to Cornell!

Now, for the first of many times, I invite you to join us in singing the Cornell alma mater—the words are printed in your program.