Presidential Archives

2014 New Student Convocation Address

by David J. Skorton, President

As prepared for presentation
August 23, 2014

Thank you, Winnie, and welcome, everyone, to Cornell University, one of the most distinguished and comprehensive research universities in the world. And with all of you joining us—and with all the wonderful skills and perspectives you, our newest students, bring to the campus—I have no doubt that we’ll be an even stronger university going forward.

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 each other and with Cornell. As Rachel, Sarah, Ross and Winnie conveyed so eloquently, Cornell is a strong, talented, positive, stimulating and supportive community, and we are all glad that you are becoming part of the Cornell family.

For me, and for many of us on the campus, today is the most optimistic day of the year, because with your arrival the university is renewed. Our 3261 entering first-year students come from 49 states—all except North Dakota—plus Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands and 51 other countries, and you join an even more diverse community comprising people from every state and more than 100 countries. Fifty-one percent of you are women, over 13 percent of you are first-generation college students, and nearly 43 percent of you self-identify as students of color, making you the most diverse class in Cornell history. You were selected from more than 43,000 applicants, making you also the most selective class ever.

Our 572 entering transfer students, almost evenly divided between women and men, are also diverse and accomplished, and your ranks include 166 students of color, 35 international students, and 98 first-generation college students—numbers that are all up slightly from last year. Welcome all!

Since we are celebrating the university’s 150th birthday this year, with many opportunities to reflect on Cornell’s past, present and future during this sesquicentennial year, I tracked down some specifics about Cornell’s very first students, who matriculated in 1868, to see how you and they compare.

Instead of stellar SAT or ACT scores, AP credits and outstanding high school transcripts, hopeful candidates for Cornell’s first class sat for examinations here in Ithaca the day before the university opened and were tested in grammar, spelling, geography, and algebra through quadratics.

Those judged qualified—332 students in the first-year class and 80 admitted with advanced credit—were, like you, a diverse and interesting group. They ranged in age from 15 to 30, all of them men because, despite Cornell’s aspirations for coeducation, the university did not yet have facilities to accommodate women students. Most were from New York State, although a few came from as far away as California, Dakota Territory, and Florida. And even at its opening, Cornell was an international university, with students from Canada, England, Russia and Brazil in the first class.

Some were attracted by the university’s then-radical openness to people of all races, creeds, and economic circumstances and by its emphasis on practical studies as well as the liberal arts—characteristics that are even stronger in Cornell’s current culture. And a remarkable number of the first students went on to distinguished careers in science, politics, education, art, literature and other fields. That record of achievement by Cornell graduates continues to this day, and we hope you’ll contribute to it while you are at Cornell and in your lives as alumni.

Like our early students, you’ll soon discover that Cornell is intellectually rigorous and unbelievably creative across the whole range of academic offerings including the sciences and social sciences, professional studies, the humanities and the arts. An Ivy League institution as well as the land-grant university for New York State, we engage the world, as well as the state and our local community, through our teaching, learning, research, creative work, and outreach activities. In fact, our commitment to public engagement makes our research and education even more rigorous and relevant and aims to nurture educated global citizens.

We are 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 learn about your new community. You’ll continue to discover the friendliness and openness of our community during the many activities that the Orientation Steering Committee has organized for you over the next few days. 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 your college careers?

First, Cornell is a place to pursue your intellectual passions. You—or your parents—may expect you to have one clear, straight path to a degree and, subsequently, a career. And many of you will. But college is a time to discover what excites you, to learn about subjects far outside your major, and to take some intellectual risks. Make time each semester to take at least one course for the sheer joy of learning about something that interests you. And if your intellectual interests change over time, that’s okay.

Here’s one way to get started: Check out the “Explore Series” workshops listed in the Orientation Guide as well as in the brochure you received. They cover a range of topics—from race and its depiction in popular culture to the ethical issues surrounding genetically modified organisms. Each of the 8 workshops will be led by faculty who teach what we call our University Courses, which are open without prerequisites to students throughout the university. And all of them will be held at the Carol Tatkon Center, your intellectual, support and resource center on North Campus, where throughout the year you can meet faculty members informally, attend study skills sessions and special programs, and find knowledgeable upper-level students who can answer your questions.

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 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, Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio by Amara Lakhous.

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 creative activities in their labs or studios. Get to know your faculty advisor.

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 share meals with students and host programs on topics that might interest you. Robin and I, for example, are faculty fellows at the Becker House. The first “professor dinner” takes place on Monday (Aug. 25) on West Campus. 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.

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. You will often hear the phrase ‘caring community’ in the coming months and years. Consider it a reminder to treat each other with respect; to take good care of yourselves and those around you; and to take prudent measures for your safety and well-being.

Membership in our caring community means that if you experience academic or personal challenges, you don’t have to struggle through them alone. Membership also means looking out for others and helping them get assistance when they need it. Remember, it is a sign of strength to ask for help.

During these first weeks, there will be several required programs to help you learn what is expected of you as a member of the Cornell community. These range from the interactive Tapestry of Possibilities program, which aims to raise awareness about what it means to live in, thrive and contribute to a diverse and inclusive community like ours, to the “Speak About It” program, which deals with issues of consent and sexual assault education and prevention.

Cornell Essentials this year includes an introduction to 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 program, along with The Essential Guide to Academic Integrity at Cornell, which you will receive at Cornell Essentials, 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. You can learn more about some of these organizations during Club Fest, which will be held Sunday, September 7, from 1-4 p.m. in Barton Hall. There are also intramural sports and many programs in your own residence hall that provide opportunities to be involved.

Through Engaged Learning + Research, a 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 Cornell experience an extended time abroad. Studying, conducting research and scholarship, or doing an internship in another country can help to build your global understanding and competency, but 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.

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.

Debora Spar, president of Barnard College, and I were on the MSNBC Morning Joe show last Monday talking about this topic with host Mika Brzezinski, who had just taken her own daughter to college and was feeling a little unsettled by the new, large hole in her household.

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 well and that they are ready for this next step.

Of course, you should stay in touch with your students. Text, email, call them, but not constantly. Before you leave this weekend have a talk with them about expectations—how often you’d like to be in touch and whether it needs to be a phone call or if the occasional text will do.

As hard as it may seem, the most helpful thing you can do now for these accomplished young adults is to trust in their wisdom and their evolving problem-solving abilities. They will make mistakes, just as we all did and still do, but let them find a way forward, as much as possible, on their own. This freedom is important to their development as competent and mature adults.

We do hope that many of you can come back for First-Year Parents’ Weekend, October 31-November 2, and you’re invited to help us celebrate Cornell’s 150th birthday during Charter Day Weekend, April 24-27. Watch our website for more information.

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 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 already full members of this community. We are excited, honored, and very pleased to have you here, and we look forward to learning from you. 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.