2017 Opening Convocation Remarks of President Steven M. Corey, Ph.D.
I was sitting here listening to our student speakers and I was thinking this could be a short program because I don’t need to say anything. It is my pleasure to welcome you again to the official opening of the 2017-18 academic year. We’ve had a chance to do that in so many ways over the last several days whether it was initially at Student Orientations over the summer or whether it was at our welcome Move-In Day or at Night on the Town, and now at Opening Convocation.
To our seniors who will graduate this fall, great work, keep it up. I subscribe to a work hard, play hard philosophy. This is the time to work harder than ever at developing yourself into the successful citizen and young professional you’re about to become. Work with intensity and with intent. Also, have fun and enjoy your final year as an Olivet College student.
To our new, incoming students, particularly our freshmen, you’re the graduating Class of 2021. It’s great to have you here, you’re now members of a special community. Four years will go by fast, just ask the seniors. Take advantage of the opportunity before you, fully commit yourself – you won’t regret it.
Now, for the past several years, I’ve been issuing a challenge to students at New Student Orientation. This challenge has five components that I want to revisit with you today. For our freshmen, I wonder if you remember each from earlier this summer. For our upperclassmen, I wonder if you remember, but more importantly, I wonder if these resonate with you still today. Do they seem true to you based on your several years of experience here as an Olivet College student? Do you think this is good advice for optimizing your experience and success? In many ways, they were also part of the themes that our students just shared with us a moment ago.
Be Comfortable with the Uncomfortable
The first is, become comfortable being uncomfortable. Why? We as humans like to be in our comfort zone. We don’t like things that test our limits and make us uncomfortable. But, what we also know is that the uncomfortable zone is the region where growth and development occurs most powerfully.
The old adage no pain, no gain is representative and reflective of the fact that if we don’t strain ourselves and push ourselves, then we won’t get a training effect – stronger, faster, more capable. The same thing is true intellectually, spiritually, emotionally and in all the other ways in which we need to grow and develop.
It’s true, if you can gain a level of comfort with the idea that you’re going to be uncomfortable, we can overcome our natural anxieties and we’ll be better for it. We’ll have experiences, growth and development that otherwise we couldn’t have imagined possible.
The second point that I offer you to consider is to become self-directed. So for the seniors, you think back about yourself when you were coming in as a freshman. Do you think that self-direction has been a theme for you over the last several years as you have learned to become responsible for yourself? For the freshmen, I think you can accelerate that process by grabbing ahold of that idea and considering each of your decisions with full intent and committing yourself to excellence to become self-directed.
The third is to seek difference. We are so fortunate that we are in a diverse community. We want to recognize and celebrate it. Olivet College is one of the most diverse campuses in the state. I’m talking about ethnicity of course, but I’m also talking about all the other ways in which we can measure diversity. The other thing we have going for us is that we’re also an intimate community. Our scale lends itself to the ability to build relations and to call it out, you can’t avoid each other. That’s the positive side. But, it is again a natural condition to seek sameness, right? Think about it. We tend to seek out sameness. Why? Because it reinforces who we are. It provides safety and security. That doesn’t have to be malicious, but natural human behavior is that we seek things that reinforce ourselves and we seek sameness.
Unfortunately, many of us come from communities of sameness. We go to churches of sameness, we watch television and news of sameness, we come from schools of sameness, neighborhoods of sameness. If you’re one of those folks who have come from a diverse community and have had the opportunity to engage with a wide variety of people who have very different backgrounds and perspectives than you, you’re way ahead. I would ask you to help the rest of us figure out how to deal with that. Recognize the special opportunity we have; we’re in a group of other people who have had life experiences that we cannot imagine. Whether I’m from a small town up north and now I have a chance to get to know someone from the inner city, or I have a particular faith perspective and I have the chance to meet someone of a different faith perspective or no faith perspective. This is the opportunity we have: to build a better, stronger sustaining society. It’s up to us if that’s going to be the case. We can only do that by understanding.
The other thing I want to offer, which I’ve shared with you before, but I think is one of the key ingredients, is that as we come together, too often, our objective is to force someone else to our will, to our way of thinking, to our perspective of the world. We are less interested in listening, learning and understanding. At the end of our engagement together, rather than being angry or feeling like we lost because we couldn’t agree, at the very least we’ll have a common understanding. Understanding is really our objective – that I can truly come to know you, understand you in a way that makes me better. Even if we disagree about something, we can have a great debate about a particular topic and the ways in which we view the world. But if we run around ignorant, simply trying to bend people to the way we think, we’re not going to get there. Let common understanding be your objective. Seek difference and get to understand what other people think and believe.
The fourth point is get involved. So, become comfortable with being uncomfortable, become self-directed, seek difference and get involved. I’m pleased to say that from the data we’ve been able to collect about you, it tells us that well over 90 percent of our students are actively engaged in some type of participation program, club or organization on campus. What we know is best about Olivet College is that this entire institution and this entire experience is set up to be participatory. To come here and have a transactional experience where you are passively engaged, simply go to class and then go off to live the rest of your life is leaving something behind. Active engagement on campus is critical.
The other thing that I reflect on at Orientation is that I ask you as a freshman to think back who you were as a person as a freshman going into high school, and what a radically different person you are as a college freshman than you were as a high school freshman. So I want to ask the seniors, remember that college freshman? The prediction I gave you at Orientation was that that transformation that happened from high school freshman to high school senior was a pretty big one, but that the college freshman to college senior would be 10 times greater.
Through engagement and involvement, you’re going to guide your evolution in a much more constructive and positive way. You’ll accelerate that transformation, and what it will do is continue to provide you with a set of experiences that you can begin to draw upon on as your interests evolve. As you become less interested in the things that were your passions of the past, you now have a set of other interests that you can begin to build upon as you grow and transform. And through engagement you can chart that path and respond to those changing interests.
With Success Comes Responsibility
Finally, the fifth point is that with success comes responsibility. Every person in this room right here should take pride in the level of success that they have already attained. It doesn’t matter if I’m talking to the faculty and the staff, or the seniors who are about to graduate or the freshmen who decided to commit themselves to this course of college education. What that does we know is absolutely clear; it sets you up to have levels of success into the future that unfortunately many others will not likely experience. Now, there are exceptions, but when we look at it in the whole, this is absolutely true.
You’ve heard me say this before, and I think it’s one of the most important things that we can understand and act upon that can both improve our own lives and change communities: If we are only interested in success for ourselves, and if that is the only score we are going to keep and declare victory, we’re lost. We’re lost as a community. We’re lost as a society, and we’ll never have that type of coming together that we’ve been talking about. So with that success, we have to commit ourselves to responsibility because we are in a better place to make a difference in the communities in which we find ourselves. That can be your college or your school, your church, neighborhood, city, state, country or the world. The challenge before you is to find those places where your passions lie and where your success can be directed to make a better world for others.
With that, I believe these keys to success are critical if you’re going to take full advantage of your opportunity here at Olivet College.
To the faculty and staff, I ask you to ensure you are committed to these goals as well, both for yourselves and for our students. Don’t just wait for students to get involved, invite them to get involved and expect them to get involved. Challenge them to try and to do new things, help them to expand their interests, and most importantly help them to become uncomfortable. Do it in a way that is safe, caring, nurturing, educationally appropriate and helps them to gain a confidence and self-directed desire to move out of their comfort zone so that they can grow and develop into the successful and fulfilled people they are capable of being.