September 2, 2006
Thank you, Dean May. Members of the Class of 2010, Oles, I extend, on behalf of the College, a heartfelt welcome to St. Olaf! Thirty-six years ago I came to St. Olaf as a first-year student. That was a long time ago, and things were different. We were called freshmen. The college had an event called First Nighter where each male student from one corridor of a residence hall was paired up with a female student from another corridor of another residence hall and that person was your “date” for a dance the first night. You hear stories of people who met their future life mates on First Nighter, but I think for most of us it was a pretty awkward evening. We didn’t have an assembly like this for students and parents. My parents drove up to Thorson Hall, we unloaded my suitcase and a typewriter from the trunk of the car, they gave me $100 as my spending money for the semester – this included money for buying my textbooks – told me to go to chapel and study hard, and drove away. I went to the student union and got in line for dinner, and that was how college started.
I’m thinking that your arrival at the college today was quite different. You are first-years, not freshmen. We’ve abandoned First Nighter, thinking that you can probably find ways to connect with each other on your own. I know none of you came with a typewriter. And probably most of you are working with a different budget number than I was for your expenses first semester. I’m guessing that in a few minutes your goodbyes will be a little more prolonged.
A lot has changed at St. Olaf and in our culture since the fall of 1970, but I’d like to talk for a moment about what hasn’t changed, the fundamentals that will characterize your St. Olaf education. You have been given the opportunity to spend four years reading, writing, thinking, experimenting, computing, drawing, painting, dancing, making music, playing sports, discussing, disagreeing, traveling – in short, expanding your intellectual range, deepening your knowledge, and honing and developing the skills and abilities that will enable you to do good work and to be of service to others and that will enrich your lives after college. You will encounter ideas you’ve never heard of, people you couldn’t have imagined and places that are presently beyond your ken. You will have opportunities to think about your values, to learn to live in community with others, to grow spiritually and to deepen your faith and your worship practices. It will be wonderful.
But not every day of college will be a happy one. That’s to be expected: almost no one – college student or not – experiences four years of unremitting happiness. I vividly remember handing in my first paper in my first English course as a first year student at St. Olaf. It was on a Hemingway short story called, “A Cat in the Rain.” I was proud of my writing, and I felt that I had nailed the topic. My paper earned a C-. My professor noted that – among the other deficiencies of the paper – I had no idea whatsoever about how to use a comma. I was crushed. He was right. You will encounter similar challenges. You will come out of a philosophy class and your head will hurt. In a sculpture class your clay will stubbornly refuse to take on the form you envisioned for it. In a lab your compound won’t do what it was supposed to do. In a music lesson you will play lustily on a rest. Perhaps, like me in 1970, you will even run afoul of the comma.
That’s all right. I’m telling you now that these challenges lie before you so that when they happen, you will be better able to take them in stride. No one expects you to be perfect, and no one expects you to know everything. If you did, you wouldn’t need to come to college. So don’t let a fear of failure prevent you from taking some intellectual risks, or from experimenting with new ideas and disciplines. There’s nothing wrong with being a little bit uncomfortable.
You have to come to the college to be a student, and your work here is to learn. You will be guided in this project by the learned faculty that you see here today in their academic regalia. Don’t worry. They won’t come to class every day dressed like this, but I’d encourage you to picture your professors from time to time in the academic robes you see them wearing here. The regalia tell you, if you know the code, where each person received her or his advanced degree and in what field. But more to the point the robes and hoods and caps communicate a sense of the dignity of purpose that lies at the heart of liberal learning and connect us with the centuries-long tradition of scholars and teachers who have dedicated themselves to advancing and communicating knowledge. You have now taken your place in that tradition. The faculty members at St. Olaf are teachers, and they will have high expectations of you as you do of yourself. They and the College will support your efforts to fulfill those expectations, and you will be learning in community with other students who will be invested in your success as members of the community. But finally it will be up to you to make the most of these opportunities and experiences. So this is the time to make a quiet vow to yourself: “I have been given the gift of four years to learn and grow, and I’m going to take advantage of every minute of it.”
Parents. If you want to know the truth, this ceremony is really about you. It is a valediction, a formal leave-taking, a good-bye. In a few moments I am going to invite you and your student to share one more hug before the class of 2010 goes to meet with their academic advisors and you begin the journey home minus one kid. Two weeks ago I was standing outside a residence hall at a college fourteen hours away from here sharing that last hug with our youngest child, a daughter. She helped us out a lot by saying something to the effect of, “Mom and Dad, you can go now,” but it was still tough. It’s hard to imagine – or perhaps tough to accept – that the person you watched grow up is really and truly ready to go it alone. Well, your student won’t be going it alone. St. Olaf truly does have an extraordinary sense of community and the mutual investment we have in one another’s welfare is among our greatest strengths as an institution. Dean of Students Greg Kneser was telling me the other day about a sign that students in Thorson Hall put up on the entrance last year: “Take care of yourself; take care of each other; take care of this place.” That pretty much sums it up. The faculty of the college cares about your student. They are wonderful teachers. I sat down at lunch yesterday with a student named David who told me a wonderful story. His interests lie in the sciences, and he just wasn’t getting the results he had hoped for on papers that he was writing for his humanities courses. His religion professor took him into the office, they sat down for more than an hour, going through his last paper and guiding him in the revisions. Much better results since then for David. This is the St. Olaf way. On a whim the other day I asked our institutional research folks how many total years of service the full professors at St. Olaf have contributed to the college. There are 90 of them. Any guesses? 2,235 years of service. Those two millennia of seasoning and testing have served them well, and they will serve your student well. We are ready for the class of 2010. The President of the College understands that you are committing your student to our care, and that is a responsibility that I take very seriously.
Now, let me repeat, not every day St. Olaf will be a great day for your student. So prepare yourself for the first message that conveys some frustration, some discouragement, a blow to the confidence. You’re parents, you know what to do: listen, sympathize, encourage your student to keep at it, to solve problems for him or herself and to seek help when you need it. I’d encourage you not to be like the parents of a student I spoke with the other day who told me, “President Anderson, I hated to do it, but last year I had to block my mom on my Instant Messenger Buddy List. She was driving me nuts! I couldn’t study!”
Parents you are always welcome on campus, and I hope that we will see you here from time to time. Family weekend is the first weekend in October, and one month into the semester is a good time to make a visual check on how your first-year student is doing. It is going to be a big party: we’re having Homecoming, Family Weekend, and a presidential inauguration. You’re all invited.
Students, I began these remarks by observing that you have been given the opportunity to enjoy four years of uninterrupted study and growth. Your friends and families have given you that gift, and by their presence here they show how much they care about you and hope for your success. This would be a great time to say thank you, so let’s stand up and give them a great big round of applause.
Students and parents. This is the time to say good-bye. Students your future awaits in the person of your academic advisor, with whom you are now going to meet. Here’s how we will do this. Would you all please remain standing after the blessing until the faculty has recessed? Then say your good-byes. Parents, I wish you a safe journey home. Students, proceed downstairs to the field house to meet your advisor. Have a great year!
David R. Anderson ’74