2009 Opening Exercises Greeting and Address
President Shirley M. Tilghman
September 13, 2009
Good afternoon. I wish to extend a warm and enthusiastic welcome to all new members of the University community, and to those of you who are returning after the summer. To new students and parents, whether you know it or not, you have joined a very unusual family -- one that thinks there is no occasion for which orange and black are not appropriate colors; one in which every name comes associated with a numeral; and one in which the tiger will never be an endangered species. Most importantly, and I speak from the special vantage of being a Princeton parent myself, I hope that for you this fall will mark the beginning of a lifelong engagement with this great University.
The class of 2013 is the largest freshman class we have ever admitted, reflecting the decision in 2001 to expand the size of each undergraduate class from 1,175 to 1,300 students -- the first significant increase since the institution of coeducation in the early 1970s. The members of the freshman class of 2013 hail from 41 countries and 49 states -- better luck next year, Montana! -- as well as the District of Columbia, with hometowns like Paradise Valley, Arizona, and Shenzhen, China. You graduated from 880 different high schools and have 385 different female first names and 318 different male first names.
The graduate student body has been growing steadily for many years, and I am very pleased that the economic tsunami that we have just experienced did not affect graduate enrollment or the very generous support that we provide to our students. This year's entering class is a strikingly cosmopolitan one, as 40 percent of you are citizens of other countries, proof positive that Princeton is truly an international university. Whether you have come to develop your professional credentials in engineering, finance, architecture or public policy, or to embark on a life of scholarship through doctoral studies, you have an important place in this community.
I would also like to welcome the 41 new members of the faculty whose distinguished scholarly achievements and dedication to teaching in dozens of disciplines are certain to enhance Princeton's reputation for excellence in research and in undergraduate and graduate education. I also welcome new members of the staff. This University works as well as it does because we are blessed with a dedicated staff that oversees everything from strengthening our library collections to maintaining our impressive physical plant to the important tasks, especially this year, of balancing our budget and helping us to fend off the H1N1 virus.
Finally, a warm welcome to the returning members of the classes of 2010, 2011 and 2012, as well as the graduate students and faculty who have spent the summer away from campus pursuing their scholarly work.
It will not have escaped your attention that a stroll down Elm Drive or along Goheen Walk has taken on greater appeal as the beautiful new red brick and limestone dormitories of Butler College have opened their doors to students from every class, as well as to graduate students and one very lucky visiting member of the faculty. Prospect Avenue has not one but two new places for students to gather informally and to hold events. Campus Club has completed its metamorphosis from a private eating club to a student-managed facility for undergraduates and graduate students, and the Carl Fields Center has come out from behind its imposing high wall and moved across Olden Street to new and beautifully renovated quarters. Finally, any budding chemists in the audience have just one more year to wait for the opening of the new chemistry building next to the football stadium, which is slated to become the most energy-efficient science building on campus.
I am often asked by nostalgic alumni why the campus needs to continually grow and change. In their view, the campus was perfect, especially during their four years! Don't laugh -- you'll be saying the same thing in 40 years. The answer, of course, is that the best universities not only respond to change, they lead it. And so, as new ideas and ways of thinking are born, advances in technology create new fields, and old buildings crumble, Princeton must be both intellectually and materially at the forefront of discovery and change.
It is now my pleasure to invite Dean Nancy Malkiel to recognize the academic achievements of six exceptional undergraduates.
As University president, I have the good fortune to serve as an oratorical bookend to your time at Princeton, bidding you welcome today and having the last word of farewell at Commencement. I happen to love Opening Exercises -- the chapel choir's beautiful voices raised in song, the African drums, the colorful flying banners reminiscent of Marc Chagall, one of my favorite artists. And, of course, the procession in academic regalia, for Princetonians love parades, particularly ones that are awash in orange and black. You will participate in your first Princeton Pre-rade in just a few minutes, in which the sophomore, junior and senior classes will boisterously welcome you to Princeton. And in four very short years, you will run onto Poe Field behind the banner of the class of 2013 in what I hope will be the first of dozens of P-rades at Reunions.
But what I love most about Opening Exercises is the hope for the future that overcomes me as I look into your faces while walking up and down the aisle, trying to elicit smiles. (So when I go back down, smile!) I see future scholars, community organizers, entrepreneurs, artists, public servants, musicians, bankers, teachers, athletes, doctors, scientists, judges, CEOs, inventors -- I see leaders in every walk of life. For that is the purpose of a Princeton education -- to prepare very talented young men and women like you to make a positive difference in the world by helping you develop the qualities that are required of leaders: a devotion to critical thinking over ideology; the self-confidence that it takes to change your mind in the face of new evidence; the capacity to speak the truth as you understand it; a deep respect for learning as opposed to uninformed opinion; and the strength of character that grows out of humility and compassion for your fellow human beings.
Having told you what I love about Opening Exercises, I will now confess to you what I find taxing. Each year I must find new ways to exhort students to make the most of the next four years. Because these addresses are published in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, I must come up with something new every fall -- a challenge that increases in magnitude with each passing year. In 2001 I urged the members of the class of 2005 to view their education as a journey of discovery; the members of the class of 2007 were asked to embrace the meaning of our informal motto, "Princeton in the nation's service and in the service of all nations" and to use their educations in the service of others; the members of the class of 2011 were told to be open to surprises and prepared to change their minds in the course of their studies; and the message delivered last year to the class of 2012 was intended to be timely -- I pointed out that education in the liberal arts was founded in ancient Greece as the best way to prepare citizens to participate fully in their democracy, so don't forget to vote.
This year, as I thought about what new message I might deliver to your class, I decided to take my inspiration from David Letterman and offer up not one but ten things I hope you do before you march proudly out the FitzRandolph Gates. So here they are, in no particular order, and minus the drum roll:
• No. 10: Call, e-mail, text or IM home, but not too often. As hard as it is for parents to accept, we did not admit them to Princeton when we admitted you. The next four years will mark the final stage in your transition from adolescence to adulthood, and now is the time for you to strike out on your own and make your own decisions. You will surely make mistakes -- everyone does -- but you will also learn from them.
• No. 9: When you are feeling overwhelmed by Princeton, as every single student surely does at some point, say the following things to yourselves: "I was chosen from among 22,000 applicants by an experienced group of admission officers, who are not known for making mistakes. No, I didn't win the math Olympiad at the age of 10, and I don't speak 14 languages. I couldn't dunk a basketball if my life depended on it, and I get stage fright just thinking about stepping in front of an audience. But I bring to this University a unique set of intellectual and personal qualities that my classmates will learn from and that my professors, coaches, conductors, directors, advisers and mentors will help me strengthen. I have earned the right to be here."
• No. 8: Approach Princeton with gusto, but not abandon. You will face a dizzying array of choices in the next few months -- the courses you will take, the student groups you will join, the friends you will cultivate. Keep in mind that less is often more. When we recommend that you begin by taking four courses a semester, and not five or six or seven as sometimes you want to do, we do so because we believe that you will gain more from delving deeply into four subjects than by skimming the surface of a larger number. Likewise, the student activities fair will offer you a bewildering number of possibilities -- some that will feel familiar and safe to you, and others that will promise a completely new experience. Just remember, you do not need to do everything in your first semester. Pace yourselves so that you will have time to savor each moment.
• No. 7: Invite your favorite professor to lunch or dinner in your residential college. Now that I know you have such strong loyalty to these colleges, I know you will want to share these experiences with the professors. Now that the food is not just "filling and nourishing," as my children used to describe my own cooking, but delicious as well, faculty welcome the chance to meet students in this more casual setting. With a student-faculty ratio of less than 6-to-1, Princeton provides the opportunity to get to know your professors well, but only if you are prepared to take some initiative and meet them half way. Don't let their Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes intimidate you -- they are here because they are committed to your education.
• No. 6: Use your time at Princeton to "encounter the other." Dean of Admission Janet Rapelye and her colleagues have made sure that your class is composed of students from all over this country and around the globe, with different languages, religions, political beliefs, socio-economic circumstances and perspectives on the world. You will never again live in the midst of such extraordinary diversity, and the chance to explore it is an integral part of your Princeton education. Princeton's 13th president, Woodrow Wilson, made this point over 100 years ago when he said: "One of the things that makes us unserviceable citizens is that there are certain classes of men with whom we have never been able to associate, and whom we have, therefore, been unable to understand. I believe that the process of a university should be a process of unchosen contacts." I hope you leave your comfort zone behind in the rush to embrace those "unchosen contacts."
• No. 5: Don't confuse the next four years of education in the liberal arts with pre-professional education. The purpose of a Princeton education is most decidedly not to prepare you for one profession, but for any profession, including ones that have not yet been invented. Or said in a slightly different way, don't think of the next four years as an exercise in resume building toward some specific goal; instead think of it as a grand intellectual adventure.
• No. 4: Study what fascinates you, not just the subjects in which you shone in high school, if for no other reason than you will have a much greater likelihood of excelling at your studies if they happen to coincide with something that ignites your curiosity. And at the risk of appearing to contradict what I just said, be sure to take at least one course this year in a subject you know absolutely nothing about. No matter how comprehensive your high school education was, it will not have encompassed the breadth of learning that is represented by our 34 academic departments and our rich collection of interdisciplinary programs. Princeton is the ideal place, and this is the ideal time, to strike out in new intellectual directions, holding out the possibility that in so doing, you will discover what you were truly meant to do with your life. I say this with some conviction, because on average 70 percent of Princeton students write their senior thesis in a discipline that is different from the one they put on their applications as the subject they were interested in studying -- and that's good! Such students took risks that paid off handsomely.
• No. 3: Follow the example of Michelle Obama, Princeton class of 1985, and embrace our informal motto "Princeton in the nation's service and in the service of all nations" while you are here. This motto reflects an abiding conviction that the privilege of a Princeton education brings with it a lifelong responsibility to work on behalf of those less fortunate, and there is no better time to exercise that responsibility than right now. Not only is this the right thing to do, but as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "It is one of the most beautiful compensations of this life that no man can sincerely try to help another without helping himself."
• No. 2: Break out of the orange bubble and explore the world. You live at a time when the barriers that used to isolate nation states and their citizens from one another have all but disappeared. The assembled group of freshmen and first-year graduate students in this chapel are exhibit one for this proposition. Whether you believe the world is round, flat or shrinking, it is a world that you must be prepared to live in and to embrace. At Princeton you will encounter a myriad of ways to broaden your international perspectives: through coursework here on campus and in research opportunities, internships and study abroad options elsewhere. And you have the chance to conquer new languages, which is the surest path to understanding other cultures. I hope you take advantage of these opportunities and leave Princeton declaring yourselves to be educated citizens of the world -- true cosmopolitans.
• No. 1: Remember to exercise, eat healthy, get some sleep and, above all, have fun! You are very likely to meet friends who will remain with you for the rest of your lives, but this won't happen unless you make time for them. As long as what you do does not pose harm to yourself or others, I give you free license to be as silly and inventive as you like. Two years ago, a group of entering students decided that Princeton needed an intercollegiate Quidditch team, and so they rounded up as many brooms as they could find and they created one. I'm sure you will have your own ideas about what we need to add to the Princeton experience. Yes, there is plenty of work to do while you are here, but this is a place to live as well as to study, and a place to learn how to live life to its fullest. Princeton is serious, but it is not somber; it is a place that values beauty and freshness and light and the renewal that comes from times of reflection and times of joy. So I hope you will embark on the next four years with a light heart and in high spirits.
I am looking forward to getting to know each of you and to cheering you on inside and outside the classroom as you chart your course through this great University. I hope that you will leave Princeton, saying, as so many have before you, "This place changed my life." Welcome to Princeton!