Thank you President Paxson for the introduction. I am so excited to be here and welcome family, friends, alum and especially the class of 2018 to Brown University! For the next fifteen minutes, it is my privilege to give you a convocation speech. What this actually means is that I am going to spend the next fifteen minutes giving you advice. Now, I know this may be a very new concept for many of you — an older adult giving you advice. And even more novel is that I am not going to let you get a word in edgewise. I hope you can be open—minded to this new experience — and to help you follow along, I’ll tell you ahead of time to listen for exactly three pieces of advice in my remarks.
Theme 1: Open eyes
You are truly an amazing set of individuals: More than 1600 of you are just starting your journey in higher education, and more than 700 seek the highest degrees Brown can offer in fields ranging from medicine to Egyptology. You are geographically diverse — representing 47 US states and more than 70 countries — ethnically diverse — 40% of you are minorities — and, in the coming years, you will become academically diverse as you explore the open curriculum that makes Brown famous throughout the world.
Open your eyes to this diversity: it is one of the very best qualities of Brown University. As we saw in the first reading — the film “Oil and Water” — Hugo and David were different in almost every way that two people could be. Their differences however made their friendship that much more powerful: David the outsider among the Cofan could feel more a part of the place he treasured because of Hugo, while Hugo could through David gain access and knowledge to the unfamiliar culture he hoped someday to change. Their story teaches us that friends, especially those very different from you, can offset your weaknesses — and help you accomplish great things.
These two young men found each other because of a place — Colombia’s amazon river. This expansive landscape was I think a character in the film. It both motivated and anchored everyone in the story, and literally brought people together. In the same way, this university — everything from its charming green spaces to its brutalistic dormitories — serves the same role in your own drama. Your deep attachment to this campus, and your soon to be developed sense of its place, will be one thing you will share with everyone around you.
Starting off on an important journey together will also connect you. I want everyone to look around the seats and see for the first time your community at brown. Look to your left at your neighbor (pause), say Hello, now do the same to the right. I will make a prediction — in four years, for many of you, when you are sitting again in this green during graduation, you will be sitting next to the same people you just greeted today. Starting a journey together is a powerful shared experience, and your new friends now will be there with you every step of the way.
So even though it won’t be a class on your schedule, the time you spend connecting and relating to your peers will be one of the best investments you can make while you are here. While you enter Brown as a collection of more than 2000 different individuals, I am certain that after four years you will walk through the Van Wickle gates as a community, surrounded by treasured friends.
For those of you counting that is my first piece of advice: build your community, and your friendships, intentionally and make time for your fellow students.
THEME 2: Wide eyes
When I first learned about the open curriculum at Brown, it reminded me of a school that I had carefully considered for my first grade son. This school believed that students should direct their learning, and in fact the students wrote their own daily lesson plans. It was an amazing notion — an open curriculum at age 6! But, I passed on the place because I was pretty sure if my son went there he would choose to sit under a table and read dinosaur books the entire year, and probably the year after as well.
I think at age 18 many of you are quite ready to direct your education — but I still worry that some of you may do the college version of sitting under your desk and reading dinosaur books. I think I worry because I myself almost made that mistake — at your age I loved studying science, I was good at it, both of my parents were scientists and I knew as a freshman it would be my life. So, I wanted to take relevant courses: courses that in my 18 year old brain would matter to my career as a scientist: freshman physics, chemistry, calculus, biology and the like. Everything else — writing, music — was on the periphery of my then tunnel vision.
Fast forward 31 years and I can tell you I was right about only one thing: I needed a rigorous and deep education in chemistry. But not for the reasons I expected. When I am designing a new MRI contrast agent or a better water filter, I am working as part of a team. And there is no place that it is more important that I think like a chemist then when I am in a room with doctors, engineers, biologists and physicists. Interdisciplinary research integrates different disciplines, so I must represent chemistry in those settings: its facts, its methods, and I would argue its aesthetic sensibility. Many of you I know are also interested in the boundaries between disciplines. In my experience, to explore that complex landscape as a scholar requires a deep disciplinary identity.
I was mistaken in every other way, however.
My first mistake was not understanding what my eventual career would demand of me. I took way too many science and math classes, for example. What really mattered to me later, as I started writing scientific proposals, was a journalism class that I took on a whim. And as provost, my time as a food manager for a large student—run dormitory is now deeply relevant.
My second mistake was thinking that college was simply about preparing for a career. If you let it, your education here can enrich your life for years to come. My courses in politics, literature, philosophy, and music keep revealing new layers of meaning and having impact on my life now thirty years later. For example, in Shakespeare’s The Tempest I initially found the story of Prospero trying — and failing — to control nature and his daughter comical, but now as the parent of a teenager it has new meaning. And to this day, when I am faced with great change, I hear Beethoven’s Eroica symphony announcing itself with two emphatic chords, and I find comfort in knowing that a lilting and calming melody will follow.
What we have to teach you — all of it — will be relevant to you for all kinds or reasons, some of which you know now some of which you will discover. Which leads me to my second piece of advice, which is a single word: balance. You should focus on a subject that matters to you, but do not sacrifice your wide exploration of this open curriculum. Ambiguous advice? Perhaps. But ambiguity I think is the exception and not the rule in most of our life’s decisions, and here at Brown I know you will learn better how to work with ambiguity.
THEME 3: Fresh eyes
Yesterday I led a small group of freshman in a discussion of the first reading film. I asked the group how many of them wanted to make a difference, to change the world, they almost all raised their hands; I cannot tell you how moving that was for me. Many of you have that ambition, and boy do we need your help.
This is because the global challenges we face in this century are incredibly hard, but very, very important to overcome. How can we provide clean water and basic healthcare for the world’s citizens? How can we eliminate conflict among nations? And, as introduced in the film, how can we equitably and safely produce the energy the world demands?
The classes you take at Brown will teach you to appreciate the deep complexity of these problems and others. They will also teach you about the many ways people have tried to solve these grand challenges. You will probably conclude, as I have, that my generation and the ones before have had at best modest success with overcoming these challenges.
Do not let our failures hold you back in any way from your ambitions. I know you can tackle these challenges and I think with great success. This is because you are young, you see the world and its problems with fresh eyes.
In the film, for example, we see young David working with lawyers to right a wrong in Colombia because he had not yet learned he could not. He had the youthful gift of inexperience. An older more seasoned person may dismiss him as a naïve child, but to tackle incredibly hard and important problems you will need to stay just a little bit naïve.
You also bring to the world a very special generational perspective. How you see the world is shaped by the distinctive challenges, discoveries and social trends of the past 20 years. You have grown up in an age of near instant communication — anywhere, anytime; where cameras had no film; where communities can form without anyone meeting in person; where information is easy to come by and the real problem is to make sense of it all. While I cannot tell you how your unique vantage point will help you see problems differently than I may, I am certain you can find new and unexpected solutions to any problem that you care deeply about.
We see great examples of this in the film. After trying to change the world through conventional legal channels, David realized he had to work with the oil and gas companies, not against them. A novel idea that perhaps comes more easily to a younger person who has less experience with the energy industry. His second insight was to adapt the idea of a standard for sustainability to the oil and gas industry. The idea of certifying buildings and processes as “green” is a relatively recent phenomena, but David had grown up with such standards as normal. It was an insight quite natural for someone under the age of 21.
So, while you absorb and learn the knowledge of countless generations who came before you, do not think for a moment that your professors are always right. You have a way of looking at the world that is truly special and unique to your time. Question our assumptions, and always look for your own perspective on old and new problems alike.
For those of you counting, we are now done with the advice portion of the speech. In summary, make friends, be both deep and broad, and question your professors. And when there is a quiet moment in your schedule, take a deep breath and remember to enjoy this very special time in your life. I know I will enjoy watching all of you develop as scholars, and I cannot wait to see what you all will do in the next four years.