Your Facultative Catalysts
by Elizabeth Capaldi Evans
Associate Professor of Biology & Animal Behavior
On behalf of my faculty colleagues, I am pleased to officially welcome you to Bucknell University in tonight's matriculation ceremony. You will begin to meet my fellow professors next week, and we look forward to working with you while you complete your University degree. These are exciting times for you, I know, as you have been waiting to arrive on campus for many months now, and I'll bet you are excited to meet the other 920 members of the class of 2015.
I'm sure you can already appreciate the gorgeous campus where you will live for the next four years; you know about the excellent education that you can achieve here, the promise of the satisfying and fruitful career tracks that our alumni choose, and the many extracurricular and co-curricular adventures that can complement your academic work. At this ceremony tonight, you officially join the Bucknell family and embark on your University experience. Along the way, this probably also means that you will integrate as much orange and blue clothing as possible into your wardrobe. But now, as you begin your college journey, let me take a few minutes to tell you a few things about your professors.
Your professors (there are about 370 of us) are experts in their chosen professions - we are highly skilled scholars who also teach, and we are present in your new community because of our desire to work with students like you at a premier university. We value the 10:1 student-to-professor ratio as much as you will. These are not casual jobs, believe me. You will see us in class, at dance performances, at athletic events and at seminars. In fact, if you do not see professors outside of your courses, it probably means that you are not taking advantage of the many things to do on campus! Among us, you will be pleased to discover experts in many disciplines - some of those subjects have purely academic aims while others have very practical goals: Many will appeal to your curiosity. In classics, you could study of the ancient world via underwater nautical archeology; in economics, sustainable development in Latin America; in environmental studies, the impacts of the Marcellus Shale natural gas deposits; in Spanish, epic poetry of the 17th century; in biomedical engineering, the biomechanics of balance, or the reverse engineering the human circulatory system; in theater, you could learn about modern collaborative theater. You can experience these subjects by taking courses from the scholars, or attending a seminar in these areas.
However, your professors will not simply give you the truth about their subjects - we may explain the rules or foundation of our disciplines, but we are primarily your guides to help you determine the answers yourself. Whether you choose to follow those guidelines presented by your professors is completely up to you. You can easily do the minimum to meet your requirements, but you will maximize the return on your intellectual investment if you fully engage with the course material and make your studies a priority. Professors are simply the catalysts, but learning depends on your willingness to set your sights on your academic education and figuring out how to make the most of it. At Bucknell, your teachers are actually trying to challenge you - no, not to trip you up or make your life difficult without cause, but to teach you the skills to find the truth. This will inevitably involve hardships or making mistakes, and we want you to know, that's ok. We emphasize "critical thinking" -- it is my hope that by the end of this first semester, you will understand how that is different than simply "being critical."
Let me reference English naturalist Charles Darwin, who provided scientific evidence for the idea that all species of life have evolved over time from common ancestors. Darwin's scientific discovery remains the foundation of biology, as it provides a unifying logical explanation for the diversity of life. However, you may not know that his accomplishments followed years and years of mistaken choices and punishing failures - in his studies of medicine, in his studies in theology - and he dealt with extreme anxiety and worry, too. Toward the end of his life, he wrote, "It is not the strongest or most intelligent who will survive, but those who can best manage change." His statement was directed toward an explanation of his theory, but I think it also speaks to what is necessary to "survive" or succeed in college - the ability to manage change and to react to what is unrecognizable, unexpected.
I encourage you to step outside of the familiar, to embrace and expect change. Commit to change and take the chance of finding something new here at Bucknell. Sure, you might have a particular major or career in mind, but remember - you have chosen to attend a liberal arts and sciences school because you want this broad type of training. To fully invest in the life of the mind (both now, and for your entire life), you should push yourself to elect courses in subjects that you never heard of before! Diversify your educational portfolio. I suggest that you forgo a minor and instead, aim to take courses in as many different departments as possible. Do not allow yourself to say something like "I'm not really a math person" - for you, maybe it is French or history - if you are agreeing with this statement (or one like it), I remind you... that's exactly WHY you should take that class! Try not to get stuck or defined by what you already know of yourself - use your college years to open yourself to new concepts, ideas or perspectives. Be open to CHANGE. On this first official day of your new life as a Bucknellian, you have the opportunity to redefine yourself - to admit your ignorance, build your confidence while maintaining humility and engage with the thinking world around you.
We faculty know a bit about you, the Class of 2015, from the excellent work of the Admissions Office and the Communications professionals with whom we work. We know about your GPAs, your SATs, your global profile and noted accomplishments. Hurrah, you have made it! But in closing, I will ask rhetorical questions of you. I wonder, are you really the person your application says you are, or were those essays just a vehicle? Are you more? Are you less? In what way are you different from the people you are sitting next to tonight? Are you willing to step outside of yourself, or even outside of the dominant social scene, to make a difference in this, your new community? Are you able to manage and survive in the face of change? Here, I offer you another Darwin quote, to think about in many contexts - he said "I am not apt to follow blindly the lead of other men."
On behalf of the faculty, welcome to Bucknell and best wishes.