Convocation Address by John C. Bravman
August 21, 2012
Good evening. My name is John Bravman, and I have the privilege of being the 17th president of Bucknell University. New students of Bucknell, I welcome you to this Convocation and its symbolic role in marking the official beginning of our and your academic year. We are proud to have you with us - proud to have you with us as transfer students and as members of the Bucknell Class of 2016.
I'd also like to welcome back my colleagues in the faculty and staff for a new academic year.
We have a truly exciting year ahead, especially with the launch of our campaign in just over two months time. To each of you, thank you for what you do for our students and for our University every single day.
Students, that campaign I just mentioned - our largest development effort ever - is ultimately about you. First, we seek to raise over half-a-billion dollars. Second, and just as importantly, we intend to inspire a new appreciation among our alumni around the world about the vital role they play in the life of our University and its future. When you see the temporary - BIG, but TEMPORARY - tent going up on the main Academic Quad around Oct. 20, just know it is about bringing new resources to the University and to you.
I know the campaign will be successful, because I know what our alumni know, and first-year students, and transfer students, what we want you to know: You have chosen wisely in coming to Bucknell. We pledge to you tonight, faculty and staff of this University, that we will do our best - every day - to make you proud to be among us and to be Bucknellians.
With you tonight sit classmates and peers who are smart, motivated, talented and decent - just like you. Students, it is up to you to keep the best of yourself and strengthen your lives together. In anything we do, we all need each other. We hope each of you will be the friend, the advocate, the inspiration for one another.
But now I ask you to look a little further than the students around you. On both sides of you, in the wings of our auditorium, are your professors. They are the reason you are here. They are the individuals you should make a deep commitment to getting to know. Give them the chance to get to know you. They desperately and deeply want you to succeed. They want to challenge you. They want to teach you. They want to inspire your minds and your imaginations. They want to help you understand that you are capable of more than even you think or know possible. Bucknell is a special place because here, your professors want to know you personally and want to help you become your best self. Do not waste this opportunity. Remember, the faculty are the reason you are here.
Now it's been said that one goal in college is self-discovery. I don't much like the phrase "discover yourself" - it sounds a little too affected - but the notion of "discovery" is certainly consonant with education, especially at a high level. Discovery sometimes occurs with a flash of insight, but more often I believe occurs over time, and only through hard work and the endurance that comes from overcoming failure. Recall that Einstein himself said that genius was much more about perspiration than inspiration. I think the same can be said for the best in education, including here at Bucknell.
Over time, and usually not in a flash, you will certainly discover much about yourself in college, including the very personal and particular boundaries between understanding and ignorance, insight and confusion, ability and inability. Remember that the prime purpose of education is to move those boundaries, and that the very best people to help you do that are seated here tonight, waiting for you to arrive in their classrooms starting tomorrow.
When we think of discovery, most of us conjure up some active process of searching. In the world of physics, the recent discovery of the Higgs-Boson, the so-called "God particle," was the result of millions of hours of work and billions of dollars of expense. Other discoveries, including some very important ones, are accidental, or serendipitous. X-rays, for instance, were an accidental discovery, and think how important they are today in medicine, engineering, and science. But even such accidental discoveries are - almost always - the result of a purposeful search to know, to understand, to create, or perhaps just to do. Even when discovery occurs by pure chance, figuratively, you have to have your eyes open. You have to be prepared to discover. And so it is with your own education.
Now what will you discover about yourself over the next few years? In answering that question I believe that you will confront many things, and that the process of confrontation will, by definition, start defining who you are and who you want to be.
One set of confrontations will come from what I've long called the three C's of college - and by this I do not mean your first three mid-term grades. Little bit of nervousness in that laughter. The three C's are the Clock, the Calendar and Conformity.
The Clock and the Calendar clearly are about time ... and you now have, or so it may seem, a great deal of time. Unlike the heavily scheduled lives you almost certainly led through high school, the college experience, universally, offers you something very different: vast amounts of unscheduled time. Unless you hit it big, or win the lotto, this may in fact be the last time in your life when you have so much discretionary time.
I contend that your personal, daily confrontation with discretionary time will say a great deal about you - and confront it you will. You have no choice - something none of us likes to hear - but as you make decisions about your unscheduled time you will be indicating to everyone, including yourself, your priorities, your aspirations, and perhaps even your fears. Will you spend as little time as you can to achieve some acceptable measure of success? Or will you spend as much time as it takes to reach a robust measure of your full potential? How will you balance what you need to do with what you want to do and with what others want you to do with them?
In part, answering that with your choices, not with your words, will inexorably bring you to the third C: conformity. Your choices will not be made in isolation; they will be on full display for all. How will you contend with the expectations and normative behaviors of peers, of your parents, of society at large? These questions will confront you every single day. And I'm not talking about what you wear; fashions - even perhaps the seemingly ubiquitous black Northface jacket - ebb and flow over time. I'm talking about the What and the Why of Thinking and Doing. I contend that if you are to become that best, most authentic version of yourself that I mentioned on Friday evening, you will have many confrontations with the urge to conform, if for no other reason than a fear of not fitting in.
Another confrontation you will face, perhaps for the first time in your life, is with academic failure. My colleague Professor Amy Wolaver shocked some of you at Matriculation when she stated boldly, "I hope you fail!" I was sitting behind her. I kind of jumped as she said that; the looks on your faces were quite incredulous. As she went on to explain though, and quite correctly, if you never fail you're probably not taking enough risks. We can learn so much through failure and struggle, and likely more than we can learn from success, yet so often we avoid taking risks and settle for a life of prescription, others' expectations and yes, conformity.
An active and engaged mind, an avid interest in what makes you curious, a willingness to take intellectual risks - let me stress that, intellectual risks - and the flexibility to think critically and pull together information in creative new ways. These attributes are what Bucknell and the liberal arts serve.
As a second-generation American and first-generation college student, in 1975 I was taking a risk by getting on a plane for the first time and flying across the country to enroll in a college I had never even seen. Frankly, I had really no idea what I was doing. I was so unprepared for life at Stanford that I came close to flunking out by the middle of my sophomore year. I received one of those interesting letters that said something like, "Your academic performance has come to our attention." How ironic that, some 20 years later, at that same institution, I was in charge of undergraduate education, and I was the one writing those letters to students saying that they had come to my attention.
Later, in graduate school, I failed my doctoral qualifying exam the first time I took it; four years later I was on the faculty trying to show mercy on other students failing their exams. Now there are many other such stories I could tell you, and so I am well acquainted with the pain and fear of failure and defeat. But I stand before you now as your president because of what I determined to do with those failures and with those sometimes very bitter defeats.
I've been here for only two years, but here is what I know.
I know that our faculty is going to challenge you. They are also going to do their very best to help you succeed. And I know that my faculty and staff colleagues represent the entire community of Bucknellians across this country and around the world who can help you achieve your dreams.
The other day I had lunch with Joe Diblin, Bucknell Class of 1940. Spry and fit at 95, Joe writes a weekly column for our local newspaper. Joe is looking forward to his 75th reunion in three years' time. His affection for Bucknell, after all these years, is not only undiminished, but shines brightly in the twilight of a long life, well led. Joe talked about the friends he made here, the experiences he had, and the courses he took, and how all those experiences made him what he is. Chances are, most of you, too, are going to live for 60, 70, or 80 years after you leave Bucknell; now is the time to start building your storehouse of memories, hopes and dreams that much later you will call simply "my life."
Joe Diblin lives just a few miles away, but I have traveled coast to coast, and around the globe, and I have met thousands of Bucknellians. They are proud to be graduates of this University. And they will be ready to help you as graduates when you reach that threshold of your lives.
Across its history, as today, Bucknell has been known for offering amazing opportunities inside and outside the classroom for leadership, culture and growth. Our alumni will tell you: Make the most of these opportunities. You will never again encounter one place with more to offer you than Bucknell. Take the chance. Not a dumb chance. Take chances at leadership, service, participation, the things that promise to teach you something that will make you proud and that you remember when you are looking forward to your 75th reunion.
The direction you take is ultimately in your hands. College is wasted only by those who choose to waste it. College is one of the greatest experiences of your life and I hope you embrace it. You have to choose. You have to choose to become who you want to be, or day by day, hour by hour, action by action, life will choose for you.
Did you see a few weeks ago that Newsweek called your generation "Generation Screwed"? Maybe. But I don't think so. I also know that your book of life is not yet written; I also know that now is the time to start writing.
This is a place of possibilities, including you, for you are a possibility in the making. At your door on this campus awaits a world's gathering of riches: of powerful, hard-won disciplines that probe numbers, interpret symbols, fashion new creations out of heat and metal and the will to beauty, design what was never designed before, and unfold how nature works, or how it might. Our library and our laboratories, our fields and our river and our streams, our classrooms and our competitions are an open door to you. The people holding open that door will help you - if you choose to let them - achieve great things, and discover dimensions of yourself, that will serve you your entire life.
Never again in your life will you have the chance to learn from and with such people every day. Never again will such resources be so near. Never again will great visiting speakers and performers be yours to enjoy day in and day out practically at your doorstep.
But you must choose to step toward them. Or you'll look up and they'll be gone. Don't stand on the edge. Don't wait for someone else to decide if it's worth your time. It is uniquely your time. Make the possibilities your own.
Here in the University, you have joined a community where all you dream is possible. Because we are a liberal arts institution. And so we believe that through humility, discipline, learning from the past, deduction and invention, the individual mind can become its own best company, and a source of great wisdom. We believe that in the reach of your mind, nothing is out of reach. Not even becoming the finest person you dream of becoming.
When you decided to enroll at Bucknell, you said to us, "I want to work hard. I want to learn. I want to see how far I can take this mind and heart and soul that I call my own." And now we say to you: Bring it on.
Tonight, on the cusp of the first day of classes, we say to you, "Choose well. Choose wisely. Begin, begin now, begin tonight, begin tomorrow and do not stop."
I asked you the other night to imagine four years ago when you began your high school career and to consider how much you have changed since then. I told you that you would change that much again and more in the next four years, all in preparation for the rest of your lives, whatever triumphs and struggles your lives may bring.
As you stand in the Quad tonight and light your candle, close your eyes and imagine who you can become. In your mind's eye, see who you can be and then go for it.
As you define yourselves at Bucknell, as you broaden your mind and choose who you will become, as you explore the role that you can play in the world as your best self, you are also defining the Class of 2016, and, in fact, you are defining the future of this University, which now, and forevermore, is yours.
Choose well. Thank you.