Aug. 21, 2016: Convocation Address

Good evening. I'm John Bravman, the 17th president of Bucknell University. My wife, Prof. Wendelin Wright, and I are thrilled to join you in celebrating the official start of the 2016-17 academic year, the 171st in Bucknell's history. Greetings to our returning faculty, staff, and students, and an especially warm welcome to the Class of 2020 and our newest transfer students, along with the faculty and staff joining us for the first time. The Bucknell community looks forward to getting to know each of you and helping you feel at home on our beautiful and historic campus.

Students, tonight's message is specifically for you, because we, Bucknell's faculty and staff, want you to begin your first day of classes with both a deep understanding of why we are all here, and with a clear idea of what we expect from you.

These past few days have no doubt been a whirlwind of wonder, excitement and perhaps a bit of anxiety. But, shortly, you will find yourselves more at ease as the annual rhythm of the University begins to take hold. We have invested a tremendous amount of intellectual and physical energy to forge the rich living-learning environment in which you have already begun to immerse yourselves. You will quickly grow familiar with your course schedule — and know where to go and when to be there.

Starting tomorrow, your professors will outline their academic goals for the semester. You will settle into your residence halls, have an array of dining options on campus and downtown, clubs to join, sports to play, and new friends to make. These are all components of what we  unequivocally believe to be one of the best forms of undergraduate learning, and we know that — if you engage with us — your experiences here can lead to a lifetime of personal and professional growth and success.

Now admittedly, that's a bold assertion — but there's no shortage of evidence supporting our confidence in the power and impact of a Bucknell education. One such measure is borne out in our alumni achievements: More than 90 percent of our young graduates are working or in graduate school within months of commencement; our more experienced alums consistently rank among the highest for mid-career salary earnings; and, perhaps most importantly, Bucknellians of all ages are making positive social contributions around the globe — truly making the world a better place:

There's Jen Berger, Class of 1992, who is working to keep low-income seniors in their homes;

Diego Chiri, a community college transfer student and member of the Class of 2012, is now directing award-winning off-Broadway Spanish-language productions;

The acclaimed cognitive psychologist and linguist Dr. Kay Bock, Class of 1969, is investigating how language, our brains and our behavior intersect;

and Guy Williams, Class of 1976, is an environmental activist and community organizer who is doing extraordinary work helping to lead Detroit's revival.

Some of our alumni are active right here at Bucknell.

There's Prof. John Rickard, Class of 1975, in our English Department. A renowned teacher-scholar, John is an expert in modern Irish and English literature, and beloved by generations of students. I'm delighted that I get to guest lecture in his class on public speaking.

Then there's Prof. Rickard's classmate and fellow English Major, David Scadden; you might be surprised to hear — but no longer should be — that Dr. Scadden is one of the foremost stem cell researchers in the world, and is the head of Harvard's Stem Cell Institute; he remains active here as a member of our Board of Trustees.

And Ken Freeman, Class of 1972, who's led a remarkable career as a highly successful leader in both business and higher education, all the while giving back to the University in myriad ways, including through his volunteer service as the Chair of our Board of Trustees.

These are but a few exemplars of where the journey on which you are about to embark can lead. Bucknell alumni succeed across a nearly unlimited range of fields and careers because they committed themselves to and valued a set of educational goals that embody what we expect of our students. They embraced our mission of transforming individuals through rigorous and sustained academic study supported by co-curricular and residential experiences. Through this broad-based, hands-on, intellectually challenging education, Bucknellians go out into the world with a clear sense of purpose and determination — and they achieve in so many ways.

It is in fact that very idea that inspired the theme for our comprehensive fundraising campaign — "We Do." And through the support of more than 40 thousand gifts and pledges from our alumni and other generous donors, the We Do Campaign recently surpassed the 400 million dollar milestone, on our way to our half-a-billion dollar goal. This support strengthens Bucknell every day, all across campus, and is securing Bucknell's excellence for you, now, and for the future.

For instance, through the We Do campaign we've created more than 140 new scholarships, increasing our ability to admit the best possible students — such as those of you here tonight. Alumni and friends of the University have established and supported these funds because they know how valuable a Bucknell education can be, and they want to ensure you and the generations of Bucknellians who follow are able to benefit from this University, just as they have. I have a personal commitment to scholarship aid, as it allowed me, a first generation college student, to attend the school of my dreams.

Of course, delivering on the promise of a Bucknell education requires a steadfast commitment by all involved. As both a faculty member and president, I know well how much planning, foresight, and long hours of work this campus community invests in that promise. At times it can be exhausting, but it's also exhilarating, especially on a day such as today, because we know that every new year brings new opportunities for us to see our students — to see you — evolve toward becoming the best possible version of yourselves. And we do it because we expect great things from you. We are excited for your new ideas and inventions, new approaches to problems, scholarly insights, creativity, leadership and good citizenship.

We, the broad Bucknell community, are dedicated to exposing you to a challenging, relevant and highly personal academic program. We've worked in earnest to put in place the resources needed to succeed — including the beautiful and well-equipped buildings across campus. Buildings such as the MacDonald Commons, which opened last year, where you'll be studying, eating and meeting with friends; the brand new Graham Building, where Bucknell Student Health and Counseling & Student Development centers will help you stay healthy and well; the interactive spaces of academic buildings including our newest, Academic West. We have and will continue to invest in providing facilities that inspire creativity, offer access to high-end technologies, and allow you to live and learn in modern, collaborative spaces.

Most importantly, we've also worked to create rich hands-on, high-impact learning opportunities, which are proven to be among the most influential and beneficial educational experiences. They include residential learning communities based on students' shared interests; community-service based projects; collaboration with faculty members on research projects; internships, co-ops and field experiences; study abroad; and culminating academic projects for seniors. If any of this sounds familiar, it should. In fact, you and your families likely chose Bucknell because we offer such an array of these high-quality undergraduate experiences — and many of our students participate in them, and go on to reap their benefits.

The sum of all of these parts equals, for you, an extraordinary opportunity.

Think about that word for a moment: "opportunity." An opportunity is not 'a given,' nor are the outcomes automatic, or inevitable. Rather, it's an opening ... a possibility — an opportunity is a set of circumstances that makes it possible to do something that you want to do. Some opportunities are without limit of time, but many opportunities come and go swiftly. A broad, liberal education, is one of the latter. To fully realize the benefits of all that Bucknell has to offer, it's up to you to engage in meaningful and intentional ways, with an urgency and commitment that honors those who are committing to you.

You are about to face myriad options for how to spend your time and where to focus your mind and your heart, from coursework to research, reading, and meetings with professors. In addition, you're forging new friendships, joining clubs and organizations, exploring downtown Lewisburg and the central Susquehanna Valley region, and, of course, updating your Instagram feed.  You're doing all of this while adjusting to an entirely new setting with more freedom than you've ever experienced. You will hurry from engagement to engagement, and I can tell you with certainty that you will be busy. Chances are, you already know, and well, how to do busy. But I also have to tell you this: if you're going to make the most of your Bucknell experience, busy isn't enough.

A sense of value, satisfaction, and achievement does not come from simply occupying the passing moments, but rather from being thoughtful, reflective, and intentional in how you spend that time. Learning is in no way a passive endeavor. Ultimately, it is up to you to seize the opportunities that lie ahead.

Not long ago, on this very stage, stood a remarkable person who is small in stature, but enormous in influence — the renowned primatologist and conservationist Dr. Jane Goodall.

An overflow audience gathered to hear stories of her life's work and the perspectives she gained through decades of travel around the world to study and advocate for great apes, sustainable human livelihoods, health and conservation. Dr. Goodall has witnessed all kinds of environmental and social problems. She has seen first hand the effects of climate change and other forms of environmental destruction, and the mistreatment of animals and humans alike. Yet she fiercely remains optimistic that humans can overcome even the most challenging circumstances. She has hope because she fully believes we have the spirit and the intellectual capacity to improve any situation, regardless of how daunting the realities may seem.

Dr. Goodall has said, "You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make."

What impact will you have on the world around you?

I will confess being an undergraduate, in a spot similar to where you are now, and not being asked these questions. Or maybe I was asked, but just couldn't hear them. It was only near the end of my graduate education that I started to wonder about such things, and the opportunities I had missed. Thankfully, such ruminations ultimately helped guide my career as a scholar and engineer. As a materials scientist, I learned early that it's rewarding to design and create new devices, or to figure out how things work or why they fail. Later in my career, working on cardiac stents, it also allowed me to devote my attention to trying to improve people's health and wellbeing. That same sense of purpose is what drove me to pursue a career in higher education, where I discovered the impact one can have — the difference one can make — in shaping a complete, powerful, effective and inspiring educational experience.

How will you choose to fill the passing moments?

Each of you will answer that question in your own, unique way. But, in doing so, you will inevitably share one common experience: failure. You will at one time or another reach for a worthy goal, only to discover it's beyond your grasp. The sting of failure can be painful, but you won't be alone. All of us have and will again fail. And that's okay. In fact, it's necessary. It is through our failures, and not just our achievements, that my faculty and staff colleagues and I, and perhaps many of you, ended up here today. Our mistakes and missteps teach us as much if not more than our successes.

A few years ago, another crowd packed this auditorium to hear renowned author Neil Gaiman discuss his passion for writing, for creativity, and his craft's intersection with technology. During that talk, he offered some unexpected advice: Be like dandelions, he said.

"Dandelions come up with a lot of seeds, and they thrown them to the wind. And some of those dandelion seeds are going to fail. Maybe lots of those dandelion seeds are going to fail. But some of them won't ... it's time to become dandelions. Try things. Fail. Then fail more interestingly. And succeed in ways you didn't imagine."

Tonight, on this eve of your first day of classes at Bucknell, I'm asking each of you to take up Dr. Goodall's call to action; embrace Mr. Gaiman's plea to try, and try and try again. It falls to you to fulfill the agreement you made when you accepted our offer of admission. Not to be busy, but to be purposeful. Not to fill every moment, but to leave time for reflection. And, most definitely, not to seek out the path of least resistance, but to challenge yourself like never before.

As you look around this magnificent performing arts center, you will notice — you're not alone. By your side in this journey is a community of extraordinary and dedicated faculty and staff. They are here to help guide you and challenge you and stretch you intellectually. They are why you are here. Take advantage of their talents, and their commitment to you. I've often said to new college students that you will change more in the next four years than you have in the past four. Because of these people, anyone here can earn a truly world-class education....but in the end it's up to you.

I also challenge you to take advantage of some of the incredible opportunities they've worked tirelessly to create for you. The year ahead will allow us to together explore ideas both ancient and innovative, along with critical local, national and global issues, including the upcoming presidential election, in which many of you will be voting for the first time.

There will be renowned speakers and scholars coming to campus. Theatre and dance showcases. Musical performances, including more than 30 here in the Weis Center. Athletic events where you can cheer on the Bison. Backpacking, canoe and kayak excursions in the woods and river and streams so close to our campus; trips abroad; service projects near and far; research symposia and presentations at professional conferences; career fairs; and so much more. At the same time, you will have countless opportunities to form the deep personal connections Bucknellians for generations have held so dear. Your experiences will be rich. They will be exciting. They will be inspiring, thought-provoking and fun. Embrace it all — but embrace it with purpose. Pause every once in awhile, take a breath and make sure you are doing more than being busy.

Throughout your time on campus, and in the years that follow, don't simply ask yourself what you are going to do, or how you are going to do it. Ask yourself why. Think deeply about the answer to that question, and let it guide your actions as you decide what difference you are going to make, and who you, in the next four years, will become.

Thank you for being here tonight. Thank you for being a Bucknellian. I wish each of you all the best on the start of what will be one of the most exciting, challenging and rewarding experiences of your life. 'ray Bucknell!