August 17, 2012

Amy Wolaver, Matriculation 2012I am Amy Wolaver, co-director of the Bucknell Institute for Public Policy and a faculty member in the Society and Technology Residential College, and I've been asked to welcome you, on behalf of the faculty of Bucknell. I have roughly five minutes of the estimated 98 hours of scheduled Orientation activities, which I've calculated accounts for 0.09 percent of Orientation (rounding upwards). I know that over these next five days, you'll be exposed to a fire-hose level of information and 'Ray Bucknell blue and orange, so I have a difficult task in trying to make a lasting impression.

Given this constraint, my message for you as you enter Bucknell is that I hope you fail.

I'm sure you expected to hear a somewhat different message, so let me elaborate. I am not talking about the kind of failure that occurs when students don't do the work, but if you succeed easily at everything you do here at Bucknell, you have wasted an opportunity to push yourself academically and to grow. Carlos Bustamante, a molecular biologist at UC-Berkeley says that, "Being a scientist means living on the borderline between your competence and your incompetence. If you always feel competent, you aren't doing your job." I would extend this sentiment beyond science to every discipline.

Whether you are in one of the pre-professional programs or are an undecided BA major, one of the things we expect you to do here is to take intellectual risks and, when you take risks, you might "fail." The key, however, is how you respond to these events.

Instead of calling these missteps failures, I want you to redefine failure and success away from grades and more to what you are learning. In fact, we learn more from failures than from successes.

Perhaps a personal anecdote will help to illustrate. Like many of you in this room, when I arrived at college, I had a long list of "successes." High grades in every subject, school yearbook, drama club president, etc.

Imagine my shock when I saw the 64 percent on my first college chemistry exam. Around the same time, in my freshman composition class, the first paper I wrote was given a 2.5 out of 4.0 (if you're scoring on the GPA this falls somewhere between a C+ and a B-). Both of these grades were a big come-down from my high school days, i.e., failures.

So what did I do? I am so grateful for these experiences, because of what I took from them. I learned from these experiences and have benefited as a result. The first thing I learned was that I wasn't going to be a chemist, not actually a big surprise. I did learn from other classes where my talents and interests were - in applied econometrics, of all things. I also learned how to better study for college-level chemistry and improved my grade. For me, studying more was not the answer - studying better and more efficiently was.

Most importantly, however, I learned to be a much better writer, because I paid attention to the constructive criticism my professor made on my work and I responded to it. I didn't transfer into a different section with one of the perceived-to-be-easier professors. I accepted the challenge presented to me and ended up a better thinker and writer for the effort. The grades were incidental to what I gained as a student.

The classroom should be your priority, but we know that you are also developing outside the classroom. Explore new activities - join one or two clubs, don't try to join all of them.

Remember always, though, that your primary job here is to be a true student. Challenge yourself intellectually and take risks in your classes. Ask questions, explore new subjects - subjects that you may have never heard of before, and then find where your passion and talents are and develop a depth of intellectual knowledge in your chosen major.

In economics we talk about producers and consumers. You are in a unique position of being one of the consumers of the product, but you are also an important part of the production. The faculty and staff here at Bucknell can control only part of the process. As Provost Smyer has told you, we are here to provide you with the tools, but you are in control of the most important part of your education - the efforts you make and what you take from this education.

Each of you sitting here today has enormous potential - if you did not you wouldn't be here in Rooke Chapel about to begin your college career. Don't waste it by taking the easy path through Bucknell; that would be the only true failure.


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