August 23, 2013

MatriculationMark Twain, A-Rod & You

Thank you, Dean Springall. It is my honor and privilege to formally accept the Class of 2017 into Bucknell University.

To each new student, on behalf of my faculty colleagues, administrators, and staff members in academic programs and student affairs, welcome to Bucknell. We are delighted you have joined us.

Tonight I want to talk with you about a simple topic. I call it "Mark Twain, A-Rod and You".

Mark Twain

As I thought about this evening's session, I was reminded of that familiar quote from Twain: "When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years."

It turns out that Twain's instincts were right on the mark: you are in the midst of a period of great growth and development. For example, recent research in neuroscience has documented that the phrase young adults really is appropriate: the adolescent brain is still undergoing significant development until the mid 20s. That's the good news. The bad news is that the development is uneven: the areas related to risk taking are well developed by this age, while the areas related to control and problem solving develop more slowly.

What this means is that the context you're in over the next few years matters a lot. Here's where this unique setting- a liberal arts university- matters.

This is a place where faculty, staff, administrators, alumni, and parents are dedicated to single purpose: educating you! In Bertrand library, there is a quote from John Zeller, a beloved alumnus and administrator at Bucknell: "We are all teachers here." What John meant was that our entire community is here to help students learn and prepare for the whitewater of life.


Which brings me to the second part of my title, A-Rod. Earlier this month, David Brooks, columnist for the New York Times, wrote a column entitled "The A-Rod Problem" (Aug 5, 2013), referring to Alex Rodriguez, the New York Yankee star. Brooks recalled his first days as a columnist, and his description reminded me of what you might feel in your first days at Bucknell:

"So, especially in the first few months, I had a self-preoccupied question on my mind: How am I doing? There was no noncrazy-making answer to that question. I was always looking for some ultimate validation, which, of course, can never come. But, after a little while, I settled into a routine and my focus shifted from my own performance to the actual subjects I was writing about."

Brooks went on to analyze the importance of not being totally self-absorbed, as A-Rod seems to be. His advice is important for you, since being preoccupied with yourself is age-appropriate behavior as you develop your identity. Brooks advises:

"My theory would be that self-preoccupied people have trouble seeing that their natural abilities come from outside themselves and can only be developed when directed toward something else outside themselves. Enclosed in self, they come to believe that their talents come from self, are the self. They have no outside criteria that tell them what their talents are for or when they are sufficient. Locked in a cycle of insecurity and attempted self-validation, their talents are never enough, and they end up devouring what they have been given.

As Rodriguez's former manager, Joe Torre, once wrote, the really good hitter has to "concern himself with getting the job done, instead of how it looks. ... There's a certain free-fall you have to go through when you commit yourself without a guarantee that it's always gong to be good. ... Allow yourself to be embarrassed. Allow yourself to be vulnerable."


Which brings me to the final part of my title: You. As you begin an exciting four years at Bucknell, it is important that you engage the community, that you commit yourself to getting the best out of our community, to challenging yourself. That you, in Joe Torre's words, allow yourself to be vulnerable.

You are entering a community that will help you practice the skills you will need for the journey of life: thinking critically; learning how to express yourself in writing and orally; learning to work in teams and get the best out of each member; learning from failures and getting back in the boat when (not if) you make mistakes.

We have put in place everything you will need to succeed at Bucknell: from small classes (like your Foundation seminars or Engineering 100 sections) and close contact with your faculty to great RAs, Orientation Leaders and Assistants, to clubs, sports and other co-curricular activities.

We know that one of the best predictors of success in college is getting involved-in the classroom and on the broader campus and we know that you will take advantage of the great opportunities available. In short, we know that you will come to be important members of the Bucknell community.

Before you know it, you will have finished four years and we will be meeting again at commencement! But instead of worrying about how to meet people and how to find your way, you will be leaving with a network of Bucknell friends of all ages.

So, class of 2017, congratulations and welcome to Bucknell.