Bucknell University Class of 2018
Good evening. My name is John Bravman, and I have the honor of being the 17th president, and a professor of electrical engineering, at Bucknell University. It is my pleasure to welcome all of you to the beginning of Bucknell's 168th academic year. Convocation marks a special time in the University's annual cycle, one of renewed energy and hope as we enter a year that holds the promise of new discoveries, new accomplishments and new friendships.
I am especially pleased to welcome tonight the newest members of our Bucknell community — the Class of 2018, as well as our new transfer and graduate students.
Welcome back, too, to our returning students, so many of whom volunteer in that great Bucknell tradition of students serving students, thereby making Orientation possible. I know that many of you had enriching and enlightening summers through internships, jobs and study abroad programs, as well as important and much deserved rest and relaxation with your families and friends. I hope you will take some time to share with your peers what you have learned from those experiences.
To my colleagues in the faculty and staff: Your commitment to teaching, to scholarship, to challenging our students so that they grow and learn and succeed is the foundation — indeed, the bedrock — of our great institution. For your countless hours and contributions to fulfilling Bucknell's mission, I am so thankful.
Tonight, I will address our new students directly, but I'm hopeful my words might to speak to all of us, as a community of scholars, as we begin the year anew and carry on the essential, excellent work of teaching, of learning, and of making the University community the best possible version of itself.
To the students: I'm sure you have heard much advice over these past few days of Orientation — and even in the weeks before you arrived on campus — with family, friends and teachers sharing their many tips for succeeding in class, living away from your family, staying safe and healthy, and getting along with your roommate in the close quarters of your residence hall. I too have some advice, and it comes in the form of a challenge. It is a call to action that, if fulfilled, will help you make the most of your experience at Bucknell and beyond.
The challenge is this: Embrace authenticity. Which is to say, embrace the true you, as you become the very best version of yourself that you possibly can.
Now this is not a new concept; indeed, it seems to be timeless, although I wonder about it these days in a world that seems so fleeting and ephemeral, with so much emphasis on immediacy, instantaneous everything, and ubiquitous connectivity. You can download the text from all of Shakespeare in a matter of seconds, but you cannot download the wisdom he expressed in his greatest play on this very subject; you can only learn it — or not — over time. To his departing son, Laertes, who was eager to get out of Denmark, and return to France, Polonius sums up his oration on the subject with the immortal lines:
This above all: to thine own self be true.
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
This from Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3.
More recently, there is available a powerful TEDx talk called "The Power of Vulnerability" by the bestselling author, social worker and researcher Brené Brown. Brown is renowned for her writing on embracing imperfection and having the courage to be vulnerable in order to forge deeper relationships and live a better life. Brown sums up nicely the reason I am asking you to embrace authenticity as a member of the Bucknell community. She says in her talk that, "In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen — really seen." Those who accept their own vulnerability, says Brown, have better chances of living lives of joy, creativity, belonging and love.
Since many of you may have spent the last few days trying to make friends and find a home away from home, allowing others to see you for who you really are may be a task easier said than done, especially given that Bucknell is a community of high achievers, and it is a place where most of you will feel significant pressure to achieve success in the form of good grades, good work and a good social life. "Work hard, play hard," right? But suppose you resist the urge to fit in, or, what's worse, to conform. Suppose, instead, you commit to being your most authentic self in all of your endeavors here at Bucknell. To paraphrase Brené Brown, let go of how you think you should be in order to be who you are. By allowing yourself to be seen for who you really are, and by seeing others for who they really are, you will forge the deep connections that unite the Bucknell community in special ways generation after generation.
Connection is in fact one of the distinguishing aspects of the Bucknell community. We value the strong bonds we have with one another, and because of that we offer opportunities for personal connections with other Bucknellians at a level unmatched by many colleges and universities.
Take a moment now to look around you. Look at your fellow students and our fine faculty and staff. As you do so, know that some of the same people you are seated with tonight you will see 10, 20 or maybe even 50 years from now at Homecoming, Reunion and alumni events around the world. Some of the people around you tonight will become lifelong friends. If history is a guide, some will be your spouses! In the year 2068, 50 years after graduating from Bucknell, you will trade stories with each other about your grandchildren and your retirement trips. You'll also find yourselves reminiscing about your time at Bucknell; that was certainly the case last June, when I visited the 50th reunion dinner here on campus. Quite a few of these 70+ year olds spoke with great and fond memories of their favorite professors, their friends and adventures, their triumphs and failures, and most importantly, how Bucknell changed their lives. The point is, they still expressed a deep connection to this place, and we hope you will too. At a projected age of 111, I doubt I'll be here, but maybe, just maybe, you'll remember this prediction, and reflect back on the bonds you've formed. If I make it to your 50th reunion, I'll be sure to remind you!
These bonds occur beyond the student population. Your professors and the staff members here on campus are ready to get to know you personally, to take an interest in your future, and to help you achieve your goals... if you let them. This is an extraordinarily important aspect of Bucknell, which almost literally cannot be overstated. Your connections with them will not be confined to offices and classrooms, but rather begin there and extend to campus life, to research, to creative projects, discussion groups, leadership opportunities and more. Your faculty and staff are here because of you — because of a commitment to help you evolve personally and professionally in this residential liberal arts atmosphere that we as a community believe is the most potent form of providing you with an education that will serve you well for the rest of your life.
So let your fellow Bucknellians know who you really are.
One way you can do this is by understanding that every person here has a compelling life story that is more complex than you might imagine. Each one of us has overcome our own unique set of challenges, celebrated victories large and small, suffered through defeats, and experienced times of sadness and of joy.
Let me give a few examples from my own life. You know I am Bucknell's president, and you may or may not have some assumptions about me given that role. And it is true that I am fortunate to have an advanced degree and a career as both a scholar and higher education administrator. But here's what you probably do not know.
I am a second-generation American. My grandparents immigrated to the United States from Germany before World War I. I am a first-generation college student. I had never been on a plane until I left for college and flew from New York to the West Coast to attend Stanford University.
I knew I wanted to pursue studies in engineering, but college life and I did not immediately agree with each other. That's a euphemism. Well into my sophomore year, I had found none of the courses I'd taken to be particularly compelling, and my academic performance began to slip. That's another euphemism. I was on a path toward failure. Then a couple of things happened that would transform my life and set me on a course that led me, unequivocally, to this podium here tonight. First, I took a course in materials science and quickly became interested in a subject that was at the intersection of pure science and applied engineering. Materials science is unlikely to be your calling, but I hope you know the feeling — when something is so fascinating that you just can't stop thinking about it or wanting to know more about it. Second, at the same time I was discovering my academic passion, I was fortunate enough to have an observant and caring professor who took an interest in my future. That professor — that mentor — Bob Sinclair, encouraged me to keep pursuing the discipline that had so captured my interest. And he kept guiding me, several years later encouraging me to pursue my doctorate, convincing me that my contributions to the field through scholarship would be much more meaningful than if I had gone into industry simply to pursue a bigger paycheck.
Look to your left; look to your right... to the side aisles of this auditorium. There sits the faculty, and they are the reason you came to Bucknell. Your professors are here to help you cultivate your interests in much the same way that Professor Sinclair nurtured mine. And here's where your authenticity is crucial to your success: When that spark occurs, when you find yourself interested in a particular topic, dedicate as much energy to it as you possibly can! Engage with it, and with those who can help you pursue that passion. Ask questions and talk to your professors outside of class. Bucknell's faculty and staff are here to offer you advice, to challenge you, to connect you with resources on campus, in the surrounding community and throughout the world. They are committed to your success, and are rewarded by your interest, intrigue and enthusiasm. But they cannot do their job without you. Let your intellectual light and curiosity shine. You'll inspire your peers to share their true passions and interests, and you'll encourage each other to forge ahead.
Now here's the hard part — I challenge you to embrace authenticity, too, in sharing your weaknesses and failures. By allowing yourself to be vulnerable, you will be open to seeking the help you need to accept your limitations, to move past your challenges and to find support through the friends and mentors with whom you have true and honest relationships. Those who know you and care about you for who you are — they are your best form of support.
I understand how important it is to acknowledge weakness, because after I surmounted the challenges of my undergraduate years, advanced to graduate school and took my doctoral qualifying exam for the first time, I failed. That was neither the first nor the last time I would fail at something, but because I was able to admit my weaknesses — as I do here tonight — I could address them, summon the courage to keep going and ultimately succeed. I eventually earned my doctorate, established a career as a scholar and teacher, and developed the skills to lead the very undergraduate program in which I'd earlier struggled to succeed. My career at Stanford spanned 36 years before coming to Bucknell four years ago.
So now you know a little bit more about me — just a little. But more importantly, you know that even the tall guy at the podium in the fancy academic robes has stumbled from time to time. I am here to tell you that it's okay to fail. The faculty and staff in this room with whom you'll soon form great relationships with will tell you the same. We've all done it. We've also all benefited from the help and encouragement and mentorship of others. Not one of us has succeeded just on our own. We have relied on the wisdom and support of our families, mentors and friends to get to where we are today. For that, we have many accomplishments of which we are proud.
You will too — if you allow yourself to be the most authentic version of yourself.
Share your values, your worries, your hopes and your dreams with each other. Listen to each other, and be respectful of your differences. Allow yourselves to be seen — really seen.
All over campus and in the community there are students, faculty and staff together making memorable moments, discovering and creating new knowledge, forging lasting friendships, creating, performing, building, testing, laughing, crying, encouraging, trying and failing, trying again and succeeding — all to become the best, most authentic versions of themselves.
As you stand around the Academic Quad tonight, circled together holding lit candles symbolizing the light of knowledge, know that you are among members of a community who have experienced their own challenges and personal victories, perhaps much different from yours or mine. A diverse group from all walks of life, filled with differing viewpoints and perspectives, will surround you. Share with them your story and ask to hear theirs. Participate fully. Embrace authenticity. It is by doing so that you will discover just how multifaceted and multilayered a community you have joined, and how rewarding your being here can be, and how you are part of something truly special.
Welcome to Bucknell, which now, and forevermore, is yours.