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Provost Mick Smyer
"What does success look like? Sports psychology, Bucknell and you"
Aug. 25, 2009
To the chair of the Board of Trustees Ken Freeman and your fellow trustees in the audience, President and Mrs. Mitchell, distinguished guests, faculty colleagues, students, staff members, and, most especially, transfer students and members of the Class of 2013, welcome to Convocation 2009. My name is Mick Smyer and I am the Provost of Bucknell University. It is a very real pleasure to welcome you tonight.
To my faculty colleagues, thank you for being here. I look forward to talking with you in both formal and informal settings in the coming days. We have much work to do together this year. Tonight, though, I want to focus my remarks on the newest members of the Bucknell community: transfer students and members of the Class of 2013.
You have been on campus less than a week. I started my orientation a little earlier — a year ago. I have learned a lot about the Bucknell community, and tonight I want to give you a scouting report, share with you what I have learned.
I have chosen a simple title for my remarks tonight: What Does Success Look Like? Sports psychology, Bucknell, and you. During the next few minutes, I will try to explain that title and the extraordinary community you and I have had the good fortune to join.
What does success look like?
What do Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, and Michael Phelps have in common? Yes, each is a world-class athlete. Yes, each is a popular culture icon. They also each have used common strategies to accomplish uncommon achievements. In short, each of them has asked a simple question: What does success look like? And I hope that you will ask this question often about your time at Bucknell, as you start that time and throughout your four years here.
What does success look like? For Tiger Woods, it is winning more majors than Jack Nicklaus, or any other professional golfer. For Serena Williams it means winning at Wimbledon (or just beating her sister!) For Michael Phelps, it means earning more gold medals than any other Olympic athlete in one Olympics, and he achieved that goal in 2008, so he did not stop there. Now he seems determined to establish more world records than any other swimmer in history.
Although the goals may vary, each of these successful athletes has been explicit about outlining what success looks like for him or her.
That brings me to sports psychology. I am a psychologist by training — a clinical psychologist, not a sport psychologist. But over the next few minutes I want to highlight one strategy, what sports psychologists call visualization or mental imagery, because its key components may help you envision success at Bucknell.
Psychologists have found that athletes or anyone else can improve their performance by explicitly envisioning what success looks like. The more detailed the image, the better the outcome. For example, most people are nervous when they are asked to make a presentation in class. But the first step to success is to ask a simple question: What do I want people to remember, what is the single most important idea from the presentation? By focusing on this successful outcome, you can then work backward and structure the speech to accomplish that. Another simple step in this process is to see the setting that you'll be speaking in. Once you've done that, you can visualize yourself in front of the class giving the presentation, making the points to the class. In many ways, these steps embody the advice given to someone who was nervous about giving a talk: "Everyone has butterflies when they give a talk; those who are good at it just get the butterflies to fly in formation."
Another major component of the mental imagery or visualization technique is concentration — focused attention on the process and outcome. Focused attention. How many of you have a Facebook account? Twitter? How many have simultaneously studied, IM'd, managed a Pandora account, and checked out friends on Facebook? It would be impossible to take that approach to envisioning success — it just wouldn't work with divided attention.
So as you begin your career at Bucknell, think of the image of those world-class athletes and their concentrated effort to envision success. In each class and activity you are involved in, ask what will success be in this class — not just the grade, but the meaning of the lessons for you in particular? When the class is over, what will success, lasting success, look like for you as a student and a person?
Geoff Schneider, director of the University's Teaching and Learning Center, surveyed our faculty who have received teaching awards. What he found was that they took many of the same steps of envisioning success: clarifying the goals for the class; thinking through the steps needed to achieve those goals; and thinking about the possible obstacles they might encounter. They also highlighted one other key to success: using the time just before class to mentally prepare for the class. In short, arriving at class ready to concentrate and ready to make something interesting happen — not a bad recipe for your own approach!
Which brings us to the next part of my title:
From the orientation activities, you already have a sense of the large roles that the faculty, staff and your fellow students will play in your time at Bucknell, a sense of what I shared with you on Friday night at matriculation. When I asked a faculty member about the strengths of Bucknell, she quickly started with two key elements: "our extraordinary attention to undergraduate education and our close-knit community
And the Bucknell community does envision your success. For example, last year our faculty endorsed a set of educational goals for Bucknell students, a set of academic aspirations for each Bucknell graduate. As you have heard during orientation, we want each of you to be able to learn an area in-depth, as well as think critically across broad problem domains; to respond creatively to both local and global challenges; to critically evaluate arguments and to express yourself well in writing and speaking; to act responsibly and ethically; and to develop habits of mind that will make you a lifelong learner.
Similarly, our colleagues in student life have a set of expectations: that you will sample broadly from the co-curricular offerings as you start your time at Bucknell and that over time you will begin to focus your energies and assume leadership roles in campus activities. Yesterday, Activities Unlimited introduced you to the broad range of opportunities that Bucknell has for you. What may not have been readily apparent, though, is that these activities are designed to achieve the same goals that our faculty have outlined: to help you think critically, to help you learn about an area in-depth, and to help you connect your local concerns to larger national and international contexts.
In short, the Bucknell community starts with a clear vision of success for you and for itself. And we know that you can live up to it — if your approach is thoughtful, imaginative, and deliberate. Why do we have such confidence in you? Because you were admitted to Bucknell. We believe you have the talent, energy, and drive to succeed.
I also have a sobering message to deliver: Bucknell is a place that challenges you. Some of you may have coasted, to use a familiar term, in high school or at your previous institution. Bucknell didn't become one of the finest liberal arts universities in the country by providing a learning environment where students could coast. We assume you came here to succeed, which means you came here to work hard and do well in and out of class.
If you do that, we know that you will succeed.
In the end, a faculty member put it best: "This is a student-centered place. The whole place is keyed to educate undergraduates at the most holistic level."
That just leaves one element in my title:
You are in the midst of a period of great growth and development. 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 your age, while the areas related to control and problem-solving develop more slowly.
When I spoke with your parents on Friday afternoon about this pattern, I asked them to perform a simple thought experiment — one which you could do right now: Remember when you were first learning to ride a bike? Your parents ran along side of you — first with training wheels on the bike; then without training wheels, as they leaned over, holding a hand on the bike to keep you steady. At some point, they let go and you were on your own. You may not have even noticed it at first. I told your parents that just as in bike riding, now they have to let go. Your job is to keep moving ahead with their support, but without having them hold on or intervene for you on campus.
So when you envision success, envision staying in control, and being a good problem-solver in and out of class. Your success here will require it.
Fortunately, Bucknell has designed an academic and co-curricular environment that will support you as much as it challenges you. In the classroom, you will begin with general courses, select a major, and complete your studies with a capstone experience. Similarly, outside the classroom, you will probably begin by sampling clubs or activities widely in your first year or two, eventually focusing and assuming leadership later in your time with us.
A friend of mine, Fr. Michael Himes, tells me that these academic and student life activities are designed to help you answer three simple but important questions: What gives me great joy? What am I good at? And who cares?
What gives me great joy is different from what do I enjoy. Have you ever found yourself lost in an activity — losing track of time, totally engaged in what you are doing? For some of you, that feeling — what psychologist Mike Csikszentmihalyi labels an "optimal experience" — will come in puzzling out a math problem or in writing a short story. For others, it might come in singing, working with children, or doing community service. Yet others might find that sensation in athletics or in a chemistry lab. As Professor Toole pointed out to you during the Matriculation Ceremony on Friday night, Bucknell is here to help you see that concentrated engagement, using your skills to the utmost, is joyful.
The second question — what am I good at — may seem simple. But ask your parents if their list of what they are good at is the same now as it was when they were 17 or 18! For example, you may find through your biology major that, to your surprise, you are really good at lab work and experimentation. You may find through your photography minor that you are really talented in that area — a talent you didn't even know you had. You may find through your sorority or fraternity that you excel at working in and leading teams.
Over the next four years, part of what we will try to do is to assure that you try more than one item in the Bucknell menu. Whether it is an academic program like Institute for Leadership in Technology and Management (ILTM), study abroad or an advanced seminar in poetry or a co-curricular activity like Bucknell Student Government or Building on Foundations — this is a supportive environment that will challenge you and work with you as you discover more about what you are good at.
The poet Rita Dove captured it well in her poem Dawn Revisited:
Imagine you wake up
with a second chance: The blue jay
hawks his pretty wares
and the oak still stands, spreading
How good to rise in sunlight,
in the prodigal smell of biscuits -
eggs and sausage on the grill.
The whole sky is yours
to write on, blown open
to a blank page. Come on,
shake a leg! You'll never know
who's down there, frying those eggs,
if you don't get up and see.
The third question — who cares? — helps you to shift the focus solely away from yourself and reminds you that you are part of a larger societal context. How can you take your joy and your talent into the world? What is the social structure that will allow you to do what you are good at? Our fate is inextricably linked to those around us.
Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel spoke at Bucknell's commencement last May and made the point with exceptional clarity:
One of my mottos has been that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.
That means the opposite of education is not ignorance, it is indifference...
So whatever you do in your life, indifference is never an option.
He continued to tell the Class of 2009:
[The learning] you have received in this marvelous university with such able professors, some inspiring, others inspired.... has become your baggage. Remember, don't leave it in your bag. Open it from time to time.
...you can do something. You can, even for one person. There must be on this planet at least one person who needs you. One person you can help. Don't turn away; help. Because those who suffer, often suffer not because of the person or the group that inflicts the suffering; they seem to suffer because nobody cares.
In the Bucknell community, we care and we ask you to remember that success, real success, the success that lasts, links your talents and concerns to the larger society.
For some, that may mean thinking about how to use your engineering passion in a changing world increasingly concerned about sustainability. For others, it may mean linking your love for history to issues of human rights and immigration or connecting your dedication to children to your passion for video development and creating the 21st-century version of Sesame Street.
In this hall tonight are young women and men who will develop the solutions to some of the most interesting and vexing problems in the world. Those young men and women are you. You will continue to develop the skills and passion to succeed during your time at Bucknell. And we will be your partner in the enterprise.
In a few minutes we will process to the Academic Quad and you will be applauded by Bucknell students, faculty, and staff. They will be welcoming you, indicating that they are ready to join you on the next phase of your journey, ready to help you envision success.
Over the next four years, we will be providing the day-to-day lessons, the encouragement, the expectations. You will be concentrating, envisioning success and rising to the challenges, making the decisions, and learning to be an increasingly responsible young adult, discovering what success looks like at Bucknell and beyond, and discovering how exciting success can be.
Welcome to the Bucknell community, to your University, and 'Ray Bucknell!
Contact: Division of Communications