Michael A. Smyer, Provost

Preparing for the Whitewater of Life: Bucknell and You

Good afternoon. It is a real pleasure to add my welcome to Bucknell this afternoon. I want to boil my comments down into a simple title: Preparing for the Whitewater of Life: Bucknell and You.

Maybe some of you are familiar with whitewater rafting or kayaking? Can you keep a secret? Tonight, I will use it as a metaphor for your daughter’s or son’s experience at Bucknell and I want to give you a preview.

My mother-in-law is almost 95 years old. When she was turning 75, we asked what she wanted for her birthday. “I want to go whitewater rafting”, she quickly answered. And that’s how I started whitewater rafting.

If you’ve ever gone kayaking or whitewater rafting, you know there are several steps to success. You don’t just hop in and go. First, you get a dry bag- a bag to keep the things that are essential dry while you go through rapids and streams. Secondly, you decide who will be in your boat, and what roles they will play. Some might be really well suited for power paddling up front; others will excel at reading the rapids and the streams; others might prefer to follow directions. Finally, you practice basic skills- getting in and out of the kayak or canoe; how to turn; how to stop; what to do when (not if!) you fall in. After all of this preparation, you are ready for both the calm and the rapids of the river.

In many ways, coming to college is like preparing for whitewater rafting-only here you are preparing for the whitewater of life. Over the next four years, your daughters and sons will be deciding what is essential to them, what belongs in their dry bag for life: What are their core beliefs and what are their personal, non-negotiable priorities?

They will also be deciding who they want in their boat for the journey. Tonight they will begin to meet people who will become some of their best, life-long friends; for some, their future spouse is among that group!
They are also entering a community that will help them practice the skills they will need for the journey of life: thinking critically; learning how to express themselves in writing and orally; learning to work in teams and to get the best out of each member; how to learn from failures and get back in the boat when they make mistakes.

Bucknell: Your sons and daughters are at a unique time in their lives in a unique setting. Why unique time? As I thought about this afternoon’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: your child is 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 they’re in over the next few years matters a lot.

Here’s where the unique setting- a liberal arts university- matters. This is a place where faculty, staff, administrators, alumni, and parents are dedicated to single purpose: educating your daughters and sons! 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.

We have put in place everything they will need to succeed at Bucknell: from small classes (like their Foundation seminars) and close contact with their 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 they will take advantage of the great opportunities available. In short, we know that they will come to be important members of the Bucknell community.
Which brings us to the third part of my title: You!

Thank you for getting us to this point. You have invested enormous amounts of time, energy, love and devotion to your child. And at times, it has meant learning how to give increasing independence to your child. Did you ever help your child learn to ride a bike? Remember those days with training wheels? Then running alongside (aren’t you glad you did that a few years ago, instead of now?). Once they knew how to ride, there were the rules about how far they could go, with whom, etc.

Or driving? Who helped teach their child to drive? A similar process. And one of the key challenges for a parent is to know when to step back and let your child try on her own or his own.

When my children went to college (they are now 29 and 34), I told each of them the same thing: “I would like to carry an umbrella around and protect you from all the challenges and difficulties you’re going to encounter. But life doesn’t work that way. I know that you’ve got the skills and smarts to make good decisions and to figure out problems. I will support you and love you as you go through the next exciting four years.”

In short, you and Bucknell will be partners over the next four years. We will be providing the day-to-day lessons, the encouragement, the expectations. You will be our partner in the enterprise, at a distance: listening, available for advice, but letting your child know that he or she can handle—has to handle on her own or his own-- the challenges, make the decisions, revise the papers, and learn to be an increasingly responsible young adult.

As parents, make one of your mantras a simple question for your son or daughter when (not if) they fall out of the boat: How are YOU going to handle that?

So…think about how often you need to text or talk on that cell phone—and let your student tell you what her schedule or his schedule is. Here’s another radical idea: write your child a letter every week. I still do that twice a week for our kids—and what I find is that they pay more attention to the snail mail than my emails, text messages, Facebook postings or cell phone calls.

So there you have it: Preparing for the Whitewater of Life: Bucknell and You. Thank you for sharing your children with us. We look forward to working with them and with you.

Welcome to the Bucknell community.