A new year, new students: Why are we here?

Last year, I was honored to be asked to serve as the guest speaker at New Student Convocation (thank you to Laurie Clabo for the invitation!). Coming back together after a long time apart, in the midst of of ongoing public and political attacks on higher education (and education more broadly), I thought long and hard about why I’m so invested in this work. I believe in the transformative power of higher education – it changed my life and it can change others. But, in the midst of all of the anxiety and anger about cost and debt for students and parents and concerns about funding for higher ed institutions like Wayne, sometimes it can be difficult to remember this fundamental mission – to educate, to enable individuals to explore, to encourage curiosity, to provide resources and infrastructure to support students in finding their path, to help students build the skills to support lifelong learning so that they can continue to adapt and thrive long after they graduate. So here’s what I said… What would your advice be to new students? What do you want entering students to hear about what they’re going to experience during their university education?

Thank you President Wilson.  It’s a delight and an honor to be here with the President and Provost, Deans and Cabinet members, Board members, faculty, staff, and administrative colleagues, and, most importantly, all of you – students and parents sitting here nervously in the heat, wondering what I’m going to say and whether it matters.  I’ll try my best to live up to the hype.

Almost exactly 20 years ago today, I was sitting in the opening convocation of my university as a new student (there’s some people behind me who are groaning internally right now because I’m making them feel old.  I’ve been here for 10 years – I just got started early, I promise!). There were a lot of ways in which I was different from most of you – I’m from a rural area of Kentucky and the college I was attending was small, private, and residential. But there’s many ways in which the me of 20 years ago and the you of today are probably similar. The world was different, but pretty chaotic and uncertain – Y2K (this widespread fear that society was going to basically collapse when we entered the year 2000 because computers would not be able to process the double zero) highlighted a collective uncertainty about the ways that new internet technologies of the dotcom era were transforming the economy, and 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan started during my first semester, so things were pretty scary.  The speaker, ironically, was also a historian – our university president – and he always began speeches by saying, “as a historian…”  I won’t do that today – you’re welcome.  But 20 years ago, I was a working class student who was at college thanks to a combination of scholarships and loans, I was looking for a job, I was terrified that college would be too hard or that I wouldn’t measure up, I felt underprepared, and I had no idea what I was going to do.

I want to focus for a while today on that last part = I had no idea what I was going to do. My initial assumption when I graduated college was that I would follow in the footsteps of my family. They all had business degrees but my university didn’t have a business major, and my heart wasn’t in it. I didn’t know what I wanted. 

Many of you might find yourself in a similar situation right now, but it’s hard to admit these days. There’s pressure from family who want you to have a bright future. There’s politicians who tell you that only a certain set of majors lead to high paying jobs. There’s your own concerns about whether you will be able to pay off your loans or afford to live a life you’ve dreamed up. There’s the university asking you to declare a major before you even get here and assigning you an advisor. It might feel like your path is already set, and you – unlike the me of 20 years ago – might feel good about that. But, regardless of whether you’re sure of your path or as uncertain as I was, as you make the final plans for your fall semester classes & sign up for student orgs at Festifall, I want you to consider the possibility that these first semesters are a unique opportunity to explore.

I help run the general education program, so I think I’m obligated to tell you that your Gen Ed courses are a great way to do that. As a university, we’ve identified and committed to supporting opportunities for all Wayne State students to develop core competencies that will set them – you – up for success during your time at Wayne State and beyond. But importantly, we’ve also created space for you to explore and be curious through inquiry courses that introduce you to the many ways that people see, experience, interpret, and understand the world. If you are inclined towards the arts, humanities, and social sciences, that means taking an opportunity to learn about STEM fields.  If you’re a STEM student, take your courses in the arts, humanities, and social sciences seriously.  Not just because we told you so, but because they can be transformational.  Seize that opportunity and do it early.

Because really, I believe in the importance of general education not just because I helped lead it but because it changed my life. When I registered for my fall semester courses, I didn’t know what I wanted to do or who I wanted to be. I did know I wasn’t interested in the things I had been exposed to so far. My small town might have had limited opportunities, but the reality is that most of us only really know about the possibilities of the world immediately around us. There’s so much more out there! So I took a leap and took Gen Ed courses in fields I had never heard of before, hoping I might find the right fit. Those courses in philosophy and International Studies and voice started me on a path that has taken me around the world and allowed me to work with historians, anthropologists, artists, musicians, entrepreneurs, architects, engineers, politicians, and preachers. And even Kristen Bell! It is a life I never imagined 20 years ago as a working class student straight out of rural Kentucky. And it started by being curious and exploring through general education.

That’s just the start of course. Gen Ed is a foundation – take the curiosity you cultivate there and pursue research opportunities and internships and study abroad. Learn how to take advantage of university resources in your Wayne experience course. Develop the competencies necessary for long term success in your composition and communication and quantitative experience courses. Join some of those great student orgs at Festifall and volunteer. Explore. The world is big and today’s the beginning of your new path. The world is also changing – the jobs of today might not be the jobs of tomorrow (and parents, your reality probably will not be their reality).  Wayne State professors, advisors, staff, and administrators are here to help you and learn with you. We want to prepare you to adapt and thrive as lifelong learners who feel empowered to contribute to your community in multifaceted ways.  We want you to succeed during and after your time here, and we want to help you transform your passions into a livelihood that is yours.  Don’t write something off before you look into it (you can make money with a History degree, I promise!).  Reach out to us (and parents, let go and let them; We promise we’ve done this before and we’re pretty good at it).  Reach out to me! I’m all over the internet and I’m always delighted to meet new students. And, most importantly, don’t be afraid of not knowing; That’s why we’re all here!

I am deeply passionate about the value of General Education, and, as I’ve written recently, I believe that universities are wise to invest in a comprehensive and intentional approach to gen ed. A robust gen ed program can form the foundation of a vision of student success rooted in curriculum and pedagogy, which goes beyond retention and graduation to support student growth and lifelong learning. But the solutions to the complex challenges that higher ed faces are far from simple. Investments in experiential learning and community engagement help highlight our value and connect classrooms and labs to the world. Inclusive and accessible international education help prepare students to live and work in an increasingly global world. Thoughtful pedagogies that support diverse student populations and create inclusive classrooms ensure that we are supporting the success of all students. Co-curricular experiences and internships help students understand how to apply the knowledge and skills they learn in the classroom in the world. How do we communicate what we offer? And what kinds of investments are needed to ensure that we continue to support our core mission – undergraduate education in the midst of increasingly pressing challenges?

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