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Convocation Speech of F&M President Daniel R. Porterfield

  • Daniel Porterfield Convocation 2014

Cultivating Our Voices


Daniel R. Porterfield, Ph.D.
President, Franklin & Marshall College
2014 Convocation Ceremony

Lancaster, Pennsylvania
September 2, 2014

I would like to begin by thanking the hundreds of people who have made the last five days so successful—our Facilities and Food Services staffs, our College House leaders, HA’s, faculty and professional staff, and especially the ten OPD’s who spent the summer anticipating the every need of our incoming students.

From FOOT and PiT to move-in day, from Friday’s faculty dinners to Sunday’s student-led discussions on safety, from the College House induction ceremonies to yesterday’s faculty-led conversations about World War I, this been a warm and well-planned welcome.

New students, can you please show your appreciation to all in the F&M family who have reached out to you in friendship?

Today, as searchers and scholars, we welcome some 617 young people into an iconic college forged in the glowing embers of a new democracy.

And, indeed, we all have a great deal for which to give thanks. 

In a world where, conservatively, at least two billion people live in conditions that prevent free speech—where the notion of cultivating one’s voice is but a distant dream—each of us will enjoy this year countless opportunities to express our ideas, deploy our talents, determine our futures, and learn from one another.

And we can enjoy this wealth of intellectual freedom, this community of reciprocity, because of great giving ancestors who came before us. Those giants of our families, who gave us love; the giants of this College, who gave us learning; the giants among our alumni, who gave us resources; the giants of this country, America, who gave us liberty—and the everyday giants of every country and culture in our beautiful but fragile planet who worked and walked and thought and fought and changed when that was needed in order to expand freedom and culture, near and far.

Today, we reflect upon the concept of voice. We have heard the stirring voice of senior Katrina Wachter of New College House and the instrumental voices of the Convocation Wind Ensemble. As Professor Hammer told us, our voices are more than what we say, and include how we say, what we do, who formed us, and what we choose. And as Gabi and Emilie Woods have shown, even students who are nearly identical in genetics and upbringing can create their own absolutely distinct voices at F&M. You are now full partners in a college that offers you every resource that matters for the cultivation of your talent and your voices. Nothing essential is lacking. You have food, friends, freedom, this faculty, and, most important, your own free choices.

And you bring such distinct, interesting voices. I read some of your admission essays last night for inspiration and would like to quote from a few, having secured the permission of the authors by email at, yes, 1:00am. Let’s listen.

Here’s Yanlin Yang from Shanghai, and Brooks College House:

The violin has accompanied me since I was five years old. Playing … was … a source of happiness. You can’t imagine how wonderful it was when I managed to perform a preeminent work by myself. Not only did I attain a sense of achievement but [I] understood the power of music. … However…the stress of study pushed me to consider giving [it] up. My uncle had a heart-to-heart talk with me…

“The violin is your sincerest friend. We kin are unable to accompany you forever, but she can. No matter when and where, she can back you up. If you feel frustrated or cheerful, she can be the audience who shares your emotion.”

…Everything about me was cultivated by my beloved family members.

Your voices were developed at home. They are still emerging. This time is for cultivating them. Yanlin’s voice is already so rich. She now thinks in three languages—in Chinese, in English, in violin. She is a bold searcher, born in the last years of a retreating century, venturing outward, sojourning half a world away in pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, and bringing with her the love of her family and the confidence born of her choice, despite the severe academic pressure of high school, to keep investing herself in an art form she loves. But she isn’t done yet. Each of you is like Yanling—and we can’t wait to see how you cultivate your voices here.

Ironically, doing that does not mean simply speaking more often, or more loudly, or more demonstrably, or more confessionally, or more immediately in response to a provocation. You know this, of course. We’ve all been exposed to enough Facebook rants and self-promoting public figures to want something more authentic for ourselves.

And “authentic” means evolving, changing, developing. Each of you has raised your hand for growth, again and again. As I read your essays last night, I heard—in the act and fact of your own searching—four ways that you can and must cultivate your voices here at F&M.

First, ironically, by listening. Here’s a passage that brought this home, written by Edgar Eduardo Garcia Elizalde, Jr. of West Grove, PA and Ware College House:

My journey to the United States was only the beginning of a journey to fulfill the American Dream …. Although my parents never directly stated, “Go to school and get an education…,” my inquisitive self knew that an education was what they wanted me to get; education is the key to success … Although it was a struggle, my parents vehemently persisted until we all finally became United States citizens…. I must retroactively repay them by fulfilling my dreams – becoming a first generation graduate from college, followed by my sister, and eventually establishing a life that will allow my parents to retire and live luxuriously under my care.

Edgar “listened” to the actions of his parents and went on to define himself in response to what they taught him.

And each of us must listen to one another and try to derive insight and meaning. We can follow the advice of the great novelist Henry James, who advised young writers to “Try to become someone on whom nothing is lost.” Our powers of observation, our discerning ears, will give us insights and growth that shape how we see and how we speak.

In class, in Common Hour, in your College House, in D-hall, do everything you can to hear the perspectives of others. This often requires us to throw aside preconceived notions. We need to slow down. We need to open our minds. We need to learn to hear, as Reverend Minasian reminds us.

Edgar proudly tells us that he is a newcomer, a new American, a new citizen in a nation of immigrants. Too many in our country do not listen to immigrants, do not want to hear or see them. It is in fact inhumane not to be open to the humanity of others. And it is uncivil not to care about the stories of others in our shared society.

Do we want our voices, in their silences about others, to be less humane, less civil, less cultured, less aware? To avoid this, all we have to do is truly listen.

And that leads to the second way of cultivating your voice, as Professor Hammer observed so eloquently, which is by learning. Here’s the essay that demonstrates that infinite power from a student in Weis College House:

My grandparents grew up with the swirls and dots of Arabic calligraphy, their parents telling them “sahtain” (eat well) before a meal or “la, la, la” (no, no, no) when they caused trouble, and everyone telling them “asalamou aelakum” (peace be upon you) in greeting. Listening to my grandparents use these words, hearing about their life experiences on two sides of the world, I realized that they provided me with lessons that would guide me through life. When my beloved grandmother fell ill with pancreatic cancer, I began to study Arabic in earnest. I needed to understand all she could teach me about my ethnicity in order to better understand myself. Beyond the letters and words lay a history of the hospitality, understanding, hard work, and perseverance that my family passed on to me.

Do you hear how the serious study of language—a complex language, Arabic—opened your classmate to discoveries about her grandmother, her ethnicity, and timeless values like hospitality and understanding?

These are the fruits of diligent study. Of engaging new and difficult material. Of probing, deliberating, investing yourself in discovery. Of taking the risk to apply ourselves. I think we create our voices more often with our questions that when we declare.

Yes, we absorb information, of which some portion becomes knowledge, and some smaller portion becomes sensibility, and some still smaller portion becomes wisdom. And a voice inflected with wisdom—a grandmother’s voice—is a worthy achievement of a lifetime that education can catalyze.

The more we learn, the more we realize how much we don’t know. This is liberating. And the faculty live this way—no matter how many articles they write or discoveries they make or shows they produce, we are still developing our own voices.

Third, to cultivate our voices, when we speak, we must try to express not what is easiest, but what is very most difficult—like in this essay by Greg Fullam from Mansfield, MA and Ware College House:

Things look different in the night. The moon flashes a peculiar brightness through the open windows of my room; the silhouette of the window, thrown across the floor, shines in stark contrast to the deep shadow shrouding my desk and bureau …. I’m a listener, but for once there is only silence… The night is not a time for self-deception. I tore my ACL in May, any athlete’s nightmare – but I’m awake, and my nightmare is real. I hurt myself playing soccer, the only sport that frees my body the way the nighttime frees my mind. I’m captain of my school’s soccer team, but that means something different now ….

I’m not looking for perfect contentment here beneath my covers, venting to moonbeams – that’s something I left on the field that Sunday in May. Instead, this is where I can be most open with myself. I miss playing soccer everyday…. Even as the hurricane of my mind seethes and storms, the trees outside remain still, and a lone owl calls to its mate. Life goes on, and carries me with it.  

In the solitude of our thoughts, we circle around an idea, a fear, a feeling, a dream, a loss, a sense, a calling. We have our vocabularies, but the idea flits past our efforts to pin it down with the right words. We try literal language. That fails. We try imagery, but that’s not right either. How to know it? How to say it? Are we chasing the idea, or is it chasing us?

Such are the moments when voices emerge, when we are working at the mind’s limits. In yesterday’s discussion of the story “Heroes”—set in World War I but considering the modern human condition—I saw the fire of an idea flicker in Cameron Adams’ eyes—and so I cold-called him. Don’t worry Cam, I won’t do it again now. He tried to describe the tone of Perry’s story. Was it objective? Numb? Distant? Removed? The word eluded him and Cameron maybe you haven’t found it yet, because the concept is so complex—but that effort, that courage, is called cultivating your voice.

And finally, to develop the fullness of our voices, we must cultivate the voices of others by creating an inviting environment. I saw the beauty of this in the words of Rachel Chamberlain, from Verona, WI and Bonchek College House:

… the state of my school’s much-too-small for us scene shop, in all its cluttered, disarrayed glory is my perfect haven …. The buzz of screw guns, the whirring of saws, and the tinking of screws on concrete fill my ears the same way Dvorak does a musician’s: with heart, soul and passion …. The world of wood, metal and paint is me. It’s a place in which I can do what I love … with enthusiasm and skill. This is where I can be a calculator and an artist …. This is home.

“A place where I can do what I love.” We must create a social and intellectual home here for one another. When we are home, when we can trust that we are known and valued, when we believe that we are where we need to be, where we can be and where we can change, we can take the risk of developing our voices.

We have to help each other. We have to create that welcoming and respectful environment—class meeting by class meeting, conversation by conversation, by building each other up, not putting each other down.

It’s one reason the arts culture of this campus plays such a vital role. At open mic nights, in improve shows, at on-stage performances, in the Phillips Museum and the Green Room Theater, we create a culture of openness to each other’s ideas and voices and presence.

It’s just as noble to empower others to think and speak as to think and speak ourselves. It’s just as worthy. Indeed, encouraging others to discover and express—and protecting their inalienable right to do so—is the very basis of civilization and, closer to home, the liberal arts tradition.

This is why we protect speech and provide academic freedom on campus. Ideas are the coin of this realm. We don’t limit them and shouldn’t try. Some ideas are incorrect, some are unpopular, some are controversial, some are hard to hear, some are internally disruptive, some are contradictory, some seem impossible to defend—but, even so, we do not silence. We engage the questions, yes. We challenge the assumptions, yes. We ask for evidence, yes. But we don’t censor speech; we protect it, on topics ranging from Gaza to Ferguson and from evolution to climate change.

You are in college. If we can’t think out and talk out difficult ideas here, weigh and consider and revise and reject them—always respectfully—in this free space owned by no political party, no government, and no advertiser, then where can you do that?

But at the same time, it is human sometimes to wish to avoid hearing what we don’t agree with. And it is human to flare up emotionally to what we think someone has just said. The tools of the academy and of voice-building can help you temper those reactions: Listen carefully, be a learner, remember that self-expression is an imprecise art on our best days.

There’s a component of rational self-interest here, of course. I protect your speech so that you’ll protect mine. But even more important, by calling up voices, by respecting voices, by cherishing voices, we expand ourselves, we open ourselves, we cultivate our own voices.

Professor Hammer ended his fabulous speech with the lines, “With voice you take ownership of your beliefs, your actions, and your interactions…. Thirst for it…. Make it your own…. Never let anyone take it away.”

He didn’t know it, but he was channeling one of you, two voices converging across the generations. I’d like to end with one more excerpt, from Anastasia Woods of New Orleans and Ware College House:

My life was seamless, with one big happy family under one roof, until Hurricane Katrina hit. With no planned destination for evacuation and only enough clothes for a week, we drove until we landed in Tennessee. One week turned into three years. For the initial months, we had to rely on the Salvation Army and local churches for food and clothing. Once my parents found work, they were reluctant to return to a city in ruins. Incapable of processing my emotions, I cried every day at school. … We were buried alive in debt…. We lost our house to foreclosure…. I went from having my own bed to sleeping in one bed with both of my siblings.

Yet, despite my new chaotic life, my mom’s expectations were in place.

“Go above and beyond” are words that never failed to slip from her lips. School became a way for me … to dive into another world without limitations.… Learning became my new passion. My education was the only thing that I could call my own; no one would take it from me.  

Thank you Anastasia. Thank you Professor Hammer. Thank you Gabi and Em.

Let’s keep the conversation going.