Below are remarks delivered to parents of new students by F&M President Daniel R. Porterfield, Ph.D., on Aug. 23, 2013, at the Alumni Sports & Fitness Center.
Katrina, thank you so much for that beautiful introduction. Katrina represents hundreds of students all here of their own free choosing to welcome your students today. They’ve worked hard to organize every aspect – not just of the move-in, which I know was just so welcomed to see hoards descending upon your cars to take the bags, but on top of that the next five days exquisitely planned. So Katrina, as you walk away, please take our thanks.
Behind me is Dean Margaret Hazlett and our Provost Joseph Karlesky. I’m going to introduce them a little more formally in a few minutes and then they will make some remarks of welcome.
But first I’d like to just enjoy the moment – enjoy this day and what it represents for our institution and for your families and your children. For me it is a time of extraordinary presence. Families from all over the country and all over the world descending upon a great institution founded by Benjamin Franklin to deposit these extraordinary students here where they will create the education and the growth that they seek. So many strands of beauty that wind together in this tapestry.
We welcome you as educators, but we also welcome you as parents because we get what this represents in your lives. You brought these great kids into the world. You fed them, you cared for them, you loved them, you held them, you nurtured them. You took them to kindergarten and that was a big day – that first day of kindergarten. You walked them through each step of their education departing values that you learned from your families and passed on to them. You helped them to value the cultures and the communities from which they’ve come. You taught them what is right, what is wrong, what is decent. You helped them appreciate the finer things in life. You helped instill in them that fire for learning and then they probably amazed you during their high school years as they pushed forward like a force of nature. They came up with ideas or tall tales and you wonder who that comes from. Maybe they developed a passion for music, or a way of seeing. Maybe they just showed a drive to do their schoolwork, or an extra vision of getting involved in your community.
But all that comes together today and we have a full human being, irreducible, incomparable to anyone else with his or her own dignity who stands here now as an adult in formation to create an education for herself or himself empowered by you. Not just brought by you, inspired by you, by your parents, by your families, and by their teachers - and all that comes together. That’s why I just want to enjoy this moment.
I truly believe that each one of your sons and daughters has made a brilliant college choice by saying “I want to be at Franklin & Marshall College.” Brilliant. And they have to keep making that choice. Each night, make the choice to engage as deeply as they can in their college education. And we picked them out of the thousands that applied because we saw that in them. We saw that creative spark to make meaning, to learn to go forward positively, with a trajectory toward more learning, more growth, more giving. We saw that in each and every one of them. It’s a privilege for me to work at an institution able to individualize the student recruitment process the way we are so we can say confidently that we actively understood much of the driving force, power, and beauty of the students we accepted.
Now, earlier today I had a conversation with a mom and a dad. And the mom, whose first name I’ll say is Ann, made this great comment. She said, “I was thinking what would I say to my daughter, what more could I tell her today? What more can I tell her?” Probably some of you are thinking that. Is there something else not quite said yet? My advice to you is to believe that you have said those things, but also to remember that tomorrow, or next week, or next month or over mid-semester break there will be plenty more to impart - plenty of experience and knowledge of life and of your son and daughter. It will be there for you to impart. I was pretty inspired by Ann’s comment because it just made me think about our own family and my children and how we always try each year to send our children off to school with that great boost of love. But there’s lots of parenting still to come.
I’ll say a few more words maybe a little bit informally and then invite Joe and Margaret to offer some thoughts.
The first is that the class is actually extraordinary in its depth and reach. We were so strong – we had a huge number of applicants – deep, deep talent academically. Strong students, as strong as this school has ever had. The most diverse class in school history - 17% international students; 20% first in their families to go to college; 14% from 1,000 miles away or more. All records for F&M.
Now the class of rising sophomores, they were the most diverse class in school history before your sons and daughters, and the rising juniors were before them, because the school has captured a niche where very strong students from all around the country and the world are saying “I want an individualized education with direct interaction with faculty with a chance to compete for scholarships as I advance toward my degree, I want a supportive community that’s embodied by the College House System, and I want to be able to choose my own way and tailor my education with freedom and flexibility in and out of class.”
We were so strong this year that we did not accept a single student from the waitlist, which is the first time it’s happened. We’re lucky, I guess, that we didn’t end up with 1,200 incoming students instead of 600 incoming students. I make the point to say that your sons and daughters are in great company. I can’t wait for them to come back and tell you about the passions and commitments, travel experiences, work experiences and family histories of their roommates and those living in the College House that their in, or those that are on their team or their club. And the circle will widen over these years. But it is a great class – not just an aggressive class – it is a great class.
The second thing I want to say is that the school has a tradition. We are 226 years old this year. Founded by Ben Franklin and named for John Marshall. Known as one of the most academically rigorous, serious schools in the country. Preparing students for lives of impact for whatever they want to do. That is our tradition.
It’s a tradition where the faculty work directly with the students in small classes. We invite your sons and daughters to get to know the faculty as well. It’s almost unavoidable that they’ll get to know their professors well. Almost. I suppose one could be passive resistant and refuse to talk in class, but other than that it’s pretty much impossible at F&M not to go home after the first semester with at least five professors knowing your name – the four that taught you in small classes and your College House Don.
It’s a tradition. It’s a tradition of serious intellectual inquiry and a passion that we have for inviting each of your students to become a co-creator of new knowledge. I love the way a dad (whose name is Rahul) that I talked to yesterday – who happens to be an alum – who with his wife is sending their daughter to F&M all the way across the planet because they live in India, came back to his college community and brought his daughter with him to begin her freshman year. I said, “what do you remember about F&M?” He said, “well, they didn’t teach me what to think, they taught me how to think.” And that was true in 1981 when Rahul graduated and that is true today for your children. We will not teach them what to think, but we will indeed, indeed teach them how to think, how to write, how to question and how to analyze. And that magical process of a student developing intellectual independence doesn’t happen the same way for any two students. It’s a completely distinct interior experience.
The third thing I want to say for a moment is that of course there are many adjustments, starting now. Your children have roommates, they’re in College Houses, there are traditions and approaches to learning in a community that they’re going to be oriented to in the coming days. A college professor is different than a high school teacher, in important ways. A college professor is a creator of knowledge. Part of their job is to create knowledge along with the other part of the job, which is to educate students today.
And the adjustments, some of them are obvious. If your roommate is from an entirely different part of the country where you’ve never been before or from somewhere else in the world, or you’ve never had a roommate before – those are kind of the obvious ones. But there are subtle ones that occur each day, each week. And I think there’s a moment maybe in October where a lot of students really say oh, this is tiring, this is hard, there’s a lot of work, there’s a lot of adjusting and I’m still adjusting. And that’s normal. Very much the way the first semester will go. There will always be a responsiveness here by us for your children’s individual needs – extraordinary resources all across the college, but it’s an adjustment. We expect that. And we think it might be an adjustment for you, too. And we understand.
Overall, it’s a move towards independence – intellectual independence, civic independence, freedom of choice about how one will live one’s adult life, who one will date or some day marry. We’re moving young adults into independence. Again, the process occurs differently for every student. But we think of and respect your children as emerging adults. That’s the posture that we take. And so as they navigate their first year, there’s a lot of support, but there’s also the presumption that we’re moving them towards independence. And as they move into choosing their major, presumption that they’re making a free choice of how they want to dig deeper. And as they pursue work options, presumption that we’ll support them of their choice and not tell them what to choose, what to value. And that move to independence is probably one of the most beautiful things an educator is given. When those students – your students – in four years walk across this stage, hopefully outside but inside here if it’s raining, that move towards independence will be far – there will be staggering, beautiful enormous growth. That’s how we’re built. We’re built to foster and cultivate.
I want to read a quote from an article that I read a couple of days ago from a writer Michael Gerson who dropped off his son in college two or three days ago. Michael wrote:
“The emotions of a parent, I can attest, are an odd mix: part pride, part resignation, part self-pity, even a bit of something that feels like grief. The experience is natural and common. And still planets are thrown off their axes…I know this is hard on [my son] as well. He will be homesick, as I was (intensely) as a freshman. An education expert once told me that among the greatest fears of college students is they won’t have a room at home to return to. They want to keep a beachhead in their former life. But with due respect to my son’s feelings, I have the worse of it. I know something he doesn’t — not quite a secret, but incomprehensible to the young. He is experiencing the adjustments that come with beginnings. His life is starting for real. I have begun the long letting go. Put another way: He has a wonderful future in which my part naturally diminishes. I have no possible future that is better without him close.”
But that’s not true and he knows it. That future – our future as adults with our children – it looks different, it comes differently, it changes as they grow. But with an extraordinary education, a remarkable community surrounded by caring faculty and professional staff and outstanding friends in class, your sons and daughters will indeed grow – will grow in ways that will astound you, grow in ways that bring you joy. They have become the adults they are destined to be because of all you’ve given them and brought them here.
Thank you so much. Thank you so much for being here.