Thank you, Dean Hazlett, and welcome to all the students beginning your time at F&M.
Each of you sitting in these chairs brings with you a life history—of challenges faced, passions found, beliefs formed. And the coming years here, in this place, will soon add to that history—in ways you might predict already, and in ways you can’t yet know.
I’ve sat in one of those chairs, and I’ve felt those uncertain possibilities, too.
So I want to tell you a story.
Last September, I felt like I was walking on the edge of the world.
I lived and did research in Ekonka, a tiny village at the southern tip of Madagascar, the island nation where I studied abroad for the fall.
Everything was sand, and the landscape was so exposed that every tree above a certain height leaned elaborately westward from the wind. To the southeast, ocean and sky merged together in a misty blue. Everywhere else, land touched sky directly, and it was very strange.
I went to the village with two local students, Tody and Jhislaine, who did research with me and helped to translate Malagasy, the spoken language there. We would be camping together under a stubby tree in the center of Ekonka.
Now, when I started the program, I had actually never been camping before. This would be my first time. I’d assembled my tent just once, in my backyard at home after I bought it, so I didn’t exactly have much practice.
I arrived in Ekonka with Tody and Jhislaine in the late afternoon. The village was situated in a shallow dimple in the land, and as I arrived, I could see children running down on the sandy paths on the low hills around us. Before long, dozens and dozens of them had assembled in an uneven circle around us, chattering away in a language I couldn’t understand.
I felt their stares like a heavy wind. I pulled out my tent and promptly forgot completely which poles went where—it’s pretty much impossible to put up a tent with fifty people watching intently, laughing and pointing in amusement.
By the time my tent was up, more than an hour later, it was getting dark—darker than any place I’ve ever seen. There was no electricity in the village, and when I looked up I could see everything. The white band of the Milky Way stretched from horizon to horizon. I stared up into the darkness for so long that I realized I could actually see satellites tracking quickly across the sky, each a tiny light that crossed the stars.
I took Astronomy in my very first semester of college. I learned about the history of the universe, the scale of the forces that have built everything we know and have ever known. I remember being astounded by the magnitude of the numbers we dealt with in class—but when I looked up into that sky, I felt something else entirely.
I felt something for the people in the village—the dignified elder who hosted us, the women who cooked in a blackened hut, the children who herded cattle and wrestled in the sand. I felt a distance from them, under this foreign sky, but also a closeness: We were all people living our lives in the world.
All people, made of dead stars.
That semester shook many of my beliefs, and in that moment my Astronomy class became a deep part of the experience. I looked up and the universe overwhelmed me with lights and colors that I’d never seen before, vast and ancient and unforgettable. But even as my mouth dropped open, I knew that I could understand so much of what I saw—how astronomers determine atmospheric composition from wavelengths of light, or calculate great distances from tiny shifts in perspective.
Astronomy informed my sense of the moment—one class, taken two years before.
That’s a pattern I’ve found throughout my experience at F&M. I’ve found that the greatest depth of passion and understanding does not come from a singular, relentless focus. Only when I’ve opened myself to some new thing—to Astronomy, to Madagascar, to others’ stories—have I grown more deeply into the passions I’ve already known.
I went into that September as an Environmental Studies major. By December, I knew that I wasn’t drawn to biology research or environmental policy-making. My major no longer fit the interests that had taken hold inside me.
Instead, I loved the places I saw—the villages, the cities, the oceans, the forests. I loved talking to the people I met about their lives—the human perspective in Environmental Studies.
So when I came back, I decided to create my own major, to study English and Philosophy as a way of exploring the side of Environmental Studies that calls to me. I’m still shaping it, still uncertain in so many ways, but I’m excited for all the possibilities of my final year.
Now, you don’t need to go all the way to Madagascar to deepen your studies, your understanding of the things you love. As Jyra said, you’re stepping onto a campus filled with unfamiliar spaces.
Halls filled with people so different from you.
Classes you might take in fields you know little about.
Clubs with exciting missions and dedicated members.
I hope you step into those spaces and find yourself challenged. I hope you find some of your beliefs become changed, and others affirmed.
I hope you find your own moment in a village, your own set of stars—and when you look back down, I hope you feel that you’ve learned something remarkable.
Thank you, and good luck with your first year at F&M!
And now it’s my pleasure to introduce the 15th president of Franklin & Marshall College, a person who has shared with me, and with many other students, the power of using your voice to make change in the world. To all, he’s a leader and an educator; to many of us here, he’s Dr. P.
Please welcome President Dan Porterfield.