Freeman A. Hrabowski, III
President, UMBC
Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Yesterday, in one of the book sessions, students were kind enough to give me some advice to pass on to all of you. Here’s what they said:

When you fall down or fail, get back up – resilience is important.
Take time to understand your environment.
Don’t forget to follow your passion.
Get involved.
Focus on creating balance in your schedule between studying and co-curricular activities.
Have confidence in yourself.
Learn to be independent on the one hand, and interdependent on the other.
Know that you can get help here – take advantage of the resources.
There is strength in diversity.
Get out of your comfort zone – try something new.
Never be afraid to ask questions.
Don’t’ be afraid to consider changing and adapting.
To the faculty and staff, please be accessible to us.

 At every UMBC Commencement, I enjoy quoting the advice given by UMBC’s first President, Albin Kuhn, to the campus’s first graduating class in 1970:

If you bring to the future the same personal qualities and personal commitment you have brought to this campus as students, good and important things will happen to each of you, as well as to those around you…And the University community will be proud to have played a part in your life. 

A few years from now, I look forward to delivering the same message to all of you.  And like students in that first, and subsequent, graduating classes, you will surely enjoy satisfying lives and productive careers.  Also like many of our first graduates, many of you will entrust your daughters and sons to UMBC as they go off to college 25 to 30 years from now. 

While I’m projecting a bit and want you to enjoy your UMBC experience, I also encourage you to begin developing a vision for yourself, even beyond the college years. Now is the time to think about who you are and who you want to become. In fact, I’m convinced that the way you think about yourself, the language you use, and what you consider important – your values – will determine who you will be in the future. 

In Latin, Convocation means a “calling together” – that special time each year when the campus community gathers to welcome you, our new students.  We are delighted you are here. This fall marks the institution’s 45th anniversary, and over the past four-and-a-half decades – a brief history for most other American colleges and universities – we have advanced rapidly and on a high trajectory.  We are quickly emerging as one of the nation’s leading public research universities – recognized by The Princeton Review this year as one of America’s 50 “Best Value” public institutions for academic excellence and affordability, and by U.S. News & World Report for the second year in a row as the country’s #1 “Up and Coming” university.  And it’s significant that we were on U.S. News’s short list of schools “where the faculty has an unusual commitment to undergraduate teaching.”  Most important, we have become widely known as a model for innovation and experimentation, trying new approaches to support students – from first-year seminars, undergraduate research, special scholars programs, and group learning in redesigned courses to intellectual competitions, service-learning, living-learning floors in our residence halls, and community service. 

As you begin this next phase of your life, it’s an important time to reflect on the significance of going to college, and of having selected UMBC.  Unlike most of the nation’s colleges and universities, which were founded when classrooms – at all levels – were segregated, UMBC opened its doors when, by law, qualified students from all backgrounds could attend.  In fact, we refer to ourselves as a “historically diverse” institution.  In 1966, the nation was at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, a period of sweeping social change, including Congressional passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, ending segregation of public facilities and schools, discrimination in housing, and literacy tests for voter registration.  It also was a tumultuous, even deadly, period including the 1963 assassination of President John Kennedy and the bombing murders of four little girls one Sunday morning at the 16th Street Baptist Church in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama – capturing America’s attention and rocking its conscience.  Again the nation was shocked and shamed in 1964 by the murders of three Civil Rights workers in Mississippi and a few years later, in 1968, by the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Robert Kennedy. 

America’s gradual recovery in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s resulted, in part, from the U.S. Higher Education Act of 1965, making it possible for many more Americans – of all backgrounds – to attend college and earn degrees.  In fact, we have moved from 10 percent of American adults with college degrees in the 1960s to 25 percent, or one in four, today.  In recent years, other countries throughout the world have made enormous progress in their educational and economic development and now are formidable rivals.  We know that if America is to be competitive globally, we must increase substantially the numbers of students who attend and graduate from college.  Most of you have heard about Race to the Top, a national initiative to address this issue.  While more Americans than ever are attending college and earning degrees, the percentage of American adults with college degrees is not increasing – the opposite of what is happening in most of the world’s other developed nations.  Among Americans 25-64 years old, nearly 40 percent have two-year or four-year college degrees and are the second most educated group internationally, immediately behind Canadians (44 percent).  Younger Americans, however, 25-34 years old, rank seventh in the world (39 percent with postsecondary degrees), behind Canadians (53 percent), Japanese (52 percent), Koreans (47 percent), and a handful of other nationalities. For the first time since the middle of the 20th century, we cannot claim that each successive generation of Americans will be better educated than the preceding one – a fact with far-reaching implications for America’s standing in an increasingly competitive world.  In fact, unfortunately almost half of all students who start college do not graduate.  But our expectation is that you will.  Globalization is challenging America’s place in the world and standard of living – just as you are beginning your UMBC education.  Our goal for you when you graduate – and we will do everything we can to help you graduate – is that you’ll be able to lead meaningful, productive lives. 

Emphasizing high expectations – both for you and for us – is one way we will help you succeed.  While high expectations are at the core of our campus culture – high expectations for you in your studies, and for us in the ways we work to support you – you play the most important role in your own success.  I strongly encourage you, therefore, to reach out proactively for support – even before you think you need it.  As a college freshman in 1966, I recall the Convocation speaker saying to my classmates and me, “Look to your left; look to your right; one of you will not graduate.”  At UMBC, we say, “Look to your left; look to your right; our goal is to make sure all of you graduate.”  So, please keep these themes in mind: you are important to us; we are determined both to challenge you and provide the support you need; it’s important to get involved; and you’re here chiefly to prepare for the rest of your life. 

And for those of you who are either the first person in your family, or among the first generation, to attend college, know that you will be an inspiration to other members of your family.  The first family member to attend college often serves as a model, inspiring other family members to follow; it’s not uncommon for entire families to become educated this way.

Yesterday, many of you took part in our New Student Book Experience involving Outcasts United, by Warren St. John.  I enjoyed participating in one of the discussions, and it was fascinating to hear the comments of students from different backgrounds reacting to the book’s themes – America’s shifting demographics, the complex lives of immigrants to this country, the reluctance of some of us to view change as positive, the importance of hard work and discipline, the capacity of each of us to change the lives of many others. 

The book experience, like your UMBC experience, is intended to open your eyes, stretch you intellectually and personally, and take you beyond your comfort zone.  We want you to explore new ideas and meet people different from yourself – and you’ll have many opportunities to do that.  We’re a microcosm of the world and one of the most diverse universities in the nation.  Students and faculty come from every state, approximately 150 countries, and represent wide-ranging backgrounds in terms of academic interests, race, ethnicity, religion, politics, sexual orientation, and culture.  Throughout your UMBC experience, you’ll have the chance to learn other people’s stories – their cultures and religions, interests and attitudes, strengths and weaknesses.  By keeping an open mind – always reaching and moving beyond your comfort zone – you will learn and grow.  By getting to know others, we learn to appreciate our differences – and also those characteristics we all share – our fears, hopes, and dreams.  By building on our relationships and academic experiences – seeing our education and our lives as a journey – we start to become citizens of the world.  The next stage of your journey begins here, today.

Regarding your comfort zone, some of you may be a little anxious, which is perfectly natural, even healthy.  The longer you’re here, the more comfortable you’ll become, and you’ll quickly see you’re here not simply to earn a degree and then find work or go to graduate school (though those  achievements are important).  I always tell new students what’s most important is to learn how to learn, and to become passionate about learning and life.  

Many of you have decided on a major or particular field of study; others are still thinking about those decisions.  Whether you have made a decision or not, all of you will benefit from the course work in our General Education program, encompassing the arts, humanities, social sciences, and the natural and physical sciences.  I encourage you to consider this work as important as any courses you take in your major.  You shouldn’t think of it simply as course work to get out of the way in order to pursue your major, but rather a critical part of your education.  What you are receiving is a liberal education. 

What exactly do we mean by “liberal education”?  The word “liberal” comes from the Latin adjective “liber,” meaning “free.”  The word “education” comes from both the Latin verb “duco,” meaning “to lead,” and the prefix “e,” which means “out of.”  Defined literally, then, “liberal education” means “the free act of leading out of.”  Most often, “liberal education” has been associated with free people, who, unlike slaves or indentured servants, had time to cultivate the intellect.  Another interpretation of “liberal education” is education for its own sake – much like climbing a mountain because the mountain is there – and freedom to think and explore ideas in any direction.  This freedom is the greatest opportunity you will find here.

The late James Freedman, one of my mentors and former President of Dartmouth College, told his final graduating class that a liberal education was “the surest source of a satisfying life.” 

A liberal education that lasts a lifetime will inspire you to strengthen the foundation of your moral identity and to explore the ordeal of being human – the drama of confronting the darker side of the self; the responsibility of imposing meaning on your life and society; the challenge of transcending the ambiguity-entangled counsel of arrogance and modesty, egotism and altruism, emotion and reason, opportunism and loyalty, individualism and conformity. 

Through your liberal education, you’ll develop not only the skills you’ll need to grow and develop, but, even more important, a way of thinking about and appreciating your own story and the stories of others.  You’ll have classroom opportunities to practice thinking critically, writing and speaking clearly, and listening attentively.   You’ll also have co-curricular opportunities to learn about leadership and team-building, and to practice thinking on your feet and explaining concepts clearly.

I often talk about the late I.I. Rabi, winner of the 1944 Nobel Prize in physics.  We learn from Rabi that being passionate about learning requires a passion for asking good questions.  As a youngster, Rabi grew up in New York City, where, after school each day, the mothers of his neighborhood friends asked their children, “What did you learn today?”  Rabi’s mother, however, posed a different question:  “Did you ask a good question today, Izzy?”  Later in his life, when asked how he became a world-class scientist and scholar, Rabi answered that his mother deserved much of the credit: “Asking good questions made me become a good scientist,” he said.  The lesson here is never stop asking good questions.  

I also always mention Samuel Beckett’s novel, Molloy1 , in which the main character is enraptured by what he sees when he observes the dancing behavior of bees.  Molloy says, “Here’s something I could study all my life and never understand.”  The lesson from Beckett is that we never reach the end of our education – the more we learn, the more we realize and appreciate how much more there is to know. The keys to a rich life, I’m convinced, are staying passionate about learning and being part of a community through meaningful relationships. 

No doubt, many of you are wondering already about “life after UMBC” and where your education will lead you.  You’ll be inspired by what some of this year’s graduates are doing this fall.  Many are beginning graduate and professional programs at top schools across the country – from the University of Pennsylvania in history and public administration, Johns Hopkins in medicine and biochemistry, Brown and Rice in mathematics, and Columbia in chemistry to Stanford in mechanical engineering, the University of Michigan in chemical engineering, Georgetown in law, Washington University in immunology, NYU in theatre, and the University of Arizona in planetary sciences.  Other graduates are launching careers focusing on the environment, education, healthcare, business, and national defense and security, working with a number of major corporations, agencies, and public school systems.  And several graduates won Fulbright teaching fellowships in France, Spain, Columbia, and Botswana.  Most important, if you begin now looking for ways to connect with faculty and staff who can help you identify and immerse yourselves in research opportunities and internships, you’ll have many options as you prepare to graduate a few years from now.

I was on a plane recently, and sitting next to me was a UMBC graduate who is a very prominent photographer.  As a result of our conversation, he wrote me the following note:

It was a pleasure meeting you today.  Suddenly, I was back in the years 1988-92, remembering my life at UMBC.  It reminded me how lucky I am – lucky to have spent that time learning – not just learning facts and knowledge, but learning how to think.  Facts are great, but that’s not all my education was really about at UMBC…I graduated with a psychology major, took some English classes, a few businesses courses, and Biology 101.

So now, I am a photographer.  Go figure.  But the skills I learned as I bounced around UMBC stretched beyond my major, and I learned skills I use every day – 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.  I am writing this note from Dallas, where I’m working today.  Friday, I’m in Washington, D.C. with Donald Trump.  Next week is Phoenix and Progressive Insurance.  The business I’ve built is beyond my dreams.  That business, [representing] those dreams fulfilled every day, is a direct result of the education I received at UMBC. 

Thank you for letting me relive those memories…  

The fact that you were admitted to UMBC means you are well prepared to be here.  And we know your futures are bright because you will do what’s necessary to succeed.  I challenge you to work hard, be passionate about your education, and envision and dream about what you want to become – from educator, social worker, scientist, or engineer to lawyer, actor, physician, musician, or writer.

I also challenge you to become part of the campus community.  Reach out to one another, supporting and learning from each other.  Be a part of each other’s success as partners in study sessions, labs, artistic performances, and civic engagement; as teammates on the court or athletic field; as members of our many campus clubs; or simply as friends.  Participate in campus governance through the Student Government Association; keep the campus informed through The Retriever Weekly; and elevate student research and creative achievement by contributing to the UMBC Review and Bartleby.  Also,  take time to attend and enjoy a wide range of events – from Humanities and Social Sciences Forum lectures to NCAA Division-I athletic events (from basketball to soccer and lacrosse) and theatrical and musical performances (from Theatre Department productions to performances by the UMBC Symphony Orchestra).  Make the effort to connect with faculty and staff – each has an interesting story.  These people are national and international experts in their fields, and they care about you.  Get to know their stories because they, too, will inspire you. 

UMBC is now your home.  Suddenly, you have more freedom than ever to make choices that will affect you and those around you.  Hopefully, you will balance your new freedom with a heightened sense of responsibility.  Data from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism tell a chilling story:  while under the influence of alcohol, 1,825 college students die each year (5 per day and 350 more students than are in your freshman class); nearly 600,000 are accidentally injured; nearly 700,000 are assaulted by another student under the influence; and nearly 100,000 are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.  Academically, approximately 25 percent of all college students report that drinking has adversely affected their performance.  While surveys show that fewer UMBC students choose to drink than students at our peer institutions, and also that they do so less frequently, we want you to take this matter seriously.  Too often, I hear from other college Presidents about students who have been killed in alcohol-related accidents or who have died as the result of alcohol poisoning or drug overdoses.  And occasionally, I receive e-mails or telephone calls from UMBC staff reporting that one of our students has been rushed to the hospital as the result of alcohol poisoning.  These experiences have been frightening for the students involved, their families and friends, and campus staff.  We also take quite seriously the illegal use of other drugs, which though less visible than alcohol, can have a devastating impact on students’ lives.  Make no mistake about it: this is a matter of life and death, and it is essential that we talk about these issues regularly.  We want you to use your freedom wisely and grow in character.  We believe deeply in the importance of academic and personal freedom and integrity.

We want you to challenge yourself to grow intellectually and personally, and in ways that will enable you to put into perspective both your own experiences and those of others.  I encourage you to be inspired by stories, and I want to conclude with the story of one of this year’s graduates, an extraordinary young man, Matt Courson.  A native of Arkansas, Matt enrolled at UMBC in 2008.  As Commencement approached this spring, I asked him to send me a note recounting his remarkable story.  

On April 23, 2006, my life was forever changed.  Prior to this date, I was an avid adventurer with a love of sports and all things outdoors.  My mornings were filled with long runs and I often spent my afternoons playing games of catch.  I was a college student, an athlete, and the youngest son of three boys…I lived each and every day as if there was always a tomorrow.  With little care in the world, I truly thought I was invincible.  Late one spring evening in 2006, I learned a very valuable lesson – invincibility is not always a reality.  On this cool night, my life took a gut-wrenching turn.            

That evening, Matt was involved in a horrendous accident on an all-terrain vehicle that shattered his spine and left him paralyzed.

I was transported to the University of Arkansas Medical Sciences Hospital where I underwent an eight-hour surgery to repair my spine…After the surgery, I remember lying in my hospital bed and asking my doctor, “Why can’t I move? What’s going on?” I’ll never forget his devastating response. He told me that the injury I had sustained was impossible to recover from and therefore I would never walk again…From that moment on, I worked tirelessly each and every day to get back on my feet.  I was going to beat this. I was going to defy the impossible…

I moved to Baltimore to do therapy at Kennedy Krieger Institute in 2008.  I enrolled at UMBC in the fall of 2008.  Balancing a full therapy schedule and a full class load was difficult, but it made me stronger, and I was more determined than ever.

My progression started off with the wiggle of a toe.  Months later, I was able to move my leg and raise it up. Then, I began standing up bearing my own weight.  Finally, I got to the point where I could take steps with a walker.  I remember telling you at the end of our first meeting that I was going to walk across the stage one day to accept my diploma from UMBC…I cannot wait to walk up to you, look you in the eye, and say "Nothing Is Impossible." 

I have learned so much about myself over the past few years.  I have learned to always remember the curveballs that life throws our way [and that] we are defined by how we respond to these struggles. I am continuing to define myself each and every day…and will forever continue striving to reach my fullest potential…I am excited to proclaim to the world that "Nothing Is Impossible".  I will make this proclamation, not with words, but with a few simple steps…Although this is an exciting achievement in my life, it is merely  the beginning.  I will continue to stay motivated each and every day in everything that I do.” 

I encourage you to be inspired by Matt Courson – his courage and his character – and I challenge you:

Watch your thoughts; they become your words.
Watch your words; they become your actions.
Watch your actions; they become your habits.
Watch your habits; they become your character.
Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.           

Again, welcome to UMBC.  The journey begins.

1.             Beckett, Samuel, Molloy, Grove Press Inc., 1955.