Freeman A. Hrabowski, III
President, UMBC
Tuesday, August 28, 2008

Yesterday, many of you participated in our new-student book experience involving Jeannette Walls’s memoir, The Glass Castle.  I had the privilege of taking part in one of the discussions, where students from many different backgrounds talked about their reactions to the book.  It was fascinating to listen to student reactions to the challenges Walls and her siblings faced, and to see how the different reactions to her story were shaped by students’ own stories.

The book experience, like your college experience, is meant to “stretch” you intellectually and personally—to take you beyond your comfort zone—to explore ideas and meet new people.   Who could imagine parents, like Rex and Rose Mary Walls, allowing a three-year old child to boil hotdogs by herself, see her seriously burned, and not feel a sense of responsibility?  As disturbing as this story is, we learn a lot by examining it:  knowing how others have lived, the challenges they’ve faced, the values they hold—or don’t hold—can help us put our own lives and stories in perspective.  We need simply to keep an open mind.  Throughout your experience here, you’ll have the chance to learn other people’s stories—their cultures and religions, their interests and attitudes, their strengths and weaknesses.  By keeping an open mind—always stretching and moving beyond your comfort zone—you will learn and grow.
Today at Convocation, the campus community comes together to welcome our new students.  We are excited you are here and plan to do all we can to support you.  I ask new students each year what they think is most important for me to talk to them about at Convocation.  Yesterday, students advised me to say something inspiring, to use stories, to talk about keys to success, to “keep the message real,” and to talk about expectations and community standards of excellence.  And finally, what really inspired me was hearing a student say she wanted me to talk about my love of learning.  My advice to you is that getting involved—from the arts to athletics (and please join me in giving our championship men’s basketball and lacrosse teams and our men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams a round of applause)—will give you the chance to meet other people, think about new ideas, and experience a broader world. 

Most of you right now are feeling a bit anxious, which is both natural and healthy.  I guarantee you, though, that the longer you’re here, the more comfortable you’ll become.  You will come to understand more and more that you are here not simply to earn a degree and find a job (although those achievements are important).  What’s most meaningful is that you’re here to learn both how to learn and how to prepare for life.

I can’t overemphasize the importance of being proactive in reaching out for support—even before you feel you need it.  In fact, when I was a college freshman in 1966, I recall the Convocation speaker saying to us, “Look to your left; look to your right; one of you will not graduate.”  In contrast, at UMBC, we say, “Look to your left; look to your right; our goal is to make sure that all of you graduate.”  So, as I talk to you today, I hope you will keep these themes in mind: that you are important to us; that getting involved is crucial; that we are determined to give you the support you need; and that you are here largely to prepare for the rest of your life. 

Part of your preparation involves learning to express yourself with authenticity, saying what you honestly think or believe, rather than simply saying what you think we, or others, want to hear.  It’s important, too, to listen to other points of view, and when there are differences, to be able to agree to disagree, and to do so with civility.  Here on campus, you will have the chance to explore and say whatever you think or believe about the difficult, sticky issues of the day—from global warming and stem cell research to national immigration policy, the troublesome gaps between poor and advantaged people, the appropriate role of America in the world, and what it means to be human.  I hope you will take advantage of this special opportunity, which has a long tradition in higher education, to explore and discuss such issues.  Eighty-five years ago, in 1923, students writing for the Daily Princetonian, Princeton University’s student newspaper, commented that,

We are almost the only section of the population which has the leisure and opportunity to study the controversial questions of the day without bias, and to act accordingly.  The power of today is in our hands.1
It’s also important for you to know how privileged you are to be getting a college education.  Most Americans are not college-educated; in fact, as you’ve recently learned, only about one in four American adults (in their late 20s and older) has a college degree.  For those of you who are either the first person in your family, or among the first generation, to attend college, you should 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.

Not only is a college education today still a privilege, but it also is more important than ever given our changing global economy, fueled largely by the rapid rise of India and China.  If you’ve not read The Elephant and the Dragon2 by journalist Robyn Meredith, I recommend it to you.  Globalization is challenging America’s place in the world and standard of living just as you’re beginning your UMBC education.  With so many jobs leaving our country, American higher education is being seriously challenged – both to support basic research leading to creation of new technologies and new jobs, and also to think critically and creatively to help the nation address related societal issues.  We intend to help you acquire not only strong technical skills, but, even more important, the ability to speak and write clearly, to think broadly, to look at the world with a critical eye, and to adapt to varying circumstances. 

Many of you may already be wondering about “life after UMBC” and where your education may lead.  The fact that you were admitted says that you are well prepared to be here.  You’ll be inspired—and reassured—to hear what some of this year’s graduates are now doing.  Many are beginning graduate programs at top schools across the nation—from Duke in ecology, Cornell in math, and Cal-Berkeley in chemical engineering to Georgetown and the University of Chicago in international relations, and Cambridge in physics and languages.  Other graduates are launching careers with a variety of public school systems, major corporations, and agencies.  Most important, if you begin working with faculty and staff on identifying research opportunities and internships, you will have many options as you prepare for graduation a few years from now.

I am convinced that your futures will be bright as you focus on working hard, being passionate about learning, and becoming part of the campus community through meaningful relationships.  And, of course, there’s no substitute for curiosity.  I often talk about the late I.I. Rabi, who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1944.  As a youngster, Rabi grew up in New York City, where each day after school, 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 an outstanding scientist and scholar, Rabi replied 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.

Regarding your relationships, I encourage you to reach out to one another—supporting and learning from each other.  Throughout your college career, you can play a major role in one another’s success—as study partners and collaborators in the lab, in performances, and on projects; as partners in civic engagement; as teammates on the athletic field; or simply as friends.  I also encourage you to connect with faculty and staff—through courses and experiences that promote student engagement, leadership, study groups, research opportunities, mentoring, advising, co-curricular experiences, entrepreneurship, and community service.

I encourage you to learn about diversity of people on this campus.  UMBC is a microcosm of the world, with students and faculty from every state and nearly 150 countries, representing a variety of backgrounds in terms of race, ethnicity, religion, politics, sexual orientation, and culture.  In the process of getting to know others, not only do we come to appreciate our differences, but we also learn about those characteristics that make us so much the same—our fears, hopes, and dreams.  It is by building on our relationships and academic experiences—seeing our education and our lives as a journey—that we begin to become citizens of the world.  The next stage of your journey begins here today.

And it begins in a setting quite different from what most of you are accustomed to.  Today, you have more freedom than ever to make choices that will affect both you and those around you.  For example, it should concern us all that 1,400 college students die each year from binge drinking—that’s more than 100 deaths each month, more than three deaths each day.  In fact, on Convocation morning four years ago, I was deeply concerned to learn that one of our new freshmen had been rushed to the hospital the night before—having been found unconscious and lying in the dirt after drinking 10 shots of alcohol in half-an-hour.  It was a frightening situation, and we were greatly relieved that he survived.  But we see the problem of binge drinking on this campus every year.  I often talk with other college Presidents about students who have been killed in alcohol-related accidents or who died as the result of alcohol poisoning or drug overdoses.  Make no mistake about it—this is a matter of life and death, and it is essential that we talk about these issues regularly.  Given recent developments, we may wish to have discussions on campus about the issue of underage drinking.  If you’ve not done so, you may wish to consult the webpage of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) as that organization has focused heavily on the tragic deaths of so many young people because of drinking and driving.  The campus does not condone illegal drinking or drug use. 

We want you to use your freedom wisely.  I often say that character has everything to do with who we are, what we say, and how we act—not only when others see us, but, even more important, when others cannot see us. We at UMBC believe deeply in the importance of academic and personal integrity. 

Former UMBC student Jamie Heard, an aspiring young scientist who died tragically this spring, epitomized integrity and character, and was passionate about living and learning.  He was an extraordinary young man, and his passing puts into perspective—and magnifies—how precious our lives are, and how fortunate we are to be able to live each day, pursuing our dreams and making decisions that shape our own stories.  Shortly before Jamie’s death, he wrote the following statement, reflecting his philosophy of life.  It’s entitled, “Life is Beautiful.”

I value life because I realize that too many people waste it.  I smile because I realize that too many people cry.  I laugh because I know too many people take things too seriously.  I lead because too many people have been led astray.  I teach because so many people are ignorant.  I speak because people need to listen.  I listen because so many people have been ignored.  I have fun because too many people are always busy.  I live for a purpose, because too many people have died for no purpose.  I love because too many people show hate.  I keep trying because too many people give up.  I appreciate what I have because so many people take it for granted.  Life is beautiful.

I encourage you to embrace Jamie’s credo and to be passionate about your life and your education.  Welcome to UMBC.  The journey begins.


1. Daily Princetonian, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey, March 10, 1923.

2. Meredith, Robyn, The Elephant and the Dragon: The Rise of India and China and What It Means for All of Us, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2007.