Freeman A. Hrabowski, III
President, UMBC
Monday, August 31, 2009

Convocation is a special occasion each year as we come together to welcome you, our new students.  This year, I’m especially excited because we get to welcome you to the #1 “Up and Coming” national university in the country, according to U.S. News & World Report.  In the recently released rankings, UMBC also is #4 in the nation – tied with Stanford – for our commitment to teaching undergraduates.  The recognition and excitement don’t stop there, however.  U.S. News also has included UMBC on a short list of institutions – from Cal Tech and MIT to Princeton and UCal-Berkeley – offering undergraduates extraordinary opportunities for research and creative projects. We have never been more proud to welcome new students to our vibrant community of scholars.

Just as we’re excited about our national rankings, we also are excited that you are here, and we will do all we can to support you.  In fact, this is the time for you to think about who you are and who you want to become.  I begin my talk by asserting that the way you think about yourself, the language that you use, and what you consider important, your values, will determine who you will be in the future.

Our campus culture emphasizes high expectations for all of us: for you, in your studies and education; for us, in the ways we support each other.  Make no mistake – you have an important role to play in your own success.  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.”  At UMBC, we say, “Look to your left; look to your right; our goal is to make sure all of you graduate.”  So, as I talk today, I hope you will keep these themes in mind: you are important to us; we are determined both to challenge you and give you the support you may need; it’s crucial to get involved; and you are here largely to prepare for the rest of your life.  Earlier today, many of you took part in our New-Student Book Experience involving Three Cups of Tea, by Mortenson and Relin.  (By the way, I hope you attend David Relin’s lecture here on campus November 10th.  It’s part of our Fall Humanities Forum Lecture Series.)  I had the privilege of participating in one of the discussions, and it was fascinating to hear the comments of students from different backgrounds, reacting to Greg Mortenson’s struggle to find his way as a young man.  The students noted, for example, the importance of bravery, of speaking up and standing one’s ground, of not stereotyping other people based on their background, and of being resilient – getting back up after being knocked down.  Clearly, Mortenson was passionate about mountain climbing and deeply touched by the Pakistanis who saved him from his life-threatening experience.  Out of gratitude, he became equally passionate about building a school for children there, including girls. Listening to the voices of the Pakistanis, he realized there was much about their culture he did not understand.  In fact, he had an epiphany when Haji Ali said to him,

“The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger.  The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest.  The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die.  Doctor Greg, you must take time to share three cups of tea.”  On reflection, Mortenson realized, “That day, Haji Ali taught me the most important lesson I’ve ever learned… We Americans think you have to accomplish everything quickly.  We’re the country of thirty-minute power lunches and two-minute football drills… Haji Ali taught me to share three cups of tea, to slow down and make building relationships as important as building projects.  He taught me that I had more to learn from the people I work with than I could ever hope to teach them.”1

If you think about the book and your experience at UMBC, you might consider the first cup of tea the recruitment process; the second cup when you visited campus and began seriously to consider coming here; and the third cup is your experience now, as you become family.

The book experience, like your college experience, is meant to open your eyes, “stretch” you intellectually and personally, and take you beyond your comfort zone – to explore ideas and meet new people.  Through Mortenson’s eyes, we see how others live, the challenges they face, the values they hold – all of which can help us put our own lives and stories in perspective.  We need simply to keep an open mind.  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. 

Speaking of “comfort zone,” some of you may feel a bit anxious, which is natural and healthy.  I guarantee you, though, that the longer you’re here, the more comfortable you’ll become. You’ll also come to understand that you’re here not simply to earn a degree and then find a job or go on to graduate school (though all those achievements are important).  What’s most important for you is to learn how to learn and how to prepare for life.

It’s important that you know how privileged you are to be here pursuing a college education. The opportunities awaiting you are in stark contrast to those of the Balti people.  Even in relation to most Americans, you’re very fortunate.  Most Americans are not college-educated: only one in four American adults (in their late 20s and older) has a college degree.  And 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.

Your college education also is more important than ever, given our changing global economy.  Globalization is challenging America’s place in the world and standard of living – just as you’re beginning your UMBC education.  (By the way, thought-leader and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who was our Commencement speaker this year, has written a compelling book on these issues – Hot, Flat, and Crowded – and I recommend it to you highly.)  We will help you develop not only strong technical skills, but, even more important, the ability to think broadly, speak and write clearly, look at the world with a critical eye, and adapt to changing circumstances.  Our goal for you when you graduate is that you’ll be able to lead meaningful lives. 

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 know what some of our recent graduates are now doing.  Many are pursuing graduate and professional programs at top schools across the nation and beyond – from Johns Hopkins in medicine and public health, Duke in law and environmental science, Princeton in chemical physics, and Penn in biomedical engineering to NYU in art history, Georgetown and the University of Chicago in international relations, and Cambridge University in medieval literature and gravitational physics.  Other graduates are launching careers with a variety of public school systems, major corporations, and agencies.  Most important, by beginning to work with faculty and staff to identify research opportunities and internships, you’ll have many options as you prepare to graduate a few years from now.

We know your futures will be bright because you will do what’s necessary to succeed.  I challenge you to work hard, be passionate about your education, and become part of the campus community through meaningful relationships. Reach out to one another; support and learn from each other.  You can be an important part of each other’s success – as partners in study sessions, labs, performances, and civic engagement; as teammates on the court or athletic field; as members of the numerous campus clubs; or simply as friends.  I also encourage you to connect with faculty and staff – each has an interesting story.  These people are national and international experts in their fields, and they are here because they care about you.  Get to know their stories because they, too, will inspire you. 

We are now your home – a community that is 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 a variety of backgrounds in terms of academic interests, race, ethnicity, religion, politics, sexual orientation, and culture.  By getting to know others, not only do we learn to appreciate our differences, but we also learn about 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.

Now, and here, you have more freedom than ever to make choices that will affect you and those around you.  For example, it is tragic that 1,400 college students – only slightly fewer than in your freshman class – die each year from binge drinking.  More than 100 college students die each month from abusing alcohol; that means nearly four deaths each day.   I talk often with other college Presidents about students who have been killed in alcohol-related accidents or who’ve died as the result of alcohol poisoning or drug overdoses.  In fact, just this weekend, I received an e-mail early Saturday morning saying that one of our students – unconscious and unresponsive – had been rushed to the hospital as the result of alcohol poisoning.  For hours, we didn’t know what would happen.  Later that morning, we were all very grateful to learn that he was responding to emergency treatment and would survive.  Nevertheless, it was a frightening experience for the student, his family and friends, and campus staff.  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. 

In recent weeks, we have lost two great Americans – a brother and sister – whose destinies involved giving voice to the voiceless and “fighting for all those who have been left out and left behind.”2 Senator Edward Kennedy, brother of the late President John F. Kennedy, died this past week, having served nearly five decades in the U.S. Senate.  He was best known for his passionate representation of the underserved in our country, including far too many poor Americans, especially children, whose health is at risk each day because they’re without health insurance and medical care.  In fact, as you know, the nation is engaged right now in a heated debate on the future of healthcare in our country.  And many would say the decisions we make about healthcare will speak volumes about the values we hold dear in our country.

Like her brothers, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who died earlier this month, also dedicated her life to speaking up for, and on behalf of, the voiceless.  Her contributions on behalf of mentally disabled people throughout the world have been recognized for years.  For the past half-century, she inspired and led international efforts to elevate and enrich their lives, particularly through the International Special Olympics, which she created.  While at UMBC, you will learn much more about Mrs. Shriver and her husband, Sargent Shriver, the U.S. Peace Corps’ first director, and their special role in creating and supporting the Shriver Center, which is recognized nationally for promoting civic engagement and community-based service.

As children, Edward Kennedy, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and all their siblings were taught that much is required of those to whom much is given.  What a wonderful – and timeless – lesson for us all.  As you begin your college experience, I want you to appreciate the opportunity you have to get a great education and to become educated leaders.  There is nothing more noble than applying your education to serve others.  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.3

Again, welcome to UMBC.  The journey begins.

1. Mortenson, Greg and  Relin, David O., Three Cups of Tea, Penguin Books, New York, 2006, p.150.

2. U.S. Congressman John Lewis (D-Georgia), NBC interview following death of Senator Edward Kennedy, August 26, 2009.

3. Anonymous.