Freeman A. Hrabowski, III
President, UMBC
Monday, August 30, 2010

May You Seek After Truth

May you seek after truth.  If anything I teach you be false, may you throw it from you and go on to richer knowledge and deeper truth than I have ever known.

If you become a man [or woman] of thought and learning, may you never fail to tear down with your right hand what your left hand has built up if, through years of thought and study, you see it at last not to be founded on that which is.

If you become an artist, may you never paint with pen or brush any picture of external life otherwise than as you see it.

If you become a politician, may no success for your party or even love of your nation ever lead you to tamper with reality and to play a diplomatic part.

In all of your circumstances, my child, may you seek after truth; and cling to that as a drowning man in a stormy sea who flings himself on a  plank and clings to it, knowing that whether he sinks or swims with it, it is the best that he has.

Die poor, unknown, a failure – but shut your eyes to nothing that seems to them to be the truth.                               
Olive Schreiner

When I was a child, growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, it was my minister who taught those of us in my youth fellowship this statement by Olive Schreiner, who was born in South Africa to British missionaries and became a social and political activist and novelist in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The advice she imparts is profound; I encourage you to let it be a beacon for the journey you’re beginning here at UMBC.

Each year at this time, we gather at Convocation – a “calling together” (in Latin) – to welcome you, our new students.  We’re excited that you are here, and we know you’ve made a great choice.  You’ve selected the #1 “Up and Coming” university in the country according to U.S. News & World Report’s 2011 Best Colleges Guide.  In fact, this is the second year in a row that UMBC has been ranked #1.  We also are in the top tier of national universities, and again we’re on the U.S. News short list of schools “where the faculty has an unusual commitment to undergraduate teaching.” 

This recognition is particularly significant because we know that faculty, staff, and students have all had to make personal and financial sacrifices during these times of economic uncertainty.  The positive news is that we have placed students first in our work here at UMBC.  We will continue to address our fiscal challenges and move forward, remaining true to our two most fundamental guiding principles – protecting the academic program, which includes providing a distinctive undergraduate experience, and supporting people. 

This is an important time in your lives – a 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.  This also is an important time to reflect on the significance of going to college.  We know that in order for America to be competitive globally, we will need to increase substantially the numbers of students who attend and graduate from college.  Most of you have heard about Race to the Top, a major 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. So that you’ll be prepared to respond to global changes, we will help you develop 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 – and we will do everything we can to help you graduate – is that you’ll be able to lead meaningful lives. 

One way we will help you succeed is by emphasizing high expectations – both for you and for us.  High expectations are at the heart of our campus culture – high expectations for you in your studies, and for us in the ways we work to support you.  Make no mistake, however – you play the most important role in your own success.  Therefore, I strongly encourage you to be proactive in reaching out for support – even before you feel you need it.  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. 

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.

Earlier today, many of you took part in our New Student Book Experience involving The Translator, by Daoud Hari.  (By the way, I hope you attend the author’s lecture in the Library on November 3rd, sponsored by the Office of Undergraduate Education.)  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 the book’s themes – one person’s inhumanity to another, what it means to be up close to true suffering, the need for people in comfortable places to see the gravity of suffering in the world.  The students saw how courageous and selfless Daoud was, and how he used his ability to think, to communicate, and to connect with others to reach his goals.  They also commented on the importance of using humor, especially at challenging moments.  I was particularly taken by Hari’s lust for learning.  He constantly enjoyed reading books and focusing on ideas.  He mentions Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country.  Hari wrote, “These [books] changed me; they opened and freed my mind.”  By learning how to read and analyze, he learned how to listen to other people telling their stories – and he became a channel between people who were suffering and people trying to understand.  What comes through is the impact of people’s stories.  People want their stories told; we all want to be heard.   

The book experience, like your college experience, is meant to open your eyes, to “stretch” you intellectually and personally, and take you beyond your comfort zone – to explore new ideas and meet people different from yourself.  Through Hari’s eyes, we see how others live, the extraordinary 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, no doubt, are feeling a bit anxious – that’s natural and healthy.  I assure you that the longer you’re here, the more comfortable you’ll become. You’ll also quickly see 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 to become passionate about learning and life.  Herein lies the value of UMBC’s General Education program.  While many of you may already know – or believe you know – the specific program or field you want to pursue, it’s by taking classes in a variety of wide-ranging disciplines – the arts and humanities, social sciences, and sciences, including at least courses in mathematics, languages, global culture, and intensive writing – that you’ll develop the skills that will enable you to appreciate and tell your story, and to appreciate and understand others’ stories.  You’ll consistently have classroom opportunities to practice thinking critically, writing and speaking clearly, and listening carefully.  You’ll also have co-curricular opportunities to learn about leadership and team-building, and to practice thinking on your feet and explaining concepts with clarity. 

To be passionate about learning requires a passion for asking good questions.  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 a world-class 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.  

I also frequently 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 appreciate how much more there is to know.  I am convinced that the keys to a rich life are maintaining a passion for learning and being part of a community through meaningful relationships. 

Many of you are probably already wondering about “life after UMBC” and where your education will lead.  The fact that you were admitted means that you are well prepared to be here.  You’ll be inspired – and reassured – to know what some of this year’s graduates are doing this fall.  Many have begun graduate and professional programs at top schools across the nation – including Harvard in science, medicine, and law; Johns Hopkins in international relations and public health; the University of Maryland in medicine, law, and social work; Vanderbilt in medicine; Northwestern in chemistry; the New York Film Academy in filmmaking; and California Institute of the Arts in imaging and digital arts. Other graduates are launching careers focusing on the environment and energy, education and healthcare, and national defense and security, working with a variety of major corporations, agencies, and public school systems.  Most important, by beginning to work with faculty and staff to identify and immerse yourselves in research opportunities and internships, you’ll have many options as you prepare to graduate a few years from now.

Just the other day, I received an e-mail from a UMBC graduate powerfully illustrating this point. Periodically, the Governor appoints members of the bar to be judges in Maryland, and he recently announced the appointment of nine new judges, three of whom are UMBC graduates:  Yolanda Tanner (’81 Economics) to the Baltimore City Circuit Court; Karen Friedman (’94 Political Science) to the Baltimore City District Court; and Ricardo Zwaig (’77 Modern Languages-Spanish) to the Howard County District Court, and the first Hispanic male judge in Maryland.  I sent all of them congratulatory notes, and Judge Zwaig’s response speaks to both the quality of education you will receive here and the quality of the relationships you will have with faculty and staff.  He specifically mentions Modern Languages Professor Jack Sinnigen – who continues to teach more than three decades later – and writes that,

Jack has played a tremendous role in my intellectual development, not only during my days at UMBC, but even up to the present day.  I consider Jack to be one of my very best friends and a person I can still rely upon to give me sound advice and help me think through critical issues…My appreciation for literature and history was sparked during my days at UMBC, particularly in the Modern Languages Department.  And in many ways, the focus of the human condition through these disciplines has allowed me to have insights into the law and into human relationships that have allowed me to flourish in the law and in my everyday dealings with all kinds of folks. 

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 envision and dream about what you want to become – from artist, actor, writer, or musician to scientist, engineer, doctor, lawyer, or teacher. 
I also challenge you to be creative and innovative.  One constant in our 21st-century world is change, and those of you who are either on the leading edge of change or comfortable adapting to it will have successful, rewarding lives.  Recent articles in academic and popular journals suggest that American creativity is declining at a time when we need innovation more than ever.  In the estimation of many people, America has been so competitive historically largely because of its culture, which encourages us to think independently and be creative.  Recent research suggests several strategies for promoting greater creativity among children and young people that may be helpful to all of us:  reduce television time; follow your passion; take breaks among multiple tasks; routinely exercise aerobically; and study about and engage in cross-cultural experiences.  These simple suggestions – both independently and in combination – give us additional time, energy, and perspective to be more creative.

I also challenge you to 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 our many campus clubs; or simply as friends.  You also will enjoy attending a wide range of events, from Humanities and Social Sciences Forum lectures to NCAA Division-I athletic events (from basketball to lacrosse), to theatrical and musical performances (from Theatre Department productions to performances by the UMBC Symphony Orchestra).  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 care about you.  Get to know their stories because they, too, will inspire you. 

UMBC is now your home.  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.  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.

Now, and here, you have more freedom than ever to make choices that will affect you and those around you.  For example, recent 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 300 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.  And academically, approximately 25 percent of all college students report that drinking has adversely affected their performance.  I frequently talk 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.  Far too often, I receive e-mails or telephone calls from UMBC staff reporting that one of our students has been found unconscious or unresponsive and has been rushed to the hospital as the result of alcohol poisoning.  While we are blessed that none of these students has died, all of these experiences have been frightening for the students involved, their families 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.

While UMBC is your home, we want you to challenge yourselves to grow intellectually and personally, and in ways that will enable you to put into perspective both your own experiences and those of others.  In this connection, I want to tell you about one of our students, Jimmy Nunnally, who began his UMBC freshman year a year ago.  This student’s journey was abruptly interrupted, however, by cancer – acute lymphocytic leukemia – and he spent the entire year undergoing treatment, courageously battling the disease.  Even though he lost an enormous amount of weight and was confined to home, he took several courses online.  That’s how passionate he was about his education.  He and I have been corresponding all year, and through e-mails and personal visits I have been inspired by his passion for life.  His courage and humanity have helped me, and others who know him, to put our lives into perspective.  He is doing much better today and this fall begins again his journey at UMBC.  He is stronger and more resilient than ever and has a remarkable sense of appreciation of what it means to be young and alive and ready to learn.  Here’s his advice to you, our incoming freshmen.

Never let yourself be discouraged. Bad things will happen to you that you cannot control, but rather than let them bring you down, you must learn to overcome them. Every disaster has a blessing hidden within it.  It is our failures and tragedies that spark change in us, so make sure to make the most of them when they come along.  Also, make the most of every moment, and always give yourself something to look forward to. No matter how tough life gets, you will pull through. 

And at 2:00 a.m. this morning, Jimmy e-mailed me the following list of “rules” that reflect his “philosophy on how to live a happy and successful life.” 

  • Never say never. Some things may seem impossible, but by refusing to accept this, I will maintain a positive outlook and won’t miss opportunity.
  • Always keep faith. Hope is fuel for the soul and will keep me going when everything else fails.
  • Always persevere. Sometimes failure is unavoidable, but at least I will better myself if I go as far as possible.
  • Never forget. The lessons of the past will become the catalysts of the future.
  • Take pride in every endeavor, but don’t be boastful. Hubris is a flaw.
  • Do what you want and follow your own path; reject the put-downs of others. It’s easy to be discouraged into taking the easy route. Don’t.
  • Dare to dream, and above all else, pursue them until they become reality.

Jim is here today.  Please join me in saluting Jimmy Nunnally.

I encourage you to be inspired by Jimmy, 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.