Freeman A. Hrabowski, III
The University of Maryland, Baltimore County
Fall Opening Meeting
Tuesday, August 30, 2005

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It’s our yearly tradition to welcome freshmen and other new students at Convocation, and I want to talk briefly to you this afternoon about dreams and values and the importance of community. Ours is a special community, committed to nurturing people, ideas, and values that support excellence and service. Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw inspires us with his thoughts on community:

My life belongs to the community, and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I love. Life is no ‘brief candle’ to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have…for [only] a moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.

We want everyone in the UMBC community to dream and be inspired. Author Zora Neale Hurston, whose book Their Eyes Were Watching God was published during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1930s, begins her book,

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some, they come in with the tide. For others, they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by time. That is the life of men [and women].

We want you to dream and to develop the skills and values that will empower you to achieve your dreams. When many of your parents and I were in college, it was not unusual to hear the President or Dean say, “Look to your left; look to your right; one of you will not graduate.” Now, I want you to look at the student on your left, and then at the student on your right. Our goal is to make sure that all three of you graduate.

We will do our part: we are committed to offering you a distinctive undergraduate experience that values the life of the mind and supports your intellectual and personal development. Your UMBC education is about hard work and high achievement, character and integrity, relationships built on civility and mutual respect. It’s also about seeing life as a journey – like those taken by Freeman and George Dyson, father and son in The Starship and the Canoe – and about asking the “big” questions.

What does it mean to be part of the rapidly changing, information-driven global community? According to Netscape’s co-founder Marc Andreessen, today, “a 14-year-old in Romania or Bangalore or the Soviet Union or Vietnam has all the information, all the tools, all the software easily available to apply knowledge however [he or she] want[s]” – though I would add, only if the youth is advantaged. Poor children, unfortunately, may not have that access – in any nation. What are the implications of these developments for the world’s economic superpowers and historically impoverished nations?

What does it mean to be part of American Society, where the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” is enormous? The net worth of the nation’s wealthiest one percent exceeds that of the bottom ninety-five percent, and the net worth of the top ten percent is almost $1.5 million compared to just over $1,000 for the bottom quarter. America’s schools face an egregious achievement gap, with African American and Latino twelfth graders performing at the same level as white eighth graders. What are the implications for the nation’s future?

What does it mean to live and thrive in this university community? It begins with understanding and appreciating how privileged you are to be in college, given that not even thirty percent of Americans earn college degrees. It also means connecting with faculty and staff through courses and experiences that promote research, mentoring, advising, co-curricular experiences, community service, and leadership. It means supporting and learning from other students. Throughout your college career, you can play a major role in each other’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.

Throughout college, you will learn not only about relationships, but also about diversity of people. UMBC is a microcosm of our nation and the world – with students and faculty from nearly every state and scores of countries. You will meet people from all over the globe, representing a variety of backgrounds in terms of race, ethnicity, religion, politics, sexual orientation, and culture. Take the time to reach out to each other and beyond your “comfort zone” – you will be surprised how much you can learn.

In our community, we all share a common goal – seeking the truth. In The Starship and the Canoe, while father and son may have been disconnected physically and emotionally, each was on a journey to seek his truth. On your journey, we hope that you will recognize connections among disciplines. As you study literature, for example, you’ll also be studying history, sociology, psychology. As you learn about life sciences, you’ll also be learning about mathematics, computer science, and even philosophy – as you reflect on ethical issues related to human life and technology.

It is our hope that you’ll also come to recognize and appreciate the connections among people. Relationships are at the core of our campus community: my future is connected to your future, and yours to mine. The whole of our community is greater than the sum of its individual parts. While each of us is a distinct individual, all of us are seeking the truth and looking for connections – with each other, across disciplines, and in the larger world. Seeking truth as a member of the campus community – and as a citizen of our nation and globe – poses an enormous challenge each day. Here in the academy, you can expect to see people who learn from each other – even as they sometimes have different perspectives and agree to disagree. Yet we are inspired by our own success and that of others. Each day, we can fulfill our need to dream and be inspired.

As you begin your UMBC experience, we hope that you will become passionate about your education. I often talk about Samuel Beckett=s novel, Molloy, 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 none of us ever reaches 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.

Long before most of you were born, perhaps even before your parents were born, in 1963 I had the privilege of being a child leader in the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham, Alabama. I went to jail with Martin Luther King and learned one very important lesson – that even children can make important choices that will affect not only their own lives, but the lives of others. It’s because of that experience that I know that each of you has the potential to be an important leader in our society – not 20 years from now, but now. Each of you has a story that can inspire you and others. Know your story. Talk to your parents and grandparents about their stories and the challenges and obstacles they’ve overcome. In every case when men and women have succeeded, it’s because they didn’t give up – they made a decision to move forward on their journey in spite of the odds.

As you begin your UMBC experience, allow yourselves to be inspired by the journey ahead. Let the journey call passionately to you as it did to Tennyson’s Ulysses, the Greek hero and king. Though old and weak toward the end of his life, Ulysses sets out in search of more adventure.

…Come, my friends.
’Tis not too late to seek a newer world…
For my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
It may be we shall touch the happy isles…
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and…
That which we are, we are –
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Again, welcome to the UMBC community, and best wishes on your journey.