2013 Freshman Convocation

Aug. 20, 2013
Siegel Center

Thank you, Dr. Campbell. He’s pretty new, so I haven’t really had a chance to work much with him, but that is one cool guy.

Welcome Class of 2017!

We’re glad you’re here. And we’re glad that Michael Moss, who wrote the book that we’ve all been reading — or were supposed to have been reading — is here. That’s cool. You may know that he won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010.

But he is not the only Pulitzer Prize winner at VCU today. We have a new faculty member in our Department of English, Claudia Emerson, who is a Pulitzer Prize winner. She will be teaching creative writing and literary courses this spring, and we’re so glad she’s here. And I know that there may be a future Pulitzer Prize winner among our new students.

You come from all over Virginia, the United States and really even beyond. And you represent diversity in every form. Diversity is a commitment and a core value at VCU because it adds so much to our learning environment. I read the story in the newspaper after move-in day, and in that story, you all said that you’re drawn to VCU because of our diversity.

Thank you for continuing our commitment to treating every human being well, and also to excellence. We’re thrilled you are here.

I had the chance to talk with some of you at your Open House events back in the spring. And you might remember that I told you that you should join the VCU community only if you were willing to commit to excellence, hard work, critical thinking, innovation, discovery, creativity and using every tool you have to catalyze the human experience.

Now, you’re here. Thank you for making this commitment.

You continue a tradition of VCU students being serious and highly motivated to make a difference in their own lives and in the lives of other people; in using what they learn not simply to forge ahead, but to forge a path for others, not just to prosper on your own journey, but to lead others on theirs.

Journalist and author Thomas Friedman, whose books, “The World Is Flat” and “Hot, Flat & Crowded,” I know some of you have read, reminds us that higher education is a remarkably powerful, transformative tool. He said, “Nothing has more power to unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems.”

Yet only 7 percent of the world has a college degree. And even in the U.S., it’s only 33 percent. So you’re in elite company. That’s why you need to commit today to use education and passion to catalyze the human experience. Start right now. You can follow the example of two of your fellow students.

Arthik Adla is from Cary, N.C., and is a biomedical engineering major interested in mental illness. Specifically, he wants to know what it is about human chemistry that makes medicine work for some but not for others. So he spent 48 hours living among the homeless in Washington, D.C., some of whom were mentally ill, so that he could better understand the conditions in which they live. This shaped his academic interests, and also his life.

Arthik said, “People wouldn’t even notice me. Except one woman who passed by and said, ‘You should be ashamed of yourself. Go get a job.’ I was losing my dignity, and I was only homeless for two days.”

Arthik learned how much we still don’t understand about human beings, and how he can empower us to learn more.

And there’s Sixto Cancel, from Bridgeport, Conn., who is a political science major using what he’s learning to help shape public policy regarding the foster care system. He himself is a product of that system, bouncing among several foster homes before enrolling at VCU in 2011. He has already founded several advocacy agencies to help foster children have better access to education and financial support, and is a voice for foster children in public dialogue. He has given policy recommendations to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; has presented at more than 20 conferences, including the Governor’s Association, Harvard Law and Center for Enterprise Development; and been a guest on NPR.

Two years ago, Sixto sat where you are right now. Today, he’s an advocate for thousands of people who need his help.

And then, there’s you. You’re joining students like Arthik and Sixto at a nationally premier research university. It’s a university that’s focused on people, including our students, faculty, alumni and community. And you’ll find people who are committed to your success, all working to ensure that your degree is competitive anywhere in world.

We are focusing our resources on helping you succeed, including by raising money for financial aid and investing in your faculty mentors who are leaders in their disciplines.

Why do we invest in you? Because you are an important part of a research university, and so we expect you to lead. We are counting on you to shape the future of society and advance the human experience.

A few years ago, I had the chance to be in Silicon Valley with Andy Grove, who was chairman of a company you’ve probably heard of called Intel. What Andy told me was that he wanted students to be passionate about discovery because he knew that, in Silicon Valley, that would make businesses robust, but more importantly, it would improve the quality of life.

That is exactly what VCU is counting on you to do. We don’t want you to just be the best doctor, engineer, scientist, artist or entrepreneur — or whatever else you want to be. We want you to elevate what someone in any of those professions is capable of doing. We want you to change what it means to be any one of those professions. Remember that the highest ceiling we know today is not a platform to deliver a solution but a jumping-off point to innovate.

And so we ask you to combine your educational foundation with a passion to discover and create, to commit to solving problems that no one else can. VCU is counting on you to achieve big, and so is the world.

We’re counting on you to start today.

Welcome to VCU.