Office of the President


2009 New Student Convocation Address

by David J. Skorton, President

As prepared for presentation
August 22, 2009

Good morning, everyone, and thanks for coming out to share this Saturday morning as we begin our Cornell journey together. I met some of you while you were moving in or on Rawlings Green yesterday afternoon, and I'm pleased to have this opportunity to extend a warm welcome to everyone this morning on behalf of our community of 20,000 students and 10,000 faculty and staff. Welcome to your new home.

I hope we'll have many occasions to talk, and to exchange ideas, during your years at Cornell. Even though Cornell is a large and complex university, I believe it is very important that you and I get to know each other. You can email me at david.skorton@cornell.edu – and I promise that you will hear back from me or from someone on my senior team. I'll be communicating with you through a monthly column in the Cornell Daily Sun—the first one for this year is scheduled for September 7—and also through periodic meetings with the leaders of the Student Assembly and other student groups, periodic student office hours in my office in Day Hall along with Vice President for Student and Academic Services Susan Murphy, and in many other venues.

And starting tomorrow, my wife Professor Robin Davisson and I will be moving into Mary Donlon Hall for a few days, as we do each fall, so that we can get to know you while you're settling in to life on North Campus. While we are in residence at Donlon, we'll be doing what we normally do during the day—Robin in her office and lab at the Vet College and me in Day Hall—but we'll be on North Campus in the evenings and early morning. Come visit us on the first floor of Donlon Hall—Room 118! And we hope you'll take a minute to introduce yourselves if you see us elsewhere on campus or around town. All of us are part of the Cornell community, and we look forward to getting to know you.

I want to thank Emily Krebs and all members of the Orientation Steering Committee, as well as the Orientation Supervisors, Orientation Leaders and the other student volunteers (800 of them in all) for their efforts to make you feel welcome and help you succeed at Cornell. They came back early from summer activities to make sure all of you would get off to a strong start, and I know you'll enjoy the six days and six nights of orientation activities that they've planned. I also want to thank Rammy Salem and Michael Walsh for their words of advice and for the leadership they provide. Students are a force for social change throughout the world, and this is very true at Cornell.

Let me tell you a bit about yourselves. Those of you in the Class of 2013, some 3,221 strong, were selected from the largest applicant pool ever—more than 34,000 applicants. You are roughly equally divided between men and women, with women ahead by a few tenths of a percent. Nearly 36% identify yourselves as students of color. International students make up over 10% of the class. More than half of you qualified for need-based financial assistance from Cornell, indicating substantial socioeconomic diversity as well. I feel a special bond with the 569 new students who are entering as transfer students. I transferred from UCLA to Northwestern in my sophomore year, and I appreciate the special effort it took to move from your former institution to Cornell. Like the Class of 2013, you are smart and diverse. You already know quite a bit about college life, and I know you are going to thrive here. This year we've organized a number of new events especially for transfer students, and I encourage you to check them out.

I want also to say a few words to the parents in the audience, speaking not only as president but also as a fellow parent. My son Josh just graduated from college a few months ago, so I have some firsthand, recent experience with being a parent of a college student. While every family is unique, I think I can appreciate the mixture of emotions you're probably experiencing today. So first let me say, congratulations! The fact that your daughters and sons are here today as Cornell's newest students is a tribute to their accomplishments and yours. You've done your jobs well. Now it's time to relax and learn along with your students. Vice President Susan Murphy gave some of you a quick lesson in Cornell Parenting 101 in Call Auditorium last night, at an event sponsored by The Cornell Parents Committee, an organization you may want to become more closely connected with while your student is at Cornell. Let me just reiterate that parents continue to be important to their children's success in college, and I urge you to stay in touch with them—and with me. My email address again is david.skorton@cornell.edu and it works for parents as well as for students. And parents, good luck keeping up with your student with the latest social networks, twittering and whatever else is around the corner: if you figure it out, please explain it all to me!

Students, what can I add to the good advice you've already heard from the student speakers? Let me offer three observations about the new community that you've chosen:

First, all of you can do well here. A few years ago, a family visiting Cornell told me about their experience. Getting off the Thruway, they asked the toll collector, "How do you get to Cornell?" Without missing a beat, the attendant looked straight at the daughter in the back seat and said, "Well, first you have to do really well on the SATs."

All of you have done that—and so much more. You are ready to learn through your interactions with our extraordinarily talented and immensely dedicated faculty. You'll find that your classmates are as motivated and accomplished as you are—and eager to learn new things. You'll challenge each other, compete with each other, stimulate and support each other, whether you're working on a project team like the Cornell Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Team, which took first place—and earned a $10,000 prize—in international competition earlier this month, or singing with the Cornell Chorus and Glee Club or one of the many other ensemble groups on campus, or puzzling out a problem set at the Tatkon Center as part of a study group. There are more than 500 student organizations on campus—from religious to recreational, from public service to political action—where you can pursue your interests or discover new ones. In the process, you'll learn more than you could have imagined and make lifelong friends along the way.

Second, Cornell, like every major research university, can be a demanding and stressful place. When pressure builds, when you are experiencing the inevitable challenges of life as a college student, I urge you to reach out to others who can help you. This is a mark of strength and self-awareness, not weakness. At the Tatkon Center, at Gannett Health Services, at the Learning Strategies Center, within the many different faith communities affiliated with Cornell United Religious Work, at the Dean of Students Office, and elsewhere on campus, you'll find dedicated professionals who can help you adjust to Cornell, study more effectively, and deal with anxiety and stress.

But each of us, as members of this community, has a responsibility to safeguard our own wellbeing and that of our associates. If you sense that someone you know is under unusual stress or having difficulties, I hope you will reach out to them. For all its intensity, Cornell is a caring community because of the efforts we all make—faculty, staff and students—to seek help for ourselves and to offer support to others.

This year on campus—and around the world—we may face an especially challenging flu season, which likely will include regular seasonal flu and the new H1N1 strain. You should have received an email message from Dr. Janet Corson-Rikert, executive director of Gannett Health Services, and Vice President Susan Murphy discussing the types of precautions all of us should be taking to help protect our own health and the health of our community—including practicing good personal hygiene and utilizing health care resources in a timely manner. As we go forward it will be important for you to learn how best to protect yourself and those around you. There is a link on the Cornell home page which you can follow to obtain the most up-to-date information and other resources for dealing with a potentially challenging flu season. We will continue to update you on this issue as the semester proceeds.

Third, try not to worry too much about your career prospects in the new economy. It is reasonable to be concerned, but don't let that concern take over your life or keep you from exploring intellectual avenues that are of personal, rather than professional, interest. Even last year, when the economic crisis was at its height, Cornell graduates did remarkably well in the job market and in gaining admission to graduate or professional degree programs. Of the graduating seniors who responded to our post-graduate survey, 40% reported that they had accepted jobs; nearly a third had accepted spots in graduate/professional school; 19% were seeking jobs; 6% were seeking acceptance to graduate school; and about 4% were planning to pursue other endeavors such as travel or fulfilling military service obligations. Among large schools last year, Cornell had the third-highest number of recent graduates accepted into Teach for America, and this fall some 66 members of the Cornell Class of 2009 will begin teaching in urban and rural schools across the country through the program.

Cornell Career Services, with offices in Barnes Hall and in individual schools and colleges, is a resource you can use even now, in your first year at Cornell, to clarify your career interests, explore options, and later to secure internships, jobs or places in graduate or professional school. It's not too early to get to know the staff in Career Services and the services they can provide. The college years are an excellent time to explore a variety of careers—some you may not even know about now—and to think creatively about how your interests and abilities might translate to the world of work.

My sense is that, whether you are a member of the Class of 2013 or a transfer student, your timing will be right to take advantage of an international economic recovery when you graduate from Cornell. Even now, there are beginning to be signs—in the stock markets, the housing markets, the July unemployment numbers, and elsewhere—that the economy is no longer in free fall. It may be some time before a stronger economy makes up for jobs that have been lost, but many of the new jobs will demand the advanced knowledge you will develop at Cornell.

Much more important, though, you'll get a terrific education here no matter what you eventually pick as a major. Cornell's founder, Ezra Cornell, intended to "found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study." And from the very beginning Cornell has combined instruction in applied fields with broad and deep offerings in the liberal arts and sciences.

As Cornellians, you'll graduate with several important advantages in building a life of meaning and significance. These include:

  • the ability to think critically about a variety of subjects, including those outside your immediate sphere of expertise;
  • the ability to express yourself with clarity, precision, and a sense of style;
  • a grounding in ethics, which should be the cornerstone of every profession;
  • new ways of perceiving, appreciating, and influencing the world as a result of a deepening acquaintance with the arts and the humanities and the opportunities you'll find here to share ideas and personal friendships with people from many cultures, backgrounds, and nations.

These are among the benefits of the liberal arts component of your Cornell education, and they will open new possibilities for personal growth and professional challenge throughout your lives.

Eleanor Roosevelt, who made several visits to Cornell during her lifetime, once said: "The purpose of life, after all, is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience."

So, as you begin your undergraduate years at Cornell, I urge you to:

  • study hard;
  • get help when you need it;
  • reach out to others;
  • stretch yourself to experience all that Cornell has to offer;
  • and leave your own stamp on this university, which from now on will always be part of who you are.

This is a place inspired by the promise of possibility. You represent a new dimension of that promise. Welcome to your Cornell.

And now, I invite everyone to join the Cornell Chorus and Glee Club in singing the Alma Mater. The words are printed in your program.