Rawlings challenges new students to take academic risks

Rawlings at convocation
Jason Koski/Cornell Marketing Group
Interim President Hunter Rawlings addresses thousands of new students, along with their families and friends, during the New Student Convocation on Aug. 20 at Schoellkopf Field.

Cornell Interim President Hunter Rawlings greeted several thousand new students, along with their families and friends, during New Student Convocation on Aug. 20 at Schoellkopf Field. He urged the Class of 2020 not to just seek a degree.

“You’re here to get a degree, yes, but that’s not the real reason you’re here,” he said. “The real reason you’re here is to learn things you never dreamed you could learn. You’ll find professors here who will inspire you, prod you, irritate you while creating environments that enable learning to take place.”

And the only way to fully broaden one’s academic horizons, he said, is by making oneself uncomfortable.

“Get enough confidence in your first or second year to take some academic risks,” said Rawlings, who’s in his third stint as the university’s president, and second in an interim capacity. He is also a professor in the Department of Classics.

“Take some courses that seem pretty tough, pretty challenging – outside your comfort zone,” he said. “Go ahead and do it, because why else are you here, after all? Not just to earn grades, but to learn things.”

Rawlings’ address capped an hourlong convocation welcoming the more than 3,000 members of the Class of 2020, who along with their guests produced an estimated crowd of more than 10,000 in Schoellkopf Crescent. The event was part of Orientation Weekend, Aug. 19-22, in preparation for the first day of classes on Aug. 23.

The convocation began with welcome remarks from Ethan Kramer ’17, co-chair of the Orientation Steering Committee (OSC), and Jordan Berger ’17, president of the Student Assembly. Berger urged the students to make new friends and meet as many people as possible, quoting scientist Bill Nye ’77, who said, “Everyone you meet knows something you don’t.”

Lauren Dennis
Jason Koski/Cornell Marketing Group
Lauren Dennis '17, co-chair of the Orientation Steering Committee, addresses thousands of new students, along with families and friends, during the New Student Convocation on Aug. 20 at Schoellkopf Field.

Berger was followed by Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student and campus life, who gave a short yet impassioned plea to the students, who are preparing “to embark on your intellectual journey at one of the world’s truly great universities.” He urged them to use more than their heads for learning.

“Beyond just opening your mind, I ask you to open your heart,” he said. “Because while the mind will allow you to thrive and create for our world, the heart is what allows you to experience it. It is what allows you to live, it’s what allows you to love, and it is what allows you to feel the consequence of all that you do through your mind.”

Disagreeing with someone else’s view doesn’t mean one has to dismiss the other person, he suggested.

“Why is it not possible to have a cogent argument related to a concept or issue you’ve studied or feel passionate about while also expressing empathy, curiosity and a desire for understanding toward your counterpart?” he asked. “It is possible, you see; it just takes more effort. It requires we spend more time, and, most importantly, it requires you to invest more of yourself. But that is an investment worth making, because our world desperately needs more heart right now.”

The Cornell University Chorus and Glee Club followed Lombardi’s remarks with a rendition of “Song for Cornell,” then OSC co-chair Lauren Dennis ’17 offered her welcome to new students by suggesting that “there’s no right way” to experience orientation, or one’s first year at Cornell.

Dennis introduced Rawlings, who served as Cornell’s 10th president from 1995 to 2003, then served as interim president from 2005-06. Rawlings’ third stint began in April, following the death in March of President Elizabeth Garrett.

The 71-year-old Rawlings noted that the university brought “a very talented, diverse class to Cornell” this year. The Class of 2020 represents 60 nations, including the U.S., with students coming from 48 states, plus Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Convocation crowd
Jason Koski/Cornell Marketing Group
Thousands of new students, along with their families and friends, gathered in the Crescent at Schoellkopf Field for the annual New Student Convocation on Aug. 20. Cornell welcomes nearly 4,000 first-year and transfer students this fall.

“You were selected from almost 45,000 applicants – that’s the most in Cornell history,” he said to enthusiastic applause.

Rawlings urged students to reject the idea of a college education in purely economic terms, even while noting the return on investment is great – approximately $1 million more in lifetime earnings, he said, over someone with a high school degree.

“But when we think of degrees as products, colleges as purveyors of those products, and students as customers, the results are terrible,” he said. “Students can feel entitled to classes that don’t push them too hard, they can feel entitled to high grades and to course material that does not challenge their assumptions.

“I want to advise you today,” he added, “that is very unlikely to happen at Cornell.”

Rawlings reminded students that, unlike most big-ticket purchases, an education requires the “so-called buyer to do most of the work to obtain the value.” He reminded the students that education is a two-way street, and both parties must play important roles to ensure a positive outcome.

“We’re going to challenge you, encourage you, support you. We’ll hold you to high standards of academic integrity,” he said. “We hope that you’ll do your part to make our joint enterprise a success. Welcome to Cornell, a really great place to learn.”

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