Open your mind by freeing your ears.
That was the message President Martha E. Pollack delivered to incoming students and their families during New Student Convocation, Aug. 24 at Schoellkopf Field.
“If there’s one piece of advice that I want you to remember from everything I say today … here’s what I want you to remember,” she said. “Take off your headphones.”
Pollack explained that seven or eight years ago she was trying to find the Metro in Washington, D.C. She wanted to ask for directions, but everyone on the street was wearing earbuds, effectively shutting her out.
“As I drive in to work at Cornell every morning, I see dozens of students wearing these as they walk to class,” she said. “They’re all walking in the same direction, but they’re not walking together. They’re not listening to each other. Instead, they’re listening to whatever is coming in through their headphones. The visual image is even more striking. They’re saying, ‘I am in my world, not the world around me; I am listening to someone else, not the human beings beside me.’”
Being sealed off by technology means students won’t connect with their peers, she said, whether it’s while sitting in class, standing in line for stir-fry or waiting for office hours. These encounters can spur conversations that may seem lightweight or trivial at first, but they link people together in critically important ways, building relationships and community over time.
“You need to be present in the moment, for – and with – the people around you,” Pollack said.
That kind of connection extends to how students engage with new ideas and people who have different perspectives and backgrounds. Only by listening to others and grappling with different ideas can people learn, she said.
The convocation ceremony opened with remarks from Orientation Steering Committee co-chairs Rohan Yaradi ’20 and Megha Singh ’20. Student Assembly President Joe Anderson ’20 urged students to challenge their preconceived notions, take classes in unfamiliar subjects and seek out internships in industries in which they’d never expect to have a career.
“Being uncomfortable means that you’re learning,” he said. “You may feel great success and you may struggle, all in the same week. When you do face adversity, don’t be afraid to ask for help.”
That sentiment was seconded by Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student and campus life.
“We all need help at some point in our lives,” he said. “And we have an incredible array of resources here. But it’s a really big place and you have to seek them out. Please don’t ever hesitate to do so.”
Lombardi also had a request for students. He said they would be interacting with thousands of people in a variety of circumstances during their time at Cornell, and he encouraged them to always intend, and presume, goodwill.
“The people sitting around you today are not your competition. They’re your classmates,” he said. “And for the rest of your life, you will share the connection of having been at Cornell together. Treat each other as the treasures that you are and lift each other up at all times.”
Pollack acknowledged the “incredible diversity” of the incoming class, with 3,218 new students representing 39 countries and 49 U.S. states, plus Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“No matter where you’re from, no matter what your background, your interests or experience, all of you belong here,” she said. “You have the right to study and to learn, to speak and to be heard. But in order to speak, and to hear and to be heard, you can’t have your headphones on.”
Pollack concluded her remarks by highlighting the university’s six core values, which were formalized last year by a communitywide process of reflection and feedback: purposeful discovery; free and open inquiry and expression; a community of belonging; exploration across boundaries; changing lives through public engagement; and respect for the natural environment.
“Keep your headphones off, and your minds open to everything that is here for you at Cornell,” she said. “And if one of these days, you see me walking along campus, I probably won’t need to ask you for directions. But come and say hi to me anyway. I promise I won’t be wearing headphones.”