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New Student Convocation

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Lawn

Class of 2014, welcome to the University of Virginia!

This evening we celebrate your arrival at the University founded by Thomas Jefferson – an institution, in his words, "based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind." Your hard work and excellent performance as high school students have made this day possible for you. I congratulate each of you as you take your well-earned place in this community. In a sense, I am one of you — a member of the entering class, new to the University, new to Charlottesville. I became U.Va.'s eighth president just 21 days ago. We begin here together as newcomers. We will learn together, and get to know each other day by day in the years ahead.

Each of you may know two or three of your classmates from high school. Or you may have made a few new friends this weekend. But for the most part, you are strangers to each other. To help you get acquainted, Class of 2014, let me tell you a little bit about yourselves:

Your class has some 3,250 1st-year members, and about 630 transfers. Among those 630 transfer students, 300 are transfers from the Virginia Community College System.

In the 1st-year class, 67% of you are from Virginia; 33% are from elsewhere. You come from 45 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, and from 82 countries around the world.

You have done very well on tests. Your mean SAT scores are 655 reading; 676 math; and 662 on the writing portion. Your mean for math and verbal is 1331. Your mean for all three is 1993. 18 of you scored perfect 800s on both the reading and math portions of the test for a total 1600.

90% of you were in the top 10% of your high school's graduating class. 44.5% of you are men; 55.5% of you are women.

You are a diverse group. You come from different racial backgrounds:

8.5% of you are African American

16.5% of you are Asian American

5.3% of you are Hispanic American

0.9% of you are Native American

65.1% of you are White American

6.8% of you classify yourselves as International

5.3% of you choose not to classify yourselves racially.

The diversity here includes people who come from different economic situations. The recession and today's weak economy have touched many families, and increased the need for financial aid. Preliminary numbers show that 1,134 students (35%) in this class are participating in the AccessUVa financial-aid program. This includes 262 (8.0%) on full scholarship support and several hundred students from middle-income families who are eligible for a loan cap.

Those are the numbers for the Class of 2014. But numbers only tell us so much. What sets each of you apart is your distinctive personality, the unique character of your mind, your specific interests and passions, the particulars of your background.

Consider a few examples...

Among you is a student from student from Rye, New York, who won the nationwide Prudential Spirit of Community Award for his work founding a charity walk that has raised over $160,000 for celiac disease research in three years.

One student from Richmond, Virginia, is the co-founder of the independent non-profit organization, "100 Pounds of Hope," which provides emergency relief to disadvantaged people in Cambodia by directly distributing non-perishable food items to the poor.

Another student from Seekonk, Massachusetts, was a winner in the Tomorrow25 International Leadership Competition, sponsored by TIME magazine and Bentley University.

Among you is a student from Hamilton, Scotland, who was a captain of the Scotland International Under-16 field hockey team and also an All-Ireland Irish dancing champion.

Another student from Birmingham, Alabama, authored a financial disclosure bill at Girl's State that was subsequently introduced in the state legislature. The bill aimed to reform and regulate political action committees (PACs) to provide greater transparency for Alabama voters.

Another student from Roanoke, Virginia, was a first-place winner in the individual U1400 section of World Open Chess Championships.

A student from Chengdu, China, carried the Olympic torch through her city during the 2008 Olympic Games.

Thomas Jefferson said he wanted the students at this University to go on to "destinies of high promise." You, the members of the Class of 2014, are well on your way to fulfilling those destinies of high promise.

We are more than an academic community here; we are a social community. Each of you has an obligation to be a good citizen of this University and of this community. We want you to look out for yourself, and also for the well-being of your classmates. You may have heard about a new initiative called the "Get Grounded Coalition." Composed of student-run organizations, the Coalition is working to create a culture of shared responsibility on the Grounds — to teach all of us to look out for each other's well-being. We want to challenge the so-called "bystander behavior" that may cause students and others to stand aside and remain passive in potentially dangerous situations, either because they don't recognize the situation as problematic or because they don't believe it's their responsibility to take action. To foster this dialogue and to bring these issues to everyone's attention, we will hold a University-wide Day of Dialogue on September 24th to discuss issues related to campus safety, violence prevention, and bystander behavior. I encourage you to participate in that day's activities. You will hear more about it as the day draws near. The safety and personal well-being of our students are our first concerns as administrators and faculty members. We will work to ensure your personal safety and security. We want you to look out for yourselves and for each other also.

I want to talk a bit about the qualities that make U.Va. unique. Because of your superior performance in high school, you probably had your pick of colleges and universities. You could have gone almost anywhere. But you chose to come here. Why? What are the qualities that made you choose U.Va.? What sets U.Va. apart from the other colleges and universities that you considered? One answer may lie in the architecture that surrounds you this evening. Look around you at the Lawn, this "Academical Village," as Jefferson called it. Jefferson envisioned the Academical Village as a residential community that, by design, created a culture of shared learning and collaboration. The design enabled close interaction among faculty members and students. The first professors lived in the pavilions on the Lawn and taught in their living rooms. The students lived in the dorm rooms in-between.

Close connection among students and faculty is still a defining strength of this University today. Faculty members engage students formally in the classroom and also in informal faculty-and-student conversations outside of classes. They integrate scholarship and research in their courses, drawing no sharp distinction between teaching and research.

Public service is important here. Each week, more than 3,300 students volunteer their time and energy to better the community and themselves through Madison House, our student volunteer center. Students serve as tutors, construction workers, day-care supporters, youth mentors, peer counselors, and in many other roles. I encourage you to get involved.

While you are a student here, you will participate in long-standing systems of student self-governance and honor. The Honor System plays a central role in the community you are entering. Tonight you will sign the University's honor pledge. With this pledge, you will promise not to lie, cheat, or steal while you're a student here. If you break the pledge at any time during your four years here, you will be asked to leave the University. The honor pledge is a literal and binding contract, but signing it is a symbolic act as well. By signing, you bind yourself to this social and academic community.

This is a community that you should be proud to enter, and we're pleased and proud that you have decided to join us.

A few years from now, you will gather on the opposite end of the Lawn for a different reason — for the Final Exercises that will mark your graduation from the University. On that day, you will begin an exciting new phase of your life — a phase in which your success as professionals and private citizens will stem largely from the work you do here in the next few years. On that day, you will also take your well-earned place among our illustrious alumni. Our alumni are known for their deep, life-long commitment to the University. Because they believe in the significance and relevance of this University and its mission, they invest in its future. They support the University with gifts; they serve on advisory boards; they serve as career mentors; and they volunteer in many other capacities that strengthen the University.

The University that surrounds you today — this global emblem of excellence in higher education — is made possible partly because of the generosity and steadfast commitment of alumni. You will benefit from all that our alumni have done while you're a student here. When you leave here and enter careers and communities around the nation and the world, it will be your turn as alumni to sustain and strengthen this University. I encourage you to work hard during your time as a student here. Get involved in student organizations and community service. Be serious in your studies, but enjoy yourselves and have fun in appropriate ways. Cultivate within yourself a spirit of independence and self-reliance — but be grateful to your parents and other family members who helped you get here. Remember what Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: "The force of character is cumulative." The hard work you do each day and your individual actions as community citizens will add up, over time, to the person of consequence you will become and the impact you will have on the world after you leave this place.

Good luck as you begin this journey. I look forward to seeing all of you at Carr's Hill for the reception following this ceremony.

Let's work hard!