Note: As prepared for delivery
Good evening to the great Class of 2018 and your parents, and let me extend my warmest welcome to the University of Michigan!
The Class of 2018 will always have a special place in my heart as the very first undergraduate students I have welcomed as president of the university. I just joined the university a few weeks ago, and like you I am just now moving into the place I’ll call home.
This evening we begin our Michigan journey together.
We’re all learning our way around campus, and becoming familiar with the acronyms we here at Michigan use to refer to buildings, locations and programs.
Have you figured out the UGLI? That’s short for the Shapiro Undergraduate Library.
Or CCRB? The Central Campus Recreation Building. Or SAB, the Student Activities Building.
Learning the culture of the Michigan community is a little confusing at first, but soon you will be an experienced second-semester freshman and none of this will faze you. And a year from now, you’ll be helping the next class of freshmen navigate this remarkable place.
And it is remarkable. I suspect all of us were attracted to the University of Michigan for the same reason: the breadth and depth of academic excellence. It is astonishing in its scope. For both our newest students and your families, you can be deeply proud of joining this special educational community.
For the parents here this evening, let me assure you I understand some of the emotions you are experiencing. My wife and I have four children, and the youngest is now a college senior. We well know the joys and anxieties of move-in and roommates, of first loves and final exams, of excited phone calls home and of no phone calls home. I promise you that we’ll take care of your children as they learn, and grow, and explore and transform into adulthood.
For families, today marks a milestone as you let go a little. And for our newest students, it is time to grab hold.
As we welcome you tonight and congratulate you on your achievements, we also challenge you.
Drink from the academic fire hose that is Michigan.
Learning at a research university presents unique opportunities to discover, to be entrepreneurial, and to be intellectually restless. Take advantage of all we offer in the humanities, the arts, the sciences. Chart a path for your own learning.
Reach beyond preconceived notions and artificial boundaries to team with your classmates and experience the value of Michigan’s tremendous diversity. Contribute to our important work in sustainability. Dive into student organizations, immerse yourself in the special nature of this place, including the Michigan’s athletic tradition and the rich array of artistic and cultural opportunities.
And seek out your professors. Just as you were attracted to Michigan for its academic excellence, they were drawn here because of exceptional students at all levels. They are among the best in their fields, and they are here to support your growth as a scholar.
Also be ready to learn from one another both inside and importantly outside of the classroom. While it may be reassuring to hang out with friends who feel comfortably like yourselves, be open to and seek out others who are different. Fellow students from different backgrounds, parts of the world, cultures. Some of your most important learning will involve exploring differences between yourself and others.
I want to pause for a moment to share the story of two undergraduates who were admirers of their English professor’s work, so much so that they made an unannounced visit to his house.
Their professor appeared a bit rumpled and his hair was a bit of a mess. But they said he was “kind and unassuming” and spent an hour and a half talking with them. Afterward, they agreed he would never be a great poet, but he was a fine person.
Their professor was Robert Frost. When he returned to campus some 40 years later, the audience at Hill Auditorium was standing room-only, and Frost received two encores following his poetry reading.
Such is the joy of college. World-class faculty and inquisitive classmates.
Drink it all in. It’s what we’re all about here at Michigan. It’s what we mean when we say it’s great to be a Michigan Wolverine.
Arthur Miller came to the University of Michigan in 1934 with few financial resources but a wealth of talent and intellectual curiosity. He wrote for the Michigan Daily and won our prestigious Hopwood Award for creative writing.
He went on to be one of America’s greatest playwrights and the winner of the Pulitzer Prize.
In describing his college experience, Arthur Miller had this to say: “The University of Michigan, was, in short, the test ground for all my prejudices, my beliefs, and my ignorance. It helped me lay out the boundaries of my life. For me it had, above everything else, variety and freedom.”
Variety and freedom. Those are hallmarks of a rich intellectual environment. The next four years will have a profound impact on your life. You will make friends for a lifetime. You’ll gain a greater understanding of your place in the world.
You will exercise your independence, celebrate successes, learn from mistakes, and grow, both as a scholar and a human being.
You will learn the critical thinking skills that will prepare you for a career and good citizenship in our society, but more importantly, prepare you to create a fulfilling quality of life.
You’ll also complain about the weather.
It all starts here, and now.
At Michigan we believe we can change the world. Tommy Francis tested the polio vaccine to find it safe and effective, and Larry Page founded Google. Gilda Radner made us laugh as one of Saturday Night Live’s original comic geniuses, and Edward White was the first American to walk in space. Meryl Davis and Charlie White skated their way to Olympic gold medals earlier this year, and our Solar Car Team last month won the national championship – for the fifth straight time.
I believe we change the world in large and small ways, and that each of us, through our Michigan experience, finds an opportunity to make an impact.
I’ll close by asking you a question that poet Mary Oliver poses in her poem, The Summer Day:
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your wild and precious life?”
Your answer begins here, and now.
Welcome, Class of 2018. I look forward to our years together.