Speeches & Commentary

2019 Convocation

Brookings Hall

Greetings, and welcome to Washington University in St. Louis!  What a day it has been!  I’m sure many of you are absolutely exhausted from moving in, and parents especially, I’m sure you’re ready to lie flat on your back somewhere.

For us here at WashU, move-in day is such an exciting one, as we get to see some of your first moments interacting with your new roommates, your classmates, and with many of the colleagues who will help mentor you over the next few weeks, months, and years.

Move-in day and this evening’s Convocation also takes a ton of work on our end, with all the planning and logistics.  With that, I want to extend a quick shout-out and thanks to all of the people who dedicated time and energy to making this entire day a success.  Please join me in sharing our appreciation.

Today is also an exciting day for me as this marks my first full academic year back at WashU serving as your 15th Chancellor.  This means you are my very first incoming class and that we’re all doing this together.

And if you’re like me, right now, your brain is probably filled with all sorts of thoughts.  You’re nervous, excited, eager, and anxious.  To that end, I’ve taken the liberty of compiling a list of the Top Ten things you might be thinking at this very moment.

Number 10.  This year, we have a highly diverse class geographically, with 135 international students from 19 different countries and nearly 1500 students from outside the St. Louis region.  Besides your campus tour, some of you have never been to the state of Missouri before, and so you’re wondering what the heck a toasted ravioli is, why anyone would put a substance called “provel cheese” on their pizza, or what the fuss surrounding Ted Drewes frozen custard is all about.  Don’t worry—in due time you’ll likely experience all three of these things.

Number 9.  This year, we have 139 students who hail from right here in the greater St. Louis region. To that end, you might be looking around wondering when it’s an acceptable time to introduce your friends to bread sliced bagels.  Without a doubt, you’ll proudly wear your Blues and Cardinals gear around campus. And you’re eager to show your new classmates how cool your city is.

Number 8.  Speaking of new friends, some of you are looking around wondering who your people will be.  Is your life going to be a replica of Grown-ish, perhaps?  It’s too soon to tell.

Number 7.  Some of you arrived on campus this morning and were wondering why your residence hall wasn’t named Gryfindor or Slytherin.  You might have even been disappointed that Dumbledore didn’t show up at the clocktower.  For those of you for whom this applies, you’re in luck.  I’ve asked some of my colleagues to do research about adding a wizardry major.  And our athletics department is looking into Quidditch as an official NCAA sport.

Number 6.  For many of you, our breathtaking campus and state-of-the-art facilities were a big factor for why you chose to come to WashU.  But now that you’re here, you’re wondering if you need a National Treasure map to find your way around—or better yet, you’re wondering how many coins you’ll collect in Pokemon Go.  Or, maybe the family members who are with us today think Brookings Hall is actually the keeper of the Lost Ark.  Don’t worry—you’ll be able to navigate campus in no time!

Number 5.  Some of you are really looking forward to engaging in deep and substantive dialogues about controversial topics.  Like, should LeBron have ever left the Cavaliers?  Or, is it a [Jiff] or a [Giff]?  Or, should you use the Oxford comma or not?  And one space or two at the end of the sentence?  These are the questions and debates that will surely keep you up at odd hours of the morning.

Number 4.  Some of you are wondering if your parents are actually going to leave, or if they plan to get a dorm room right next to yours.

Number 3.  Likewise, parents, you have a whole swarm of thoughts.  Like, are you going to cry the entire drive home?  Or, what color are you gonna paint your child’s room when you turn it into an office?

Number 2.  Many of you are looking around and you’re already starting to think about the future.  You’re wondering what your professors are going to be like, what clubs you’re going to join, and if your classes are going to be difficult and challenging.

And finally, number 1. You’re looking around and wondering if you made the right choice to come to WashU.

Indeed, you have a host of thoughts, questions, and yes, even feelings about today, about tomorrow, and about the years ahead.  And, the bottom line is that all of you had a choice to make when it came to college.  In the end, you chose WashU.

Likewise, we also chose you—and for a reason.  We chose you because we saw something about you that goes way beyond your academic achievements, your test scores, or your impressive extracurricular resume.  And with that, I want each and every one of you to know that we chose you because you belong here, and that we are committed to ensuring this a place where each of you will thrive both intellectually and personally.  We also chose you because we saw potential—the potential for you to become future leaders in your fields and industries.

As a result, a month from now, a semester from now, and three or four years from now, that Top Ten list is going to be miles apart from what it looks like today.  Instead of wearing your favorite professional sports gear, you’ll proudly be wearing your WashU gear, right along with Dr. Lori White!

What’s more—instead of wondering, you’ll actually be doing.  You’ll be experiencing and exploring.  You’ll be creating memories that have a longer shelf life than any Tic Tok video or Instagram story you could ever capture.  You’ll be living out that potential we see in you, the potential your families see in you, and the potential you see in yourself.

During your time at WashU, you’re going to engage in interdisciplinary and transformative research that has a real impact here in St. Louis, across the country, and around the world.

You’re going to develop lifelong mentors through faculty, staff, coaches, alumni, and organizational leaders.

You’re going to engage in service in the local community.  You’re going to travel the world and see new and incredible things. You’ll meet a whole host of people from various places and with varying cultures and perspectives.

All joking about Dumbledore and LeBron aside, you really are going to engage in deep discussions and dialogues about important issues in order to gain new insights, perspectives, and sharpen your critical thinking skills.

You’re going to develop a deep sense of pride for this place, a deeper understanding of your own identity, and a clearer picture of the role you hope to play as a citizen of the world.

You’re going to develop lifelong friendships, create robust support networks, and grow to become compassionate and values-driven leaders.

And parents and family members, I hope you’ll look on proudly as you watch all of this take place and as your students take this important step in becoming their very best selves.

To the Class of 2023, whether you plan to study engineering, art or architecture, business, or the humanities or sciences.  Whether you play a sport, perform in music or theater, program robots, or conduct cutting-edge experiments in the labs.  Whether you advocate for change here in St. Louis, dig wells in Africa, or combat malnutrition in Bangladesh…whatever you do while you’re here, we hope you’ll use your time as an opportunity to truly discover yourself, the things that make you who you are, and the impact you hope to make on the world.

That’s exactly what we’re about at WashU as we work day in and day out to fulfill our mission and pursue distinction in education, research, and patient care.  You now join a long line of individuals who have come before you and who have been deeply committed to the same values and principles.  As both Chancellor of Washington University and as an alumnus, I am both proud and honored that you represent our robust legacy and the extraordinary history of some of the world’s greatest thinkers, educators, inventors, innovators, advocates, and leaders.  With this comes great responsibility as you carry on the nearly 170-year legacy of distinction.

While this is the potential future that awaits you, don’t get me wrong—I never said it was going to be easy.  In fact, there are going to be times when you’ll fail.  There are going to be times when you’ll be unsure about the path ahead.  And there are going to be times when you’ll wonder if you’ve made the right choices.

Yes—there will be times of difficulty and uncertainty, but I’m here to tell you today that I hope you never ever feel like you’re navigating any of it alone.  You are now part of an incredibly strong, supportive community of students, faculty, staff, and a global network of alumni who are here to help you succeed.  We’re here to help you along this important chapter of your life. That’s another distinctive and defining quality that makes us uniquely WashU.  This place is highly personal, and the exceptional people here are eager to see you live out the potential they saw while reading your application.

To that end, I, along with my colleagues, have immense confidence that you’ll navigate this chapter well, that you’ll leave this place ready and equipped to do incredible things, and that you’ll carry the WashU tradition of excellence wherever you go.

Thank you again for saying “Yes” to WashU. And given the weather we had the pleasure of enduring today, I extend warm wishes on the days, weeks, months, and years ahead as together we build on all of our past and current momentum, and as we recreate that Top Ten list into something truly extraordinary.