Convocation: Throw your O

September 25, 2016

Welcome to the University of Oregon Class of 2020. Welcome new students, new faculty members. Welcome all!  We have been anticipating your arrival and we are thrilled you are finally here.

I came to this university a little over year ago—so I know what it is like to be new—and one of the first things I had to learn was how to throw my O.  Does everyone know how to do that? It’s not a triangle, it is a nice oval, like this!

Look at that, you are already experts!

This symbol may have been started by our band leaders and adopted by athletic fans, but it has come to symbolize so much more. Throwing your O, is the way you make your impact on the world as a Duck.  And you, members of the Class of 2020, are about to embark on a journey here at the university that will open you up to a world of information, ideas, creativity and problem solving; a world in which you “throw your O” far and wide, in ways you cannot yet imagine.

The first step of that journey begins this week as you attend your first classes. You have been selected to study at this university. You have earned the right to be here—we don't admit anyone who doesn't deserve a spot in our classrooms. That means that each of you is capable of succeeding at the University of Oregon. It is how you apply your abilities and qualifications that will determine what you actually accomplish as students on this campus. 

And you will have to apply yourself, in ways that are different than high school. This is not 13th grade.  

You will have to step out of your comfort zone. While many of you are very well prepared for the rigors in the classroom, you are all also learning how to be college students. Many of you are learning how to live away from your families. 

With this new independence comes wonderful and challenging lessons—from figuring out how to use your meal points and where to do laundry, to learning how to get across campus from Global Scholars Hall to PLC and how to stay awake through an early morning lecture after a midnight run to Voodoo donuts.

Figuring out this stuff will likely become some of the best memories of your time here at the University of Oregon.

I vividly remember my first days in college and my own Convocation.  Like many of you, neither of my parents had gone to college.  But they had very high aspirations for me.  I went to a private college and almost all of my tuition and fees were either covered by scholarships, loans, summer jobs, and a job in the library of our public policy school. 

To say I felt out of place was an understatement.  Who were these people who dressed differently from me and who seemed to already have so many friends?  I wondered would I ever fit in? Who would I eat dinner with?  And could I ever compete and do well at college?

Ultimately, I found my own niche in college; my own friends; and my own academic passion—urban policy.  I never lacked for a dinner companion and I survived the four years, indeed I thrived.  Much of what I am today is formed by my education.

Connecting with your fellow classmates, your residence advisors, your professors and your roommates will help you find your place as well.

However, as you begin your classes, some of you may find the pace challenging or the material confusing at first. If you do find yourself falling behind, or in need of some support, don’t wait to get help. We are on a quarter system, so the timetable for classwork, mid-terms and final exams may seem compressed as you make the transition from high school semesters to ten week quarters. Before you know it, you could get buried.  So if you find yourself in trouble, go get some help. 

Every professor here wants you to succeed; every counselor and student support person wants you to flourish.

We all want to see you not only do well in your classes, to learn the material and work towards your degrees, but also to graduate from the UO in four years. You are the Class of 2020, not the Class of 2021 or 2022.  I want you to graduate in 2020 not because I don’t love you and want to have you around.  I want you to graduate in four years so that you can save time and money, reduce your debt and increase your chance of success in the long run. 

To do that you need to take at least 15 credits per term.  You also need to be very proactive with how you schedule your classes. Please, meet with your advisor to ensure you remain on track with credits, pre-requisites, and requirements.

As a university, we’ve made a commitment to help you be successful by invested in more advising, counseling, and predictive software to help us help you stay on track.  So if you do fall behind reach out and get help. This is very important to me and all of us to see you succeed.

And while you are here to study, you are also here to expand your minds, learn about people and places different that you are. That means, at times, stepping outside your comfort zone and exploring classes and subjects you might not otherwise.

For those of you who think you are interested in science and math, be sure to study literature and the arts.  For those of you whose parents are telling you not to waste your time learning a language, reading history, studying poetry, or learning how to appreciate art, explain to them that being an educated human being, a critical thinker, requires studying the humanities. 

For those who want to be musicians, poets, journalists, or sociologists, be sure to take a science class and brush up on your math.  For the budding business people among you, go take a dance class or a romance language.  To be prepared for a changing world and the economy when you graduate, you will need to be broad in your knowledge and able to constantly learn.  That is what college is for.

Also, don’t just hang out with people who look like you or have your background.  Become friends with someone unlike any of your other friends.  Go out to dinner with folks who vote for political candidates who you can’t stand.  Attend one of the lectures or workshops of our African American guest speakers and learn about implicit bias.  When you get out of school you will need to interact with and understand people who are not like you.  Get a head start here.

While you are our most diverse freshman student body classes ever, we can do better and it’s our goal to recruit many more underrepresented students and faculty members to campus. That’s not to check boxes.  It is because it makes the education we provide better. When we enhance the diversity, equity and inclusion of our campus, we improve the quality of the teaching, research and student experience by providing more perspectives and insights.

Another way to learn from each other by listening to each other. That happens in an environment that supports free expression and this flow of ideas is essential on our campus.   The genius of American higher education—at least the type of education that takes place on campuses like the University of Oregon—is that we learn from each other. 

Unlike some forms of education which are taught predominantly by lecture—we value robust discussion and debate.  You will never learn if everyone around you is afraid to say or write what they think.  You will never hone your own intellectual capacities if you only interact with people who agree with you. 

Of course, sometimes what your professors or classmates say may anger you.  Sometimes it may even offend you.  But the antidote to speech that one doesn’t like is not to shut down that speech.  That is what totalitarian governments do.  That is not what an open democracy does.  Instead—to paraphrase one of our most monumental Supreme Court justices, Louis D. Brandeis—the antidote to speech we don’t like is MORE SPEECH.  

That doesn’t mean, of course, that we shouldn’t think about the effect of our speech on others.  Racist or sexist speech, hate speech, is not welcome on campus.  Speech intended to impede other people’s speech—like booing speakers so that they cannot be heard—is not acceptable.

These are the easy cases.  Some are more subtle.  But remember, we are a family—a family of Ducks.  That means something.  We should not needlessly harm members of our community by making them feel bad or unwelcome.  This is particularly the case with respect to folks who are from under-represented racial or ethnic groups. 

Sometimes you might say something that you never meant to create offense, but that does nevertheless.  My advice to you is always to think about what you say and the perspective of the person listening to you before you say it.  In other words, think about how your speech affects the people who hear it.  And, if you say something that does create offense, consider apologizing or engaging that person in a discussion. That’s what people in a family do. That’s also how we learn from each other – through discussion.

A family also looks out for all its members. We treat each other with respect. That includes the people who you will become romantically involved with or the people with whom you WOULD LIKE to become romantically involved. 

There is absolutely no room on this campus for sexual violence or harassment.  Ask for consent, sober consent, and respect the answer you get.  Stand up for each other. If you see something that might lead to sexual assault – say something or do something. Ducks take care of each other.  And, if after hearing what I just said you are chuckling to yourself or your neighbor, the door is right there.  You don’t belong here!

And treat yourself with respect.  Do not abuse alcohol or drugs.  I said this last year, and I’ll say it again:  Yes, Animal House was filmed here.  But you not animals; you are the future leaders of our state, nation and world.

Finally, take full advantage of this learning opportunity. You are joining a community of scholars at an outstanding research university.  This means that you will be taking courses from knowledge producers, not just teachers. 

The professors here are the ones who are asking profound questions, defining important issues, making scientific discoveries, and creating beautiful new art and designs.  They are literally writing the award winning books, publishing the transformative journal articles, and figuring out new ways to build something or creatively express a new art form.  We are teachers at the University of Oregon, but we are also knowledge creators.  This is the hallmark of a research university and we are proud of that mission.

So be sure to get to know at least one or two professors well.  In fact, even better, ask a professor if you can participate in their research.  You will find the experience amazing!  Trust me.  I did.

I know I have thrown a lot of advice your way: go to class, don’t fall behind, seek out the expertise of your professors, take 15 credits a term, get to know your counselors, ask for help if you need it, share your views respectfully, stand up for each other, and be kind to yourself and others.

My final piece of advice probably does not even need to be said: have fun!  This is an amazing campus and community filled with cool things to do, outstanding activities and one of the best places in the world to attend college. Enjoy it, (after you’ve studied of course.)

There is a very real opportunity for you at the University of Oregon, and the reason I am standing here today is to urge you to seize it. This is where you receive your education – your leg up on all those who haven't been fortunate enough or determined enough to be selected for this chance to learn and prepare for life.

You are entering our community of scholars, you are joining the academy.  And we are honored you have come. Welcome to the University of Oregon. 

I look forward to meeting you all here again four years from now. I’ll be dressed in similar attire, and you too will be wearing robes. You will be ready to dish out your own advice to freshman and will have perfected your O and much more. 

You will be ready to enter the world – ready to make your impact. Ready to “throw your O” far and wide.

Have a wonderful first day of college. And GO DUCKS!