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'Be the class that bridges divides,' Johns Hopkins president tells new students

Class of 2021 formally begins its JHU academic career at convocation ceremony

Image credit: Will Kirk / Homewood Photography

The Class of 2021 begins its college career at a moment of tremendous national upheaval and painful division, and is thus tasked with defining its own identity and character during this challenging time, Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels told a room full of new students Wednesday night.

The convocation message from student, faculty, and administrative leadership to the incoming class of Blue Jays was, in brief, to ask for help, not to wait, and to attack convention, but also to try to understand one another.

"Be the class that bridges divides, … that models for all of us the best habits of civil society—habits of debate, dialogue, conflict, resolutions, consensus-building, or sometimes even compromise."
Ronald J. Daniels
President, Johns Hopkins University

"Be the class that bridges divides," Daniels said. "Be the class that models for all of us the best habits of civil society—habits of debate, dialogue, conflict, resolutions, consensus-building, or sometimes even compromise." (Read President Daniels' complete remarks)

A night dedicated to welcoming new students, convocation serves as one bookend to an undergraduate's academic career (the other being commencement). Before Provost Sunil Kumar officially brought the ceremony to order, Goldfarb Gym was filled with bustle and banter as first-years snapped selfies in their formal attire.

Speakers including David Yaffe, a member of the board of trustees and president of the JHU Alumni Association, and Calix Mateo Salles, major events coordinator for the New Student Orientation Core Team, imparted their wisdom for how the Class of 2021 could make the most of its Hopkins experience.

Additional advice from Noh Mebrahtu, SGA executive president, included to study ahead of exams, to look for research and internship opportunities early, and, rather than becoming upset by those who forget the "s" in Johns Hopkins, to kindly refer them to the university's top 10 national ranking.

The new students—a group of more than 1,300 picked from a pool of nearly 27,000 applicants—will use their time at Johns Hopkins to explore new knowledge, ideas, and perspectives, Daniels said, because of the university's commitment to research and academic freedom—a topic discussed by the provost and a panel of faculty members at an orientation event for first-year students on Monday evening.

"The world beyond our campus is in dire need of exactly those skills," Daniels said.

Following the president's remarks, Sally Lu, winner of the class banner competition, presented the Class of 2021 design that will hang in the Milton S. Eisenhower Library for the next four years.

"The advice from campus leadership reminded us that our higher education has very important and timely applications," Lu said. "Convocation made the beginning of our college experience feel real."

Complete convocation remarks delivered by President Ronald J. Daniels

Thank you, Vice Provost Phillips.

Thanks, Noh for your welcome and to Archipelago Project, the Sirens and the AllNighters for their great performances. Please join me in thanking Calix and the entire orientation team for doing such a phenomenal job!

I am thrilled to join our university leaders and faculty to welcome the great class of 2021!

THE Class of 2021.

This is a moniker you are hearing a lot.

You heard it in your acceptance letters.

You heard it this week, as you left home, arrived at Hopkins, and experienced the whirlwind of Orientation.

No longer are you the class of 2017, a label you wore for the last four years.

You are taking on a new identity, individually and collectively, defined by a new goal and a new affiliation.

As the Johns Hopkins class of 2021.

But what that label means remains to be seen. Your collective identity—who this class is and will become—is as yet unknown and undeveloped.

That's to be expected. It's early days.

You've probably gotten to know well only a small subset of your class this week. Maybe just your roommate. Maybe the group that you came with tonight. Meeting your entire class may seem daunting—more than 1,300 students, from places that span our nation and 33 countries around the world. Those from as close as two miles from here and as far away as Australia. Those of you who are the first in your family to ever attend college and those who are here with at least one of their fellow triplets—I hear we've got multiple triplets in the freshman class this year!

But, trust me, you will come to know each other, and your class will develop its own, unique identity. Just as the classes before yours have done throughout Hopkins history.

For instance, there's the class that took our longstanding lacrosse rivalry to unprecedented heights—or should I say lows. Yes, in 1947, Hopkins undergrads kidnapped Testudo.

Who's that? The 400-pound bronze mascot of the University of Maryland. They eventually returned it—subtly rebranded with a giant "H" painted on its back—and JHU on its head.

Or yours could be a class that is defined by breaking barriers. Like Trustee Yaffe's class of 1974, which was the first fully co-educational class to graduate from Hopkins. At a recent reunion, women from the class regaled me with tales of living on a campus designed with only men in mind, which included transforming certain unnecessary features of the dorm bathrooms into flower pots. I'll leave it to you to imagine what that looked like.

There is no doubt that classes do indeed forge their own character, because of who they are and what they do with their time here.

Now, Class of 2021, it is your turn.

On the one hand, you are about to embark upon a distinctly individual journey.

After all, you have come here with a clear personal agenda. To acquire basic mastery of a discipline or disciplines. To obtain a degree. To prepare yourself for the next stage of your life or career.

Parents and families tuning in at home: Rest assured! Your students will emerge from Hopkins having done all that!

But you will also seek out shared experiences. Lacrosse on Homewood field or Quidditch on Decker Quad. Tutoring local 5th graders or volunteering for disaster relief close to home or abroad. Hearing lectures on artificial intelligence and seeing plays performed by your friends.

You may even find time to pursue romantic engagements (some of the more precocious among you may already have a head start on this.)

And you will, in virtually every arena, explore new knowledge, new ideas, and new perspectives, that challenge and change the way you understand the world and your place in it.

You will do all this as part of a university community where excellence arises from a multitude of voices and viewpoints, from people and experiences that make up a whole far greater than the sum of its parts.

A place that takes on the most difficult issues of our time, across the broadest possible range of disciplines and fields of research and discovery.

A place devoted to academic freedom—as you heard from our provost and faculty on Monday evening—and to the brave pursuit of ideas no matter where they take us.

A place that encourages its members not only to contest ideas and attack convention, but also to cultivate a culture of listening. Listening to change minds, to hone arguments, or simply to try to understand better.

And you do all this at a time when the world beyond our campus is in dire need of exactly those skills.

You begin your college career at a moment of tremendous upheaval. A time of deep and painful division.

In America, it isn't that we agree with one another less than ever before; it is that we're listening to one another less, or not at all.

We curate our stories on Snapchat and Instagram and ingest our news through pre-selected feeds and tweets. We increasingly see those with whom we disagree as not simply wrong on issues, but as ill-intentioned or immoral.

And as the rise of distrust, grievance, and anger becomes more frequent, and more glaring, the consequences, here and abroad, grow more monumental: like the sickening specter of white supremacists on a university campus in Charlottesville, advocating ethnic and racial cleansing; or the continued loss of life and displacement of people from war-torn Syria; or the steady rise of extremist governments and political parties. The list could go on and on.

OK. I realize that I am making Game of Thrones seem like a peaceful and harmonious universe by comparison. And I'm not saying Winter has arrived … permanently.

But in truth, ours is a challenging time. And it is in this context that you are called upon to determine just who your class—the Class of 2021—is going to become.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that you pull a memorable stunt with a mascot. (In fact, our security team insists I explicitly discourage you from such an easy route to class identity-building.)

Nor am I suggesting that you subsume your individual identities into a monolithic one.

You bring exceptional individual gifts and draw strengths from the groups to which you already belong or will join here at Hopkins:

You who are College Democrats or College Republicans.

You who join the Student Government Association or the Black Student Union, or the Diverse Sexuality and Gender Alliance, or all three.

You who celebrate with the Hopkins Catholic community or the JHU Muslim Association, have Shabbat dinner at Hillel, or are an avowed atheist.

Do all that, and more. But also take seriously your engagement as a collective—as the Class of 2021.

And my challenge to you is this: Be the class that bridges divides.

Be the class that models for all of us the best habits of civil society—habits of debate, dialogue, conflict resolution, consensus-building, or perhaps even compromise.

Start small. Start now.

Start with how you connect with someone new. How you deal with discord and strife—whether over the division of space in your dorm room or the profound questions of our time. How you debate issues, armed with evidence and an open mind. How you engage with us—administrators and faculty—around issues of importance to this community and this institution.

And in four years, when you leave Hopkins, take these habits into the world, and continue to engage, debate, and problem-solve with people whose core beliefs challenge yours.

You are here because we saw in you the capacity not only for learning and discovery, but for impact.

And there is no better time or place for the great Class of 2021 to practice what this country—and the world—so desperately needs.

Class of 2021, make us better.

Class of 2021—bon voyage!

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