Office of the President
Dr. Patrick T. Harker is the 26th president of the University of Delaware. He also serves as professor of business administration in the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics and professor of civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering.
September 6, 2011
To the Class of 2015:
If Hurricane Irene hadn’t dismantled some of the celebrations we’d scheduled for the semester’s opening week, I would have welcomed you to UD at New Student Convocation and offered you a few words of advice. Now that you’ve begun your first full week of classes, I offer you this welcome in letter form.
One of the best parts of my job is greeting freshmen on their first day as true Blue Hens. Another will come nearly four years from now when I bid you farewell at Commencement. Life doesn’t offer us many moments like these, times of such clear and profound transition. You’re starting on a journey that you can make into anything you dare. The destination is up to you—not your parents, not your professors—and it’s as open as it’s ever going to be.
You’ve got a couple of fundamental choices on this journey. You can be selfish, or you can be generous. My advice might surprise you: Be both.
Be selfish. Take this time to really figure out what you want to do with your life. Let’s say you were 5 years old when you were first asked what you want to be when you grow up. And let’s say you abandoned cowboy, ballerina, spy and astronaut around age 9. That means most of you have had just under a decade to figure out your plan B.
And yet the #1 major at UD is University Studies. “University Studies” is just our way of saying undeclared, and “undeclared” is really just code for undecided. A lot of you are undecided. That’s not just okay; that’s better than okay. College is all about exploring, finding out what you’re passionate about and then letting your path reveal itself. That’s the exciting part. There’s a practical component, too, because excelling at something you love to do is often easier than excelling at something you ought to do. And even if it’s not easier, it’s a lot more rewarding.
Now to all of you with declared majors: I’m glad you’ve found your purpose and your passion so soon. But I hope you’ll remember that plans change and detours take you places you didn’t think you’d go. Life is often as much about the detours as it is the mapped-out route. But even if your plans endure and you stay the course—even if your major today is the same major you graduate with in four (or more) years—be open to stepping off the path. Be open to looking at this academic landscape, and your place in it, from a whole new perspective.
I ask that all of you—declared and undeclared—synthesize your thinking around some of our most persistent problems, and let those problems guide you as much as prerequisites and course calendars do. Start with your end in mind. Whatever it is—environmental restoration, food sustainability, arts-rich neighborhoods, educational equity, corporate responsibility, geopolitical harmony, humane health care—start with your end in mind.
That brings me to the second half of my advice: On this journey of yours, be generous. You can afford to be. You’re members of the most accomplished freshman class in UD’s history. You have the ability and, I hope, the inclination to use your talent, your intellectual capacity, your curiosity and creativity to be a critical part of this end-game I just mentioned. You can consider the ethical implications of your academic efforts and broaden their benefit.
Many of you were assigned The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks as your First Year Common Reader. The book tells the story of a poor woman who died tragically young of cervical cancer, and whose resilient cells were then cultured and used in some of today’s most common drug therapies. The cells fueled modern virology and biotechnology. And yet the woman whose body these cells came from—and the family she left behind—knew nothing of her amazing contribution to science, nor were they compensated for it. (The book’s author, Rebecca Skloot, comes to campus on October 13, and I look forward to seeing you at her lecture.)
As you read about the life and the immortality of Henrietta Lacks, I hope you’re inspired to be the generation that, on a large scale, joins ethics to action, justice to innovation, good policy to progress. I hope your work is framed not just by your skill but by your conscience.
The day we admitted you to UD, we celebrated all the achievements that earned you a coveted spot in this truly talented class. Now that you’re here, we celebrate the fact that individual achievement joins collective potential. Now we celebrate your strength in numbers. You’ve joined a class of 4,000, a University of 21,000, an alumni community of 155,000—all of us putting our knowledge to work at home and around the globe. As the weeks and months go by, as strangers become friends and the campus becomes home, trust in the enormous power of this Blue Hen family and in your own remarkable contribution to it.
Welcome to UD!
Patrick T. Harker