August 22, 2010
On August 22, 2010, JSC College President Barbara Murphy gave the following remarks to the incoming class of students.
President's Welcome to New Students
I am truly happy to be starting an academic year with you - your first at Johnson State College, my tenth. But colleges are great levelers for us all. We all are beginning this new year together, and for the first time. We can imagine, but don't yet know, what it will hold. In this, we are equals.
I'd like to talk a little about the Common Book project at Johnson State College because it has very much to do with your beginning at our - and it is our - college.
This is our fourth year of starting the year with a piece of reading we all do together and using this chosen book as a focus of programming throughout the year. Why? Not just to get you to read a book over the summer, although that is hardly a bad thing, but also to remind us all that sharing a common text whether it is a book, a piece of art, a lab report, or a map - is a lot of what we do in college. In this particular this case, starting the year with a shared book gives us one very specific thing in common. We all know - whether we read it cover to cover, skipped to the end, loved it or found it wanting- that we held the same book in our hands. In this one thing, we have a connection.
In doing so, we are reminded we are here on a common project: all of us with the potential to teach and to learn.
Why this particular book? First, a little about how it was chosen: Faculty, staff and students who are interested in selecting the following year's pick agree to read a lot of books that anyone who is interested can suggest. The book group - open to anyone - meets during the year, talks and argues about books, and thinks about how new students - people like you - might like it. Group members imagine how the selection could give rise to talks and music and art and projects or travel in the year ahead. That is, they imagine how the life of the college could be better and richer with this book as an organizing tool. The books that draw us in tend to be books about living with and through something difficult, being new, being alone and being in community, being shaken up and dispossessed, surviving, and even flourishing.
Why such grim criteria? We don't set out to find a book that will really depress the entering class or make you think the world is dark and our own individual efforts are futile. We don't want that at all; in fact, we want to see ourselves and hear our voices as the book comes to life in community.
But, it is a fact that that the stories about going through darkness and coming out the other side have a lot to teach us. We don't learn as much from staying too long in comfortable places as we do from being a little bit at sea and having to struggle enough - whether it's with language or themes or feelings- to focus our attention, with the answers still out of reach; the questions, in fact, just taking shape.
We've chosen a book about newness, about what it means to belong and about navigating a new place among new people.
I don't presume to put your experience as new students at a new college on the same level as that of the Fugees - young refugees in Atlanta, Georgia, arriving blinking and stunned to see faucets and microwaves for the first time. That would be a false comparison on so many levels. But I do believe you are signing on for something unknown, taking some risks, trusting people you don't know to teach you and be good to you. As a new student said yesterday, "We are all from someplace else," even if that someplace is across town.
I was rooting for this book to be our choice. Four years ago, when the New York Times first wrote about the Fugees and Coach Luma (the article mentioned in the ESPN clip we viewed yesterday), the voiceover said "…and the day after the article ran, the movie rights were sold." What the narrator didn't say was that the week after the article ran in the Times, Coach Luma Mufleh got a call from Johnson State College. We invited her to come and speak to the graduating class of 2007, four months later. Luma said that she had never been asked to be a graduation speaker - she was a soccer coach, not a public speaker - but, ok, if it worked with the soccer schedule, she'd come.
So, Coach Luma and Team Manager Tracy came for a couple of days in May 2007. They stayed in our college apartment, had dinner with a few of us, and became new friends. During her commencement remarks, Luma recounted getting a knock on the college apartment door at 11:00 at night. She opened to one of the graduating seniors holding a pair of soccer cleats out.
"Iâ€™m leaving tomorrow after graduation," our graduating student athlete said, "and there's still a lot of good use in these shoes. I bet you know a kid who could use them more than I can."
So, now Luma knows us just a little. She shared the platform four years ago with graduating seniors. How excited I am to have her meet first-year and other new students at the beginning of their JSC engagement, so she can see who you are now and imagine who you, too, will be when you march under the tent to receive your diplomas in a few years.
What else called to us about this book besides that personal connection?
First, it is a story - or many stories - about belonging, about defining community and where it is that we call home, either by virtue of birth or relocation. In a small way, that is what we are doing here: deciding how to belong and be with each other, how to live together, how to share our space and ideas.
Second, it addresses the issues of shifting borders and who makes the decisions about these borders, who determines who gets to live where and under what conditions, who is let in and who is allowed to stay. These, I believe, are the crucial issues of our place and time in history and issues we are compelled to consider. No area of study you'lll encounter at JSC - not education or business or political science or writing or art - is unaffected by these issues. We all need to become scholars about how we share our country, who we are, and who we become.
One of the themes in the story of Outcasts United brings me back to your orientation weekend, which wraps up very soon as we welcome our returning students, faculty and staff all back together again. That theme is the way that we are - all of us - members of the tribe or group or team, and still we are - as distinctly and importantly -on our own.
We have worked these last two days to build, with you, a community and a web of connections. In this endeavor, I hope we have succeeded.
But I do not want to lose this chance for you to see that as much as Johnson State College is a community of people living as group members, it is equally a place for individuals. The common text we selected is a story about a team, for sure. But, it's a story about unique and singular people with their own work to do, their own hopes, their own doubts about their abilities, their own stumbling into success and recognizing that success. Ours are individual stories as much as group stories, and my hope for you is that as you make your ways at Johnson State College - and I believe they can be wonderful ways - you will learn to live competently and gracefully in the group and through your own personal story.
Learning to navigate that territory between self and community is one of the riches of an education. It can be pretty clumsy going sometimes; so often, it comes down to each of us and the blank screen in front of us, the paper due soon. Owning that assignment and that deadline and, yes, the commitment we made to ourselves to do the work, is very much part of what we will do here alone and together.
We are all going to make mistakes this year; we are going to have false starts and we are going to have to ask a lot of questions. Our best strategy may be, as the poet Rilke wrote, to "learn to love the questions themselves."
I look forward to an extraordinary year of asking questions with you, of making mistakes and adjustments and course corrections, of finding our places in the community, and knowing our own remarkable part in this Chorale and Chamber Singers of individual voices.