Becoming a Better Student

Matriculation - August 27, 2017

In assembling the St. Lawrence class of 2021 for the first time, doing so in the presence of family and faculty, campus staff and returning students, we abide a university tradition of gracious welcome. The advance thinking, planning, and perhaps worrying you have considered need some added word of reckoning, not merely a pro forma welcome, on a day that transacts a variety of complex emotions into a first, fine reassuring sense of calm.

Anticipation, the low-grade mood of forestalling a necessary change of life and circumstance, which naturally builds up over the previous months may be much harder for many of you—both students and parents—than the actual beginning steps of the transition found in today’s arrival. Let me first speak to parents about comprehending all those hours of anxious waiting, the thoughts leading up to the moment of bringing your son or daughter to college. It’s probably a lot tougher to manage or express those feelings than anyone told you it would be; it certainly was for me as a parent.

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There are differences in parenting expectations and habits from the time when I was first brought to St. Lawrence as a freshman by my mother and father. So much went unspoken between us, though the approaching weeks were probably charged with dim wattage tension in the home. My parents went through the Great Depression and the Second World War, so duty and discipline trumped a token of measured reflection and modest affection.

It didn’t take long to unpack and move in when I entered St. Lawrence because a clock radio and a manual typewriter were the sum of my material possessions beyond the contents of a suitcase and footlocker. The good-bye scene outside Sykes Residence Hall also didn’t take very long. Before I kissed my mother and shook hands with my father, he asked me if I still had my house key. I smiled and patted my front pants pocket and said, of course, I did. He then said, “I’ll take it back now.” Confused, off-guard, I looked at my mother for an interpretation. She smiled and simply explained, “He’s making a point.”

For a long time in high school, I had dreamed of independence and self-reliance. And yet, in the symbolic offering of freedom from home life and house rules, in that actual moment, I was unconsciously terrified and, tellingly, the house-key issue revealed me to myself. And I believe my parents were also a little scared, and that their clenched-teeth dialog was really a brave front against a lump in the throat.

Today our parental strategies and skills are different, perhaps better-informed psychologically, but maybe no better at avoiding the reality that in this hour we draw the same thin line distinguishing a time before from a time later. It is important for you to know today, as family members, that the “time later” at St. Lawrence also includes you in a major supporting role, one that will define untold, fresh pleasure as a mom or dad, grandmother or grandfather.

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As the class of 2021 crosses this starting line of entering Laurentian life, I bear witness to the existence of a question or two hanging in the air right now. The issue soon and near at hand will be the private matter of what kind of student do you want to be? That question will take some time to ponder, but it is both reasonable and answerable. The similar question, however, of what kind of person do you want to be? is much too large for this occasion or even too abstract for your first year. It is simply out of reach until you have the vocabulary of campus and community experience, but I can forewarn you that the issue of who you wish to become is a question that won’t leave you at St. Lawrence or leave you alone when the class gathers periodically over the next four years.

To ask now, what kind of student do you want to be? is practical and manageable; it will also inform your long-term thoughts about your values, identity, and life’s purpose. As a student beginning today, your first impressions ought to start forming around the many ways of potential involvement in class and campus life. Involvement in our community, as you will discover, is more than showing up for attendance credit. The abundance of choices at St. Lawrence will test your powers of discernment, testing your capacity for risk, even the most modest forms of taking initiative.

It’s ok to play it safe, as your parents would want me to advise you, but just don’t overplay it. Measure your choices, but make them, and make them stick. By the end of this term, surely by the end of the first year, you will pass through three critical check-points on the way to figuring out what kind of student you wish to be: involvement, discernment, and commitment. Each one of you, I am confident, will find a path to the joy and freedom of college life known best by feeling “all-in,” a moment of commitment to yourself, to others, to this place. Along the way, you will write the first draft of your first principles and then practice living by them.

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In fairness, I should be more specific about this process hastily outlined as an answer to what kind of student do you want to be? Otherwise, you may only remember my opening words as demonstrating how academic platitudes may drift everywhere and end up nowhere. In my spare time, going back to my own student days at St. Lawrence, I have long enjoyed reading spy novels and detective stories. The appeal is not so much about resolving criminal causation or grasping the intrigue of spycraft, but about the quality of thinking and complexity of emotions in the characters portrayed. It seems to me that each of you has a mystery to solve—the mystery of college and mystery of yourself in college. You have some detective work to consider—how things work, whom to admire, and why differences both matter and don’t matter. You have a plot to scan that may not become obvious for many chapters.

This summer I discovered a new detective hero, one that is in the same galaxy as Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolf, and, of course, Nancy Drew. I commend the fictional detective created by Canadian author Louise Penny called Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. He lives nearby in Quebec, just outside Montreal, in a village that somehow resembles Canton, but with more French spoken and less pizza consumed. When Armand Gamache is welcoming new agents of the Surete du Quebec into his circle, the training is deliberately sparse. But, like an oracle, he tells the aspirant men and women that there are only four statements leading to wisdom, leading to success as a detective, and he expects them to be completely absorbed in their meaning: “I don’t know. I was wrong. I am sorry. I need help.”

It seems to me, as you each face something yet unknown to you, as I have done myself many times, that the mystery of what kind of student you want to be may find its remedy by those same four pithy and wise sentences, easy to remember and vital to your fulfillment at St. Lawrence. We will never again look at your high school transcripts and test scores, because you’ve already proven to us that you are bright and accomplished. Being smart, however, is not enough in becoming a better student. This is true for the simple reason that many of us on campus, probably with less natural talent in academic, athletic, or artistic ability, nevertheless, still know a lot more than you do. We don’t hold that against you or over you, unless you try to fake it. Our neighbors in Quebec remind us that sometimes the best thing to say when stumped about a situation or by a direct question is “je ne sais quoi”—I don’t know. To be a better student, it’s important to remain curious enough to find out what you don’t yet know.

Another fact of life, coming our way once again, is that if we set out to do anything worthwhile, we will sometimes be wrong. The only way to avoid being wrong is never to decide or take action of any consequence, or to reduce the odds for being wrong by settling for the doing of only insignificant things. You are now at St. Lawrence to attempt great things. You are not here to create a mistake-free, diamond-bright perfect record. Coming to grips with being wrong—wrong in your assumptions about other people, wrong in your decisions in the use of time, or wrong in the standards of quality work—is the moment deep learning sinks in.

If it’s difficult to admit “I was wrong,” it is even more challenging to say “I’m sorry.” While the two phrases are naturally coupled by the same impulses, they are different. To admit a mistake means we individually are taking responsibility for being wrong all on our own. To say, “I’m sorry” means we have realized that our mistake affects not only ourselves, but also someone else. Unspoken remorse is no better than speaking an untruth. Permit me a public confession, that as a college president I have times past counting expressed apologies when I have said or done the wrong thing. A better student finds the courage to speak up in the face of another person’s hurt, even the kind unintentionally inflicted by one of us.

No one can get through college without these basic tourist phrases that ultimately achieve better knowing, doing, and understanding. But the sentence, “I need help” may be the most important one to learn early on at St. Lawrence. You are, of course, at liberty here to refuse help—as we respect what our university philosophers and behavior scientists call personal “agency,” which is also to say, your individual rights are secure. We cannot make you do anything that we may recommend or provide. But it is important for me to note on this occasion that very few St. Lawrence graduates, perhaps none, have left this campus without uttering the words or their equivalent, “I need help.” That is our norm; no one needs to be alone when in need; the tyranny of perfection or the miscalculated pure form of self-reliance is not in the St. Lawrence soul.

Like a detective story, I’ve given you a few clues to solve the question of becoming a better student at St. Lawrence. “I don’t know. I was wrong. I’m sorry. I need help.” We’ve got a few years ahead of us to consider if this advice is any good or not. It will be up to each of you to affirm or reject these words as sufficient enough to make the class of 2021 something notably and forever special. From my years of experience, I’m confident you’ll solve the case and become better students.

William L. Fox
August 27, 2017