Matriculation Speech 2015: Minding the Mail in a College of Letters | St. Lawrence University President's Office

Matriculation Speech 2015: Minding the Mail in a College of Letters

In bringing the class of 2019 together for the first time, in the simultaneous presence of faculty and families, this becomes a special hour to mark in St. Lawrence history. The moment of your matriculation traces an unbroken line to the year 1856, and every year since, when the whole College of Letters and Science originally gathered, lived, and studied inside Richardson Hall. We meet today, as St. Lawrence classes before us have done, including my own St. Lawrence class many years before you were born, “to believe the future in,” as Robert Frost would summarize the purpose of our assembly.

We are acutely mindful that this first day is not the first time you have entered a new community of experience. And yet, this time is and ought to be different for a variety of both shared and personal reasons. This time draws a line of demarcation between before and after because it is packed like a stuffed duffle bag with a bundle of feelings, many of which are unfamiliar and uninterpreted. I am not overstating the reality that this is a defining hour for all of us, particularly the individuals in the class of 2019.

It may have gone unexpressed in your travels this summer, but this hour triggers powerful, deeply sentimental memories for your parents. And it exposes each of you to the excitement born of a new, ultimately positive, uncertainty. I say this with all the confidence of a college president who has observed many first days of college classes over numerous years; but I also speak with the authority of my own lived experience in identical moments as a father. A transition begins today that is sometimes harder than expected, sometimes better, but, at the very least, it will likely hold some interesting surprises or insights about ourselves. It may also help to hear about other families in equivalent days of past years.
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In my own case, our daughter went off to a college, very similar in every way to St. Lawrence. She was well prepared with her aspirations intact and her confidence aligned with the prospect of independence; this combination was securely coupled with habits of responsibility. It was perhaps my own confidence as a parent that was being tested in the early days of her first year. From the time she stepped on a school bus for kindergarten through all the days of the next decade, I would say to her in parting, something less difficult than “good-bye” and less trite than “see you later.” I would wave, she would shrug, and I called out “Have fun, be smart.” I still say those same words now and again, even though she is well established as an accomplished professional in California.

So, after not hearing from her for several days after the time of delivery at college, I called. As you probably anticipated, her phone rang at a bad time. She was right in the midst of happy, rapid-fire conversation with her roommate and their new friends on the floor, the kind of crowd buzz that when you’re trying to catch a flight actually drowns out the airline agent calling people to the gate, often resulting in the close call of missing a plane.

I thought to extricate myself gracefully from a disjointed conversation occurring at an awkward, non-urgent point in her college day, I would sign off in a teasing way because I felt much ignored and very uncool as a dad getting in the way. Instead of invoking the dad code, “Have fun, be smart,” I said, “Get sun, take art.” “Dad, are you ok? Don’t worry, we’ve already been out hiking and I’ve got great classes in Italian, Econ, Philosophy, and Psych.” Next time, I realized, the smarter attempt would be to write a letter. To parents, there is a small lesson to be taken from my example. Let me say about these early days, that your sons and daughters are thinking about you and paying attention, in their way, most of the time.
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Before St. Lawrence became best known as a residential, independent liberal arts college, it was, as you may have noted by my passing historical reference, officially called a “college of letters and science.” Those exact terms were still in the admissions literature up to my own student days on this campus. Everyone can understand why a university must offer science courses, but what was intended by the name “college of letters?” In the broadest sense of our subtitle’s original meaning, the study of letters was not about long-hand messages that went back and forth within the postal system. Rather, in a college of letters, anything that was written, drawn, expressed, sung, or printed could be the subject of inquiry. A person “of letters” defined a scholar.

And yet, while learning to write and read letters, the kind that people used to send each other routinely, may seem quaintly anachronistic to you students today, I think some remnant of appreciating the value of written correspondence offers a source of guidance, inspiration, and reassurance as you face new things in the first year of college. Perhaps I am simply suggesting that you write a letter home this fall, the old fashioned way that describes the weather, the day, the dinner, and the class assignment. If you want to gush a thank you to the folks at home, that would be a nice touch, too.

In complete disclosure, you should know that as a historian by profession and practice, I once made a career of reading other people’s mail. I spent countless long days reading boxes and files of correspondence from centuries and decades ago. Old letters are not dead letters. They hold insights in how you should “believe the future in” for yourselves. Just because our current, universally possessed communications technology is so fast and convenient, with abundant bandwidth on campus, the appreciation of typed or hand-written letters, nevertheless, ought to become one of your relevant tools for composing a college experience, one of purpose and real-time reflection.

When the Harvard philosopher William James was a young man away at college, he wrote home to describe both his circumstances and his personal goal. “We are only about twelve in the laboratory, so that we have a very cosy time. I expect to have a winter of ‘crowded’ life. I can be as independent as I please, and want to live regardless of the good or bad opinion of everyone.” Those words were written in the first days of his first college year in September 1861. Something equivalent could come from a St. Lawrence student in the fall of 2015, but you have to write it down or it’s an unlettered and unattached thought.

About fifteen years later when William James began his career as a professor, he published a letter looking back on his education to note the critical difference between students in classes who “are edified rather than awakened.” That phrase in that letter captures the essence of what we intend for you, if you allow it, so that you leave college as James once hoped for his students, awakened, not merely edified, with “a wider openness of mind and a more flexible way of thinking than special technical training can generate...”

When John Quincy Adams was in college there was a six month interval in which he and his sister Nabby exchanged over 225 letters. The Adams family could have become famous just for their letter writing even if they had never produced two U.S. presidents. As a father, John wrote Abigail in October 1775, “It should be our care to elevate the minds of our children and exalt their courage to accelerate and animate their industry and activity; to excite in them the habitual contempt of meanness, abhorrence of injustice and inhumanity, and an ambition to excel in every capacity, faculty, and virtue.” I’m happy to continue calling St. Lawrence a college of letters if we can agree that the words of an old letter still carry immediacy.
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Today, I receive many more letters by email than I do by postal delivery, but I still write and receive letters in forms that the James and Adams families would recognize. In May, the parents of a graduating senior wrote a long letter about their daughter’s St. Lawrence experience as the “gift of a lifetime; one that has [formed] and will continue to shape her future because of where she’s been and where it will allow her to go.”

The sample of a letter in my possession that I share last is from Natalie Onyango, one of my friends in the class of 2015. Her home continent is Africa, so she crossed land, ocean, and land to become a student here. She remembered the day we had lunch together when I encouraged her to try something boldly new, like learning to ski. She confessed in her letter that she never took my advice literally, but wanted me to know that she “did some pretty amazing things with [her] time on campus.”

She writes, “I showed up at a foreign language class my freshman year with absolutely no prior experience and for some reason ended up studying abroad in Spain and having full professional fluency by graduation.” Natalie cited this example to explain her philosophy of being a Laurentian: “I embraced the uncertainty of letting my path unfold rather than restrict myself to what I was good at doing or already knew very well. These unfamiliar paths have shaped me, taught me a lot about life and myself [and eventually informed] my own interpretation of what a college education should be about.”

St. Lawrence University is now yours to claim as a place for doing difficult things well, for creating lasting bonds of friendship, and for joining a distinctive set of traditions, including today’s ceremony. You will write a lot—whether its equations or essays—and you will speak often. But if I impart only one word of practical advice in my greeting, then sometime soon, put the pen (or keyboard) to paper, buy a “Forever” stamp, post your missive, and then check your mailbox for a reply. We continue to be at St. Lawrence, by tradition and old habit, a college of letters. When sound and speech yield to silence, when the volume is turned low, the written word remains.