Welcome, New Students!
Congratulations to all of the new students of Trinity College!
Who are you, the newest members of our great Trinity family?
We know some data about you: you hail from 18 states and the District of Columbia, and you were born in countries around the globe: El Salvador, Nicaragua, Aruba, Mexico, Haiti, Sierra Leone, Malawi, Vietnam, France. You are Roman Catholic and Apostolic and African Methodist and Baptist and Buddhist and Lutheran and Muslim. You play ice hockey and field hockey and basketball and volleyball and soccer and tennis and softball and diving and swimming and you run track and field. You have been student leaders and volunteers and poets and members of honor societies and science contest winners and world travelers. You aspire to be lawyers and doctors and psychologists and biologists and teacher and social workers and women who will raise the standards for your children and communities.
We also know a little something about you from your essays. Each year I read every essay submitted by the first year and transfer students, and I like to share some of those thoughts more broadly. Now, before you panic, I will be quoting some of you this morning, but not by name, and I’ve taken care to be sure that personally identifying information is not made public. The several quotes from your essays that I will use to illustrate larger principles really reflect commonly shared thoughts and experiences.
Many of you have written quite eloquently about your determination to be the first person in your family to graduate from college; in a few cases, you are already the first person in your family to graduate from high school. For some of you, this distinction has also come with some struggle about the role and rights of women in your families and cultures.
A student writes:
“I would like to be the first female in my family to achieve a college degree and have the right to make my own adult decisions regarding my career and my way of living.”
“I come from a very diverse culture where it is said that a woman’s place is in the house… I have always ignored and fought against that…”
In your act of coming to college, you express solidarity with women around the world for whom the idea of any education, let alone a higher education, is an elusive dream:
“I want to …persuade the world that women are equal, and also prove… that it is possible for a Pakistani Muslim woman to be able to stand up on her own two feet.”
But you also cherish your cultures and religious beliefs are very important to you. From an article by a student published in Azizah, a magazine for Muslim women, commenting on the reverence that the Qur’an commands for mothers: “Today, women have achieved great success in the corporate world, politics, commerce and even in professional sports, refuting the notion that women do not have the temperament or the capacity to succeed outside the home. Still these accomplishments cannot overshadow the great achievements of successful mothers…”
You write beautifully and movingly of the central role of mothers in your lives.
“Through my mother’s teachings I have learned to be consistent and strong because to obtain something good and lasting in life is very hard. Seeing her work herself so hard just to keep me in school and give me a decent life has made me realize just how much I want to be like her.”
You are a remarkably diverse class, and you have reflected in many ways on issues of race, language, cultural difference, religion and nationality. You have probed the meaning of one of the great tragedies of our time, September 11:
“In the aftermath of tragedy, we cannot be sure what the future has in store. We can, however, work hard at improving our race relations. Once the physical remains of the buildings are removed and the families of victims start to feel normal again, problems between the many races here in America may still occur. Now is the time when we should strive to learn about other cultures and other religions….”
Our Trinity family suffered many losses on September 11, and we will be remembering them and all of the victims when we gather in a few weeks to commemorate that terrible day. Through our courses in history and intelligence studies and international affairs and theology and sociology and other subjects, we also try to understand the nature of this conflict, the presence of evil in human life, and the means by which our nation and all freedom loving nations in the world can find solutions. We also strive for that level of human understanding that respects the different beliefs and cultures that should not be in conflict with each other. The great religions of the world — Christianity, Islam, Judaism — share profoundly similar morals and beliefs, and should not be seen as hostile to each other. Trinity is a place of faith, and we celebrate and support your many faith expressions, and we expect every person here to respect and value the different cultures and religious beliefs that make this community so strong.
Trinity is also a place of freedom, and we live by the essential American freedoms of thought, speech and religious belief. In the last few weeks in this nation, we have seen a somewhat ridiculous, but all the same ominous, attempt by some groups to prevent college students from reading a book about Islam. This happened at the University of North Carolina, where the first year students were asked to read a book about the Qur’an as part of their orientation. Now, the whole point of a college education is to learn about things that you don’t know, to open your minds to cultures and beliefs and experiences that you may never have encountered before, because such openness to new things is the first step toward true knowledge and wisdom. Because the University of North Carolina faculty knows that many Americans know very little about Islam, except from the often-inaccurate reports in the news, they felt it was appropriate at this time to require their freshmen to read the book.
But an outside group brought a lawsuit to try to prevent the university from requiring the freshmen to read this book, all of this in the name of Christianity — some of us Christians find this interpretation frightening. Many of our precious freedoms in this nation are already in danger as a result of the war on terrorism, and the attempt to tell a college what may or may not be taught on campus is a profound insult to our way of life in America. Fortunately, the university won the case. But we must be vigilant, because the threats to our way of life are not just from outside of this country. Some people in these United States, including in our government, would destroy our freedom in the name of saving it. We cannot allow this to happen. Our affirmation of the fundamental freedoms and rights of humanity is present each day on this campus in all that we do.
You have the freedom to be yourselves, and each one of you is a precious, unique individual with marvelous talents and some unusual insights into constructing lives of meaning.
One of your wrote:
“I regret not milking a cow when given the opportunity during a first grade field trip to a farm. Not many people would regret or remember a similar event because it’s not a hot conversation topic. But I still think back to that day. …I consider myself a unique person…I wonder if one day I will find someone who resembles me in my eccentricity.”
I dare say you’ll find that person right here this morning. It’s not eccentricity, however, but simply a celebration of your unique self.
“Every time I step out into an athletic arena I feel myself come alive with something I do not have in me at any other time. It is a confidence, a sense of pride within myself that I achieve when I compete athletically. Athletics is a way for me to liberate myself from my humdrum world and test my own limits.
Your lives have been challenging. You are older than your years in many cases.
One student who immigrated from another country writes of her struggle to learn English, and in the midst of her transition here her mother died. She writes,
“Even when it seemed so hard and frustrating to be in a new country, I never gave up. At times, I felt extremely overwhelmed with my responsibilities to care for my mother and maintain my grades. Yet I knew in order to make my parents proud, I had to persevere. I have to make my father’s dream a reality because that is the foremost reason why we are in the United States…”
Another student writes:
“Life has made me the woman that I am now. I know that I have the courage to fasten my seatbelt and hang on for the ride of my life because I am an independent woman”
Amid all of these disparate, difficult and uplifting experiences, you all are finding a common bond in your quest for education.
And why do you come to college today?
One student wrote the answer very eloquently, in her own language:
“El Sueno Americano….The American Dream”
You dream of liberation from lives that have been, in some cases, profoundly oppressed by conditions of poverty or violence or neglect. In other cases, where you have only heard of such conditions, you dream of liberation for the children and people who suffer oppression, and you dream that your work will contribute to such freedom. You now sit side by side, those who have dreamed of liberation from and those who aspire to liberation for, and you will grow together through the years, learning from each other, tempering your idealism with reality, leavening your reality with vision and hope.
You describe your dreams vividly:
“After obtaining a degree in psychology, I plan to work and deal with children, helping them understand their emotional and psychological problems…
“When I die I want people to remember me not for how much money I had or what types of grades I got, I want them to remember me for my kindness and how many people I helped. So instead of asking someone what they want to be when they grow up, ask who they want to be and how many people they want to affect positively…”
“Growing up in a house filled with African American women it saddens me to know that not a single one of them has had the opportunity to go to college. This affected me because I could see that their lives had been defined by their limited options…I hope to be the first in my family to graduate from high school so that I may better encourage my younger sisters to make education their priority as well…I refuse to be excluded from anything because of a limited education.”
“I especially enjoy my internship at children’s hospital… I love the spirit of the children. It amazes me that there are children with cancer who are still happy and are as lively as me. Then there are others who are not so happy, who are scared and afraid and don’t know what the next day holds for them…When I am with them I know more than ever that I want to be a pediatrician.
“I want people to see my talent and to look at me with astonishment”
As I read your aspirations, your hopes and dreams, I could not help but think of all of the women who have sat in this great Chapel before you. I have seen thousands of them, the young women like you, full of hope and promise on their first day. I have seen our seniors, resplendent in caps and gowns and hoods, marching down the aisle for the last time at baccalaureate mass on commencement weekend. I have seen our alumnae assembled here, women reaching across the decades whose experiences span the centuries. I have stood here to greet the 50th reunion classes for many years now, women who all had a first time to sit in this chapel, to gaze at that beautiful mosaic with its images of strong women, women who dreamed, like you, of lives of achievement and freedom, of lives of fidelity to values and passion for salvation for their children and families and communities.
Like all of those women who have come before you, to achieve all of your personal goals here at Trinity you will engage in the study of the “liberal arts,” which is the term we academics use for the group of subjects that includes history and philosophy and art and sociology and economics and mathematics and biology and all of the other subjects in the College of Arts and Sciences. The term “liberal” in the phrase “liberal arts” is not a political label. The word comes from the Latin word “liber” which means freedom. Studying the liberal arts helps to make you a free person, because education is the key to your opportunities, your growth, your power in the future.
Another very important part of your education here at Trinity is the cultivation of the life of honor. The Honor System is one of Trinity’s oldest and proudest traditions, and indeed, I cannot imagine the existence of Trinity without the Honor System. The fundamental principle of honor is quite simple: a person of honor chooses to do the right thing, all of the time, regardless of who is watching, with no concern for whether or not you will be “caught” doing something wrong. Honor is not about being “caught” because the honorable person does not do anything that would require apprehension. Honor also does not depend solely on what is written down to determine what is right or wrong. We do have certain rules and regulations set forth in our Student Handbook and elsewhere, because some written rules are necessary for order. But just because something is not written down does not mean that we don’t care about whether it’s right or wrong. If the conduct is wrong, immoral, dishonest, harmful to others, then the conduct is not permissible in the community of honor.
I should mention here quite plainly that cheating in any form is absolutely forbidden here, and that includes plagiarizing material for class assignments and papers. One of my saddest duties is when I have to dismiss a student from this college for cheating, because I feel then that she has completely missed the point of this education. What good is it if her transcript shows a good grade for a course if she is a thief, having stolen the good grade through cheating? Cheating, lying, stealing — these actions violate our deepest values here at Trinity, and we do not let a student continue at this college who offends our values. Honor is far more important than your transcript; your honor is your most important possession, and once you lose it, you will have a very hard time reclaiming it.
Now, you may be thinking, that sounds harsh, and college is hard. Grades do matter, because if I fail, I’ll lose my student loans and scholarship, my parents will be angry, maybe I won’t get into a good graduate school or my employer will be upset. Most importantly, if you don’t get good grades, you will be upset, because you want to do well. Of course. Grades do matter as a reflection of what you have truly learned. College is hard, and our faculty here at Trinity are very rigorous. You are expected to be serious students, to take the time required for study and analysis. You must attend class — let me be very clear on that point. You cannot possibly do well in college if you cut class. You have a good deal of freedom here, but if you abuse your freedom by skipping class, or not doing your homework every night, you will fail in your studies and then you will have to leave this wonderful place.
We have many people here to help you. The faculty are deeply dedicated to helping you to become successful students and even real scholars. Our administrative staff all want to cheer for you on graduation day, and they’ll be with you every step of the way. There’s no need to hesitate in asking for help. No question is out of line, no need is too small. Ask for help — and accept the help we have to offer. Believe me, if you take advantage of what we can give you here, you will be successful.
Let me say a word here to the parents and friends of our new students. You are her lifeline, you are the pillar of strength for her, always. We urge you to continue to be there for her, to listen, to support and encourage, to celebrate her accomplishments along the way. You are entrusting the next part of your daughter’s life and learning to us, and that is a profound responsibility for us.
We welcome your calls and visits, but there is one indulgence that I must ask of you as well. College is very different from high school in the level of the student’s independent responsibility for her own affairs. It’s the only way she can truly grow up. In most matters, we prefer to deal directly with the student, your daughter. We prefer this not out of any disrespect for you, but rather, it’s a very important teaching tool to help her become mature. If you solve all of her problems for her, if you intervene to advocate on her behalf in a matter that she should handle herself, then she’s losing a very important learning moment. You are always welcome to call me or the deans to discuss anything that you’re concerned about. But please know that sometimes when we talk with you we may get to a point where we’ll say, thank you for expressing your concern, but we will handle the matter directly with the student.
Now, conversely, I need the students to know this: we will speak with your parents if we get to a point where we feel that you cannot be successful here. This includes your conduct in the residence hall as well as your academic performance. If, after trying to help you, we feel that your behavior is not mature enough to benefit from a Trinity education, then we will have to let your parents know about that.
Of course, everyone is going to be so immersed in study and co-curricular activities that there simply won’t be time for anything like that to happen! Trinity and the city of Washington offer so many great opportunities for fun, for service, for learning, I hope you will take full advantage of everything this place has to offer.
105 years ago this week, a group of women who were also religious Sisters of Notre Dame went to the United States Congress and obtained a formal Act of Congress declaring the establishment of Trinity College. In some ways, they could not have been more different from you — they were white Catholic women who had taken permanent vows to live their lives in poverty, chastity and obedience. They wore full habits in the deep August heat, and they had no motor cars, no air conditioning, no email, no cell phones, no televisions, no bottles of Evian to get them through the morning. Perhaps you would think them quite old fashioned if you saw them that way in this Chapel this morning — and you would be wrong. Because they were in their day as modern as you are today. Even more so. What they did was positively revolutionary, even rebellious. They went against the conventional wisdom of the times. They scandalized some old right wingers who believed it was a heresy to propose that women could obtain a college education. They wrote letters to the bishops and cardinals making statements that I would find quite strong even today, proclaiming women’s right to an education equal to the best that men could have without restraint in that day. They said that women could do anything they wanted to do. They said it was wrong to presume that women should be less than all they could be.
Like you, these women had not yet been to college — and yet there they were, founding a great college.
Like you, these women did not let a few roadblocks stop them — they had no money, and they were criticized even publicly in newspapers. But like you, they were bold and brave and determined to do what they thought was right.
Like you, they believed ultimately in the power of education to change lives, and like you will be in the years ahead, they were highly successful. You are their heirs.
They are here today, our Founders. They are all around us. And they are looking at you, the Class of 2006 and all of our new students, and they are smiling upon you.
May you go forth today into your new lives at Trinity radiant with the smiles of our Founders. May you come to know the strength of their faith and the durability of their vision for you. May the blessings of the Trinity be with you in all of your studies and lives at Trinity, empowering your quest for knowledge, illuminating the pathway to wisdom, opening your minds and hearts to the charity and hope that are the true hallmarks of the well educated Trinity Woman.
Welcome, new students!