President’s Welcome to the Class of 2021

New Student Orientation
Monday, August 21, 2017

Welcome! It so nice to see everyone here. I want to give a special thanks to the deans, faculty, administrators and staff, and students who have made this day possible for us all. A huge amount of thought and time went into thinking through orientation and I am delighted to kick off the week with a welcome to the class of 2021!

We have a lot in common as this is my first year at Vassar too. I arrived about 40 days ago and spent August getting acclimated. You are in for a real treat. This is a beautiful campus, and I can safely say that every day something has happened that has never happened to me before – and I have been learning!

So – what is Vassar like?

I had read the websites, and catalogues, but truly living here over the summer and meeting faculty and summer students, I now have a visceral sense of this institution and I wanted to share my early perspectives:

First, Vassar is intellectual. I expected my first student meeting in the house to be a get-to-know you, small talk type meeting, but no, not at all. It was immediately a dive-in to some the most complicated issues of our time – free speech, inequity, history, religion, advances in science. It was challenging, fun, and taught me about the depth and breadth of our collective intellects on this campus.

Second, Vassar is creative. You will see the influence of the arts and creative expression all over the campus and in my role over the summer I saw it among the alumnae/i. The events the alumnae/i put on to welcome me ranged from a moving evening about architecture and diversity at the National Museum for African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, to a viewing of the Chihuly glass blowing exhibition at the New York Botanical Garden, to a celebration of Edna St. Vincent Millay, a Vassar graduate who won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry the first year it was offered, 1923. The celebration was about poetry, drama, gender, and protest. The show was spell binding.

Third, Vassar is authentic. The educational enterprise believed deeply in going to the source and learning from those primary sources. I asked about the landscaping in the Quadrangle thinking how it came to be common space – and instead of getting a short answer, I was directed to the archives of minutes over seventy plus years of discussion among faculty and trustees about the landscaping. There is nothing superficial about how this landscape is put together – from the meandering paths to the huge trees – it reflects and enables contemplative thought as individuals and collective gathering as community. When you can, check out the Special Collections in the library; they are quite something.

Enough about our culture, what will you learn here?

At Vassar, you will learn concrete skills depending on what you take: how to speak a new language, write computer code, research primary sources for a history paper, differentiate objective functions in economics, write fiction, direct films, win athletic events (by the way coaches here are part of the faculty), and a myriad of other academic skills. You will also learn more about how to learn, a life skill.

But wrapped around all that, most importantly, you will discover more about who you really are and how you fit in the changing world around you. I talk about this as “learning in and from community.” This discovery will come in piecemeal fashion, a little at a time. Through trial and error, through triumphs and disappointments, through both trying something new and sticking with the same old thing. But when you emerge from this liberal arts education, you will be changed; we will all be changed.

Learning about yourself and your interactions with the world around is the hardest and most important courses you will take. You might be wondering, how do I do well in that course? I have some thoughts on this.

First, spend some time alone. The vast, meandering walks of the arboretum that is Vassar allow and encourage this, particularly if you leave your phone behind. You can read poetry engraved in benches, stop under enormous and less enormous trees, find the Shakespeare Garden, and just let your mind wander to where it wants. Let your feelings well up and be present.

Second, spend time with others. This will require you practice the art of respectful dialogue, and nonviolent protest when you have to. This is more than just “tolerating” others but rather engaging with others. See differences as an opportunity to learn. Speak up, disagree, but stay at the table. Criticize ideas but not the people who hold them. Stay strong despite disagreement, despite having the minority voice sometimes, and despite being challenged by the minority voice other times.

Every person in this class, no matter where you come from and no matter what you have done before matters to our collective future and contributes to our common project. You not only belong here, but we want you here.

As we stretch together and as the divisions of the outside world press in us, we will no doubt face challenges to our own community right here. When we hear views that we think are incorrect and wrongheaded, let us listen and withhold judgment. Let’s take a breath and think: “Maybe I can learn here,” –without putting undue burden on the other person.

This is not being passive; this is listening with an open mind, with the possibility that you may change your mind. When all of us do that, we become together not only learners but teachers of each other.

As I said in the beginning, the Vassar community is intellectual, creative, and authentic. My hope for you is that learning in and from community equips you to be agents of positive progress here and in the world.

In closing, I hope some of what I have said will be helpful to you in the days and weeks ahead, but I know my words will be displaced to some degree by all that you will be absorbing here. I take some comfort in knowing that I will be living here with you—not as a parent or supervisor—but as another adult in the community. I am older so have had more time (to experience failures) and hence my experience may be helpful to you. Despite that difference and difference in roles, we are nonetheless living here together as adults in community.

I wish you the very best at Vassar and am so grateful to be with you here today as we begin this journey of building a new community, our community, together.

—Elizabeth H. Bradley, President, Vassar College