President Bradley Welcomes Families of 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. I also want to thank my husband, John, who is here and a terrific support. A huge amount of thought and time went into planning orientation and I am delighted to kick off the week with a welcome to the parents of the class of 2021!

I have a lot in common with your children—let’s call them young adults—as this is my first year at Vassar too. I arrived about 40 days ago and spent August getting acclimated. They are in for a real treat.

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 impressions:

Vassar is intellectual; it is creative, and it is authentic. You will see these hallmarks of our culture everywhere. Students and faculty question the status quo, use primary sources, and say what they think. I could go on and on about our culture, but the most important aspect is the main reason we are here—“to learn in and from community.”

You may be wondering, what will they learn here?

At Vassar, they will learn concrete skills depending on what they 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. Ideally, these skills are what help them get that first job.  They will also learn more about how to learn, a skill that is critical for a meaningful life of thoughtful inquiry and for effective engagement in a diverse society. If the alumni/ae that I have met so far are any indication, our students emerge from this campus as highly motivated lifelong learners.

But wrapped around all that, the student will discover more about who they are and how they fit into the changing world around them. 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 they emerge from this liberal arts education, they will be changed; we will all be changed.

Learning about themselves and their interactions with the world around them is the hardest and most important course they will take. You might be wondering, how do they do well in that course? I will share thoughts on that with them later this evening, but because you as parents, guardians, families, and friends have a role in their success in this course, I have some thoughts for you too!

For how many is this your first child to go to college away from home? For how many is this the last – you are empty nesting? My husband John and I are empty nesting this year too! We shed a common tear.

I have lived with students this age for years, and have had three of my own; through this, I have seen hundreds—maybe even thousands—of parents deal with these transitions. And it can be hard. But also, it can be very gratifying.

What can you do that helps? I am no psychologist, but I speak from empirical experience watching this process year after year.

First, let your child grow up and be independent—even if they are doing things you think are wrong such as not studying enough, not sleeping enough, not taking the right courses. Bite your tongue and let them make their own decisions.

Eventually, they will call—upset—and you will want to save them. Who wouldn’t? “They are suffering; you are the parent; solve the problem!” That is a natural reaction for many of us. But we have another option. That is to merely “be present” with your loved one as they learn and go through whatever will come.

It is tough to sit by and watch, but in my experience, this approach very much helps the student and, in the end, helps you as well. They need you. They need you to love them and listen and accept them whatever happens. They do not need you to solve their problems. They must do that themselves now.

Second, embrace the new relationship with your young adult that is now developing. Reserve judgment. Your relationship will be different than it has been. They will be exposed to new ideas, new ways of thinking, and new perspectives. That can be challenging back home. But this is what learning is. My advice is to stay at the table and keep talking—not to convince each other, but rather to understand each other, even if you agree to disagree. And remember what we all know but do tend to forget in the heat of disagreement: criticize the ideas but not the person or people who hold them. This will help your family and community grow together as your children move swiftly out of adolescence and into young adulthood.

The patterns of college are quite remarkable in my experience. First years are very excited and busy, busy, busy meeting new people and being open to everything. Sophomores start to question everything and can get quite cynical and down—known as the sophomore slump. Juniors, happily, often find something—a class, an area of study, a project—that simply goes “click” and they have better direction; often this moment (unpredictable when it will happen) is clarifying for students as they form their next direction. And gain mastery in some area and start to feel more “in their skin,” confident and ready for bigger challenges.

Back to first-years—where we are today. It begins. The excitement, the nerves, the fears, the joys. It is all here.

You have done tremendous work to get your young adults here and I hope you are very proud of them. I know we are and will continue to be.

In closing, I want you to feel confident in our commitment to each of the students in the class of 2021. Our faculty, our advisors, our Deans, and I all join to undertake this great privilege of working with and supporting your children in their journey. Thank you for sharing them with us for these four very special years as they shed their childhoods and begin their young adulthood years together.

—Elizabeth H. Bradley, President, Vassar College