President’s Welcome for Family and Friends

New Student Orientation
Monday, August 26, 2019

It is so nice to see you all here; welcome Class of 2023! 

Before I begin my remarks, I want to recognize and thank the team in the Dean of College area, staff in facilities, computing and information services, communications, and many others who made this wonderful move-in and orientation week possible. A special shout out to Dean Alamo-Pastrana who has led with vision, energy, and responsiveness to put all the ideas into action. 

I am delighted to be getting to know you all soon. I live on campus and give several events in our house that students are invited to attend. I send an email to students every Sunday night, with brief reflections on the previous week and tidbits about upcoming fun events. So please read them. I will try to keep them short.

I also hold office hours on Sunday evenings and if you want to meet, simply email me and ask for a time.  Previous first year students have come with questions about academic life, an extracurricular activity or event they want to try, or more personal challenges.

My area of scholarship is global health, and I have worked in many parts of the world (China, the UK, Ghana, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Liberia, Cambodia, India). I always enjoy learning new things and meeting new people. I also enjoy chatting about US health care policy and have published widely on that topic. In college, I studied economics and art history, and I pretty much read everything I can—so honestly, it would be hard to find a topic I have no interest in. So, let’s talk!

A few thoughts as you take this huge step into being a college student.

To begin, it is hard to get through college without a few hiccups. In fact, if you have no problems at all, you may not be challenging yourself adequately. But fear not, we have lots of resources for you including your student fellow, your house advisor, your house fellow, your academic advisor, many deans, and even me.

In addition, even though you just got here, you are extremely important to Vassar. You make up more than 25% of the school, and we need your ideas and perspectives—whoever you are! You truly can shape the Vassar experience; so, please get involved. Some of your greatest teachers here will be your peers, so get to know people. That will happen by sharing your story and also listening to others’ stories with curiosity and humility

Both can be harder than they sound. It can be hard to share your story if you fear others may think negatively of any part of it. And goodness knows, today, with a short post or tweet, people can be disparaged, eviscerated, and condemned. 

And it can be difficult to listen to others’ stories or ideas if you really disagree with them. I was guilty of this this summer when a colleague sent me a book I wholeheartedly disagreed with, and to tell the truth, it was a slog to get through it. I kept getting repulsed by the argument and then distracted and had to stop. It took me three months to finish the book, and in the end, I have to admit there were some good points even if I disagreed with much of it.

What is the impact of this quickness to judge an idea, a person, or a group? It chills dialogue. It produces fear. It drives out curiosity and crowds in conformity. And in the college environment, such a culture would shut us off from each other and hence impede learning.

Happily, you have already shown yourselves to be curious and humble. We saw it in your application, and as Dean Sonya said to your parents yesterday, Admissions never makes a mistake. But let’s think what it takes to make a strong learning community, even if we are curious and humble. We have to allow others and ourselves to make mistakes without being judged or ostracized. We have to encourage each other to voice a minority opinion (play devil’s advocate), and we have to be quick to forgive and open to dialogue wherever it may lead.

So, even if you have an unpopular and new opinion, I hope you will not sit back but will instead you will engage with the community fully—both in speaking up and in listening to others carefully. You will learn more, have fun, and ultimately Vassar will be a better school for us all.

We have time ahead to get to know one another, so I will conclude my remarks with an important idea and value I hold. You and I and the many administrators who live on this campus live here together as adults. As peers. I am older and thus have more years of experience and, particularly, failures from which I have learned, so perhaps I have some knowledge and perspectives that will be helpful to you, but we are in fact all adults. You will not hear me refer to you as “kids” but rather as young adults, who have important perspectives and dreams worth engaging in full. This is a transformational time in your life—the transition from adolescence to young adulthood—and I feel honored and joyful to be here with you to share in the adventures to come.  

Thank you.

—Elizabeth H. Bradley, President, Vassar College