Student Welcome Remarks

Hello First Years!

So good to be here with you—WELCOME Class of 2026!

This promises to be a challenging and important year—in your lives, in Vassar’s development, and around the globe. We have all just come through more than two years of pandemic, and we continue to experience the persistent and lethal effects of racial and global inequities, uncertain economies, and the climate emergency. We have also seen tremendous acts of courage and generosity brought on by these crises, even as the historic divisions in this country continue to run deep. Your potential, our potential together, is unparalleled, and we are here to meet this moment.

A little bit about me and my role here at the College: I am beginning my sixth year as President, after decades at Yale University where I was Head of College for one of the residential colleges and directed the Yale global health program. Here, I am a professor of Science, Technology, and Society, and Political Science, and I have taught seminars in global health and global affairs. I am also a voracious reader. Most memorable books from this summer were: Why We Sleep, by Matthew Walker and American Dialogue: The Founders and Us, by Joseph Ellis. I think these were memorable to me because they both cut to the heart of something we all likely care about: finding peace!

Why We Sleep imparts neuroscientific knowledge and wisdom about the evolutionary reasons for sleep and what it confers—with surprising facts like every living thing sleeps (including bacteria, including dolphins, including migrating birds). Why? Through the act of sleeping, we consolidate our memories and also detoxify difficult experiences, separating memories of experiences from the emotions around those experiences. Also, Walker describes that during sleep, the brain re-orders itself and prepares for the next waking day of activity. People who do not sleep adequately are more likely to misperceive reality, and the bias is interesting. They tend to become unduly suspicious of others, presuming bad motives and being hypervigilant about what might be going wrong. By the end of the book, I was convinced that an 8-hour night of sleep is fundamental to our personal wellbeing, and more so our social wellbeing—we might say it is integral to peace itself!

Which brings me to the second book, American Dialogue: The Founders and Us. It turns out this book was also largely about searching for peace, or balance, amid conflict. Say what you will about the author, who has misled students with overstated claims in the classroom; however, this Pulitzer-prize winning historian argues that the root of “the American way” is “dialogue” and that democracy has always meant conflict and disagreement. The author illustrates this through in-depth research on interactions among the Founders and subsequent political leadership. In the end, the author argues that it is not the values themselves but rather the recurring (through the ages) dialogue about the values that forms the basis of peace in a society and that every generation struggles with these conflicts.

The two books share for me a common theme about pursuing peace—on an individual level and as a social value. At the individual level, peace requires us to relive (albeit while we sleep) our experiences in a way that neutralizes them through an inner dialogue that allows us to integrate tough experiences and emotions. At the social level, peace requires voicing differences and staying in dialogue, even if agreement does not emerge. This theme seems relevant for those starting college: to get the most out of all the enriching differences and opportunities around you, first you need to get your sleep! And second, we are called to keep dialogue alive. These personal and social practices hold the promise of productive and peaceful growth as individuals and as a community.

Here is a little more about me. I live on campus with my husband John, and guess what? Today is our 36th wedding anniversary! I met him on the first day of school at the University of Chicago—so watch out. You never know who is sitting near you!

Living on campus is wonderful not only because it is so beautiful here but also because I enjoy having students over to the President’s House regularly to talk and interact. We have three adult children, all done with college and working, so we are empty nesters now—and we really enjoy sharing our house with students. I have office hours every Sunday night, which means any student can come and talk to me one-on-one about pretty much anything. Just email me ahead of time to sign up for a time. And you will receive an email every Sunday night from me with thoughts about the week ahead and the week past.

Last, and I want to be clear about this: we will live here together as adults. I am an adult and you are adults. I may be older and hence have more failures from which I have learned, but we are all adults. This means you have much independence and ability to explore and try out new ideas, activities, and ways of living. And because we are sharing this community, we are mutually dependent. Our actions are interconnected. This is exciting because we will learn from each other, and it also means that our individual actions affect the broader community and vice versa. My hope for this year is that we will strengthen many capacities—the capacity to think outside the box, to see the world from new perspectives, to care for one another in new ways, and to trust in community. These are bedrock skills that are fundamental to a liberal arts education and will equip us to lead meaningful lives together.

I am delighted to be here to share this time with you. Please take care of yourselves and each other, read my emails, and enjoy your Vassar journey!