Maureen Collins Zupan '72, P'09, Chair of the Board of Trustees
August 31, 2015
A special welcome to the Classes of 2019 and also to the new members of the faculty and staff. You are beginning the first year of your formal association with HWS and I am beginning the last year of mine as I finish my time on the Board of Trustees and as its Chair. 47 years ago I attended my freshman Convocation and now I have the great privilege of making this year’s Convocation Address. While my comments are directed to the Classes of 2019, I hope the rest of you find value in them.
Signing the matriculation book, shaking hands with President Gearan, being greeted by your Deans, and now this, the ceremony that marks the start of the academic year: all of it means that you are now officially Hobart and William Smith students.
I would guess it feels pretty good. It took a lot of hard work to get here. You did it! You are here! You made it through the first day of classes…you have started college!
I hope you feel good about that…but I also hope you feel UNcomfortable. And if you don’t yet feel uncomfortable, I hope I can convince you over the next few minutes to get uncomfortable for the rest of your college career…for the rest of your life.
You see…if you cruise through the next four years sticking with what you already know…what you already understand…things that come easy to you…knowledge that doesn’t challenge your beliefs… people you already know you agree with…you will graduate from these Colleges no smarter and no wiser than you are today. I know because I nearly did just that when I was a student.
Some background: I am the oldest of six children…the daughter of a NYC cop…the first person in my extended family to go to college. I didn’t even know how to go about applying. I applied to Yale, Fordham, Georgetown. They wrote back to me, saying they didn’t accept women. I had NO idea that there was such a thing! Luckily my guidance counselor steered me to a small liberal arts school in Upstate New York. The decision to attend was helped by a generous financial aid package. Here are the actual pages of calculations that my parents did in 1968 trying to figure out if they could afford to send me here. The annual room/board/tuition was just under $3000 …my financial aid covered all but $300 of that. In 1968 that was a real stretch for my family.
This campus was a different place in the late 60’s...different because there are buildings that weren’t here...different because there were rules…lots of rules (for example, if a woman left her dorm after 7pm, she had to sign out, saying where she was going…and she had to be back in her room by 11 pm on weeknights); no coed anything, in fact, no men in women’s dorms and no women in men’s dorms, ever; women lived and ate their meals on the hill in the dining hall in the basement of Comstock, served by Hobart waiters; Hobart students preparing for a career in the military practiced their marching on the Quad; all first year women took a Phys Ed class called Freshman Fundamentals in which we were taught how to walk in heels like ladies; and all freshmen were supposed to wear a beanie (here’s mine!) until the football team scored its first touchdown….and it was a very, very bad year for the football team.
Within two years, everything changed. There was an active anti-war movement on campus…those archaic dorm rules were gone, along with the beanies…the curriculum had been upended…there was huge national publicity about a riot on campus…relationships with Geneva were dismal…and men who flunked out were drafted almost immediately into the military and sent to Viet Nam where thousands of my generation were killed in a war the US eventually lost.
I used the change in curriculum rules…which basically allowed us to graduate as long as we took 35 courses, almost no matter what they were…I used that change to avoid classes that made me uncomfortable in favor of what came easy to me: math, chemistry and physics. And it worked. I ended up graduating Phi Beta Kappa, Magna cum Laude…but without the full education I should have had. It wasn’t until almost the end of my senior year that I took an English class. We had to write a ten page paper. I spent all term writing that paper, while many of my classmates were able to do it in a week or less. It was the hardest work I ever did here. But it also was my most consequential course because by being forced to write, I learned to write, and it eventually became easier to write, all of which benefitted me in my career and in life…even more, frankly, than the math that I love to this day. Until that course, I had stayed comfortable in my coursework…and got great grades (well, except for the “D” in Freshman Fundies)…but I missed out on the opportunity to discover new intellectual passions. Don’t make my mistake.
My class, the class of 1972, was one that thrived on discomfort. We never stopped challenging the norms of the campus and of society. We were leaders in the anti-war movement…the women’s movement…and the civil rights movement. We demanded change in the country, the world and on campus. When we were getting ready to graduate, we told the administration that we wanted to take over the programming for the commencement ceremony or we would boycott it. We marched in as one class, not separated by college, and did it to the Beatles “Let It Be.” We had the first student speaker, now an important commencement tradition. We awarded diplomas to each other, announcing the next person’s name and handing them their diploma, because we thought we had learned so much from each other and wanted to recognize that. The minutes of that Board of Trustees meeting the following Fall reported “The campus is much quieter now that the Classes of 1972 have graduated.” We were a class that created discomfort.
My challenge to you is to be uncomfortable. Start right now. At my convocation, the speaker said look to the left, look to the right, one of you won’t be here next year. That was a terrible way to start college! But I want you to do something similar. Classes of 2019, look to the left, look to the right…past the people sitting near you. Pick out someone you don’t know. Go find them at the end of convocation…go have dinner with them…and when you do, pick a table in Saga that is far from where you usually sit.
You see: you didn’t come here just to learn facts…to acquire information…you came here to be part of a community of people…professors…Deans…advisors…coaches… staff…fellow students…people who want to help you become an educated person…become wiser…have worlds of experiences…and prepare to lead lives of consequence.
There are people who came here before you who have had those lives of consequence. A common element is that they did so by first being uncomfortable, about their journey, their challenges, maybe about their fear of failure. I want to tell you about some of them…because they are YOUR history now.
Almost 200 years ago, Hobart College was founded as Geneva Medical College. A plucky woman named Elizabeth Blackwell decided she wanted to be a doctor, at a time when there were no female doctors in the US. She applied to 22 medical colleges, and only Geneva accepted her, but in a non traditional way. Because her application was so outrageous, the Dean had put it up for a vote of the students. Those students thought it was a gag and decided to retaliate by unanimously voting to accept her. And she showed up! Imagine how uncomfortable SHE was! …but if you look closely at the statue on the Hobart Quad you will see her words: “I cannot but congratulate myself on having found at last the right place for my beginning."
HERE’S ANOTHER. In the early 20th century, Hobart College was having some financial problems. Lore has it that Geneva business man William Smith offered to donate $500,000 if the college admitted women. Hobart rejected the offer. So in 1908, he established William Smith College adjacent to Hobart College. Over time, it became a coordinate arrangement…but you likely wouldn’t recognize it: the two colleges shared facilities and teachers, but classes were conducted in duplicate. Women students weren’t even allowed on the Hobart Quad. Eventually the impracticality of the arrangement caused changes. Classes became coed; commencements were held jointly; women could cross the Quad, but had to wear skirts when doing so. The coordinate model was evolving.
For many years that coordinate system has allowed the Colleges to push the envelope on societal changes. When women weren’t expected and certainly not encouraged to have careers, our two student governments ensured that women always had a place at the table for governance issues and leadership opportunities. Men knew that to be true here…and went out into the world expecting it to be true there. Women demanded it here…and went out into the world demanding it there. When I started my career and for many years after, I was often the only woman in the room or the first woman promoted to higher levels of responsibility. Because I was used to men and women working together here…and separately…it never felt unusual. Sure, it was uncomfortable sometimes, but because of my experience here, it was what I expected: to be given opportunity and to be respected for my capabilities.
The coordinate system keeps evolving…as society evolves…even today. No longer is gender binary, without change. It is fluid. What better community than ours to explore what that means…what it can mean to society…how we can help society continue to evolve.
So that’s a little ancient history. What about some more recent examples of people who found themselves uncomfortable.
Bill Scandling, Class of 1948 and the most generous donor in the history of the Colleges. He and two classmates took over the meal service for Hobart when it when bankrupt. They were JUNIORS. Talk about being uncomfortable! Their classmates certainly weren’t going to withhold criticism of the food! Those three young men parlayed that gig into the Saga Food Service that eventually serviced 458 institutions.
Celeste Lopes, Class of 1980, legally blind since she was three…nothing she has done is her life has been easy…after HWS, she graduated from law school and now is the Deputy Chief of the Civil Rights Bureau in the King’s county DA’s Office. She said that at HWS supportive faculty gave her a lifelong appreciation of optimism and confidence. She never says “I can’t”.
And because we are in front of Stern Hall, I must mention my friend Herbert Stern, Class of 1958. Sometimes you will find yourself in an uncomfortable situation because of who you are – your values, your heritage, your religion, your perspective. Know that you don’t have to give up who you are and what you love in order to succeed. As one of the few Jewish students on campus, Herb certainly recalls sometimes feeling uncomfortable and isolated. When he was here, all students were even required to attend Chapel! He went on to have a storied legal career, with books written about his exploits. From his uncomfortable experiences came a hunger to succeed…and years later, the gift to fund the construction of the academic building behind me that bears his name.
So, you are here to have Worlds of Experience and to prepare to Lead Lives of Consequence. My challenge to you is to do so by being UNcomfortable. You are going to start by meeting that person you just looked for…you are going to do it by taking some courses you think you couldn’t possibly like or benefit from…you are going to do it by joining a club or activity that you have never tried before…you are going to spend time getting to really know at least one of your professors each term…you are going to SOMETIMES sit at a different table in the dining hall, with people you don’t know…you are going to partner with members of the Geneva community to apply what you’re learning in the classroom to the real world…you are going to leave campus for a term to immerse yourself in a community someplace in the world where YOU will be the person who is “different”...and in May 2019, you will proudly walk across the stage in the front of Coxe Hall knowing that you are a more educated, wiser person.
I’m a product of an HWS coordinate, liberal arts education…a proud member of the William Smith Class of 1972…and even prouder to be Chair of your Board of Trustees. I’m proud to have married a Hobart classmate…to have two brothers-in-law who also graduated from Hobart…and to have three sisters, a daughter and a niece who graduated from William Smith. There have been members of my family on this campus every decade since the 1960’s and now the tenth member is a sophomore. I promised not to embarrass him by singling him out or by saying that his name is Nick Dosky. So I won’t. But I hope I just made HIM uncomfortable.
Here’s to a great academic year: full of learning…growth…and uncomfortableness.