Leah Shafer

Associate Professor of Media & Society Leah Shafer
Faculty Address
August 27, 2018

Thank you, DeWayne, for the thoughtful introduction. Faculty, friends, honored guests, welcome! Welcome, William Smith students, and welcome, Hobart students! I am honored and humbled to be speaking to you here today. In this short address, I will offer you some thoughts on the value of a small liberal arts college education, some advice from graduating seniors to first years, and some advice from me, but before I get there, I want to invite you to experience and appreciate today. Right here and right now. This single moment in your life.

I invite everyone here to mark the occasion of Convocation 2018 with a few gestures. I’ll explain first and then give you a moment to follow my suggestions. My first suggestion is to take a selfie, and either keep it as a reminder of this day or post it somewhere on social media− #HWScolleges. Digital traces are ephemeral but they are also potentially infinite, so you will be committing an image of your anticipation, excitement and intensity to the ages. The second suggestion is to make a physical, personal connection with one of your classmates. Turn to someone you haven’t yet met, introduce yourself, shake their hand and welcome them to HWS. Like digital traces, personal connections can be fleeting and or they can be lifelong. The person you’re meeting is almost certainly also a little excited and a little scared, anticipating new adventures and feeling anxious. Offering them a moment of connection and community building is a generous and meaningful gesture. Okay, so find your phone, locate your hand, and commemorate this moment.

[Shafer directs the audience to engage in her directions before proceeding.]

One way to appreciate the fullness of your experience is, as we just did, to mark it with a gesture. To think both about yourself in this moment and the way this moment is affecting the world around you, your community, your peers, the world. For the Classes of 2022, this moment marks the entrance into adulthood, a time when you have new opportunities and new responsibilities. The ritual of Convocation, the beginning of the academic year, marks the start of a period of investigation, creation and realization. We are all on the threshold of transformation, and we have marked for ourselves the start.

Now: where do we go from here?

Short answer: here is where we go from here− Geneva, N.Y., this space between Seneca Lake and the Wegmans parking lot, Fribolin Farm and the Beef & Brew. You’ve chosen a small liberal arts college for your transformative experience and part of that choice entails living together with a smallish group of people in a smallish place for a smallish period of time. If you’re going to make the most of this smallish situaish, you’re going to have to figure out how to enlarge the small, how to take the critical thinking you do in this small campus of lovely buildings and apply it to an understanding of the world at large.

The small liberal arts college campus is built for this thinking in scale: you may spend your time delving deep into one line of poetry or you may spend it observing remote galaxies through an astrograph telescope. On really good days you will get to do both. And maybe, if you’re lucky, you will be inspired to write a line of poetry about how it feels to be an eye facing the vast, nearly limitless night sky.

We make this thinking in scale utterly accessible to you. You are in the unique, privileged situation of having remarkably sophisticated academic resources and tools at your fingertips. I’m talking both abstract, conceptual thinking tools and actual, material, literal resources. During your time in this space, the doors of internationally known scholars are literally open to you personally: go in! We have books and computers and cameras and microscopes and sprung dance floors; use them! People who have studied information research sit in the library and wait for you to ask them how to find things out: start a conversation!  Everything here is built, maintained, and provided for your use. Your primary responsibility here is to utilize these magnificent resources so that you can improve your ability to live a life of consequence and expand your ability to be a just and intelligent person in the world. The luxury and potential rewards of this situation are inestimable.

One of the ways that the faculty have worked toward constructing meaningful resources for you is by creating capstone courses− courses in your major that you take at the end of your degree program that are meant to top off the foundation built by the other coursework. On the last day of my capstone course, the media and society senior seminar, I ask my students to make videos in which they share advice with first-year students. The prompt is: “things I wish I’d known.” Like today, the last day of your senior seminar is a threshold experience, and when students mark that occasion with reflection, they come up with useful and meaningful advice. So, I am going to share some of that advice with you here today.

Some students offer advice about the brave and self-reliant people we should strive to be; they say, “The people that you meet at the beginning of your time at HWS will find their own paths. Don’t be a follower. You’ll hear people talking about what the ‘easiest courses’ are. Don’t listen to them. Do what you want to do, learn what you want to learn, and be who you want to be.” Along these same lines, another student urges us to accept and celebrate who we are by saying, “Being unapologetically yourself comes with a price. Always pay it.”

Some students reflect on their academic choices and the pleasures of discovery and exploration. This student reflects, “I wish I knew not to be so worried I didn’t get into the classes I wanted to for the next semester. It is good to explore different departments you aren’t initially interested in because you might find those are the classes that you enjoy the most.” Another student shares this endorsement of the liberal arts model when observing, “I wish I had known that being a specific major does not limit you to a specific field of interest or industry.”

Graduating seniors have learned some things. This student offers concrete advice about course planning when saying, “I wish I had known to take as many classes for my major as possible as early as possible. Taking five and half classes during Senior Spring, when the rest of your friends are celebrating, taking only classes that interest them and enjoying their last semester of college is a huge bummer.”

This next student’s words inspired some of my address to you today by saying, “My advice would be to really take advantage of all the resources and opportunities that the school has to offer. Go to your professors’ office hours. Really get to know them and form a relationship with them. It definitely helps to make your college experience easier and definitely more interesting.”

Lastly, this student urges us to lead the lives of consequence promised by our motto when saying, “Overall, I’d say take your passion, what makes you stand out as an individual, and what inspires you the most and find a way through your courses’ hands-on experiences in order to not only speak out, but speak first about things that you want to see change for the better.”

Blaze your own path, explore widely, embrace uncertainty, plan carefully, take advantage of resources, and make changes for the better. This is the hard-won advice of your peers. I know they will be thrilled to learn that their words are reaching you now. You can honor your peers by taking their advice to heart.

I will now conclude by offering you three pieces of advice from me, Professor Leah Shafer, winner of the 2018 Excellence in Teaching Award. First, learn to love learning. One of the greatest gifts of a small liberal arts college education is the cultivation of pleasure in the act of learning. Embrace this gift. The resources we offer, the wide range of subjects to explore, the multiple enriching activities− these are opportunities for you to practice finding enjoyment in the acts of thinking and learning. Include the act of pleasure in the expansion and improvement of your ability to be a just and intelligent person in the world. Many of you have been on a bullet train of ambition and anxiety for the past few years while trying to get to here. Now that you’re in this smallish place, let it become a dense and lush universe that locates your ambition and anxiety within the pleasures of productive uncertainty and discovery. If you cultivate a love of learning, it will be a gift you can take with you when you leave.

My second piece of advice addresses the ambition and anxiety I just invoked. As I’m sure you all know, life is hard and transitioning into adult life is fraught with freak outs. When I was in college, I learned that inhaling for four counts and then exhaling for four counts really helped me in moments of crisis. As I am a lifelong learner, I recently learned a twist on the old inhale exhale model of breathing that my yoga teacher calls “the angry pug.” I will teach it to you now. You begin by inhaling for four counts, but on the exhale, you jut out your jaw and make a guttural noise. Like this. [Shafer demonstrates.] Try it with me!  It loosens your jaw and immediately relaxes you. I also think that embracing looking foolish increases our capacities for empathy and for joy. Remember the angry pug when you can’t get into that class you want [Shafer demonstrates, or when your roommate messes with your stuff [Shafer demonstrates], or when you read the news [Shafer demonstrates].

When you’re freaking out, address the situaish with an angry pug or two and get back to making changes for the better.

My last piece of advice reflects my earlier observations about being an individual who is also a member of a community, a single eye in a vast sky. You can make your voice count. Literally, your voice will be counted when you register to vote and vote every single time you get the chance. You classmates have urged you to speak out for what you believe in and to make changes for the better. You can do this by going to That’s HWS dot Turbovote dot org. Just a few minutes of your time can make you an active, meaningful participant in Geneva and in the world. You are part of our adult community here now. Only 5 percent of eligible HWS students voted in the last midterm elections; that is an abdication of responsibility and a lost opportunity. The smaller elections have a big impact, especially on the places where we live and work. We know you can do better. Embrace your role as an adult and let us hear what you have to say! We are all in this together and the more people’s voices we hear, the better off we’ll all be.

Root yourself into this moment, this precipice, this beginning. Learn to love the challenges and embrace the resources we provide for you. Take a deep breath right here and right now. Envision your place in the forces linking Geneva, N.Y., to the world. Make every day that you spend here a Convocation, an opportunity for exploration, a transformative threshold for possibility. Build community, enlarge the small, mark occasions for yourself, and strive to enjoy your privileged place as a person alive right here, right now. Thank you.