(This was the Freshman Convocation speech at Clarion University in August 2015.)
— Suzie Boyden
Good evening everyone, and welcome to our freshmen. It is my honor tonight to represent my esteemed faculty colleagues in providing a few words of wisdom, or perhaps even inspiration, as you begin your college careers. Although aspects of your daily routine may feel familiar — meals, sports, classes — let me be clear, you are all about to embark on a very new journey. There are those among you who have a very clear idea of the path you are on, right through college, graduate school, and into your dream job; however, some of you — I dare say many of you — probably feel very uncertain about what comes next. You may be unsure of what you want to study, what you hope to achieve with this degree, or who you want to be in five years. All I can say to you is be patient. Some of those answers will take time; they will also take hard work, but your path will reveal itself.
Allow me to tell you about my first year in college. My path was not a straight one, and the outcome — me standing here before you as a Biology professor — was totally unknown to me when I sat where you sit today. I started college thinking I might be a double major, in English and also pre-med. Basically, I liked lots of things and had no idea what to focus on. Sound familiar? My first semester, I had some famous, decorated poet teach me African poetry in a seminar with six other students, in this intimate setting under the bell tower of the library. His wife even baked us cakes.
An incredible, life-changing learning opportunity, right? Wrong. I hated it! And after spending about two weeks BSing my way through the final paper, a fifteen-page discussion about a twenty-line poem with mostly drum sounds and no words, a paper he very generously and kindly gave me a C- on, I decided my grasp of the English language was perfectly adequate, thank you, and focused on Biology. However, my desire to be a doctor dried up after sitting in an auditorium with 400 people who raced to class before dawn to get the best seats, and who all clicked their big, orange, four-color clicky pens at the same time whenever the professor changed the color he was using on the board. That was the end of my medical career.
Then I stumbled across a field ecology course and did an independent project, where I sat out in a field a few miles away from the college in the evenings to make observations of woodcocks. These are funny little birds with long beaks and bugged-out eyes. But when a woodcock takes flight, it is splendid. As dusk gives way to darkness, the woodcock finds a spot in the middle of a grassy opening and — after a few preliminary “peent” noises — flies in a spiraling path, straight up 200-300 feet in the air, pauses, and then dives back to earth while singing this joyful aria. It is a love song, of course, as this is all for the benefit of the female he hopes is watching and admiring from the bushes.
So, I found my major, Ecology, a path which led to a high school teaching job, a few years as a restaurant chef, and then graduate school, a discovery of forests, a PhD, and then this job, where my greatest hope is to be the spark that ignites one of my students to a new path, a new passion, or just a new respect for our natural world.
The point of my story? My path was mine alone. I would bet some other student in that African poetry class was inspired to become a writer, a world traveler, or an English professor.
Think of this time as a chance to create your path. YOU create it. It isn’t constructed for you by your teachers, family, or friends. It is sort of scary, but it is also exciting to have endless possibilities in front of you.
So a little advice to get you started: be open — open to new relationships, new attitudes, and new ideas. What I hope for most (which is maybe not the advice your mother gave you) is for you to all become risk-takers, because it is precisely through taking risks that you reap the greatest rewards. It is only when we do new things as humans that growth can occur. So learn a new language, study abroad, try a new club sport. In your classes, I hope that you will take intellectual risks. Ask questions, put your ideas out there, and be willing to be wrong. Coming out of high school, it is common to have a real fear of being wrong. Well, I’m a scientist, and we have a wonderful thing called the scientific method. What people often forget about this method is that it’s designed so that we make our greatest intellectual leaps — we discover the most — as we systematically prove our own ideas, assumptions, and biases incorrect.
The faculty here at Clarion will often ask you to do the same thing, in different ways. Our goal in challenging you to think critically and evaluate your own position and assumptions is to prepare you for life, for a world that is complex, diverse, and rapidly changing, a world in which there are rarely right or wrong answers. There is a reason in your classes for debates, group projects, and research, the things that might be the most scary. We want you to stretch the muscles that you will be using most when you leave this place to get a job. These valuable skills have little to do with any particular academic degree or content area. Here are the three most desirable, sought-after skills in graduating students in 2015, according to employers.
- Ability to work in a team
- Ability to make decisions and solve problems, because face it, the world has a lot of problems that your generation is going to need to solve.
- Ability to communicate verbally — with people with different backgrounds and different knowledge than your own.
Realize that opportunities to acquire these skills may come from surprising places and certainly are not limited to your major, or even your classes. Seize those opportunities wherever they appear. You will realize that college is about so much more than individual facts, courses, or tests. It’s about defining yourself, and creating your path. There will be bumps or even walls — the test you fail, the professor you just don’t get, the difficulty of finding the right major. Your challenges may not be academic: they might be personal as you leave home and try to find your way as an independent adult.
Know that you are not alone, that you are surrounded by people going through the same struggles. Have faith that you belong here, that your future is waiting for you, and that you will get there, with hard work, patience, and a willingness to take risks and stumble along the way. I am so excited to see what all of you will accomplish. Thank you.
Suzie Boyden received her bachelor’s degree in Environmental and Evolutionary Biology from Dartmouth College. She received her PhD in Ecology from Colorado State University after a three year stint teaching ecology and natural history for a high school on the coast of Maine. She was a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Minnesota in the Department of Forest Resources. Her research, done in collaboration with the State and Federal Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy, and Research Institutes in Michigan and New York, focuses on the role of competition in controlling the distribution and composition of forests from local to regional scales. She teaches a number of basic, applied, and theoretical ecology courses in the Biology Department.