Carson Burns
President, Associated Students of Whitman College

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Thank you President Bridges.

I’ll start with a quick anecdote. This summer, I stayed on campus. On some of the hottest days, my friends and I would cool off by sitting in the fountain outside Hunter, and of course, we would encourage passers-by to join us. Most dismissed us as Whitman hippies with our Frisbees and sandals, possibly confused about the socially acceptable uses of a fountain. But one bicyclist took us up on our offer. He turned out to be a two-thousand-seven Whitman alum who had ridden across the nation, from Virginia to Walla Walla, to see two Whitties get married in the wheat fields – yes, the curse is real! Look around; someone in this room may be your future spouse… We easily struck up conversation; we ate at the taco truck; he even stayed in our house for the next couple days. And the best part: it was never uncomfortable, not even for a moment, to host this complete stranger. The only thing we really have in common is Whitman, but as you will learn, it is quite the thing to share.

This might have already happened to you, but whenever I have met someone out there who also went to Whitman, there has been a genuine excitement, something we both understand whether or not we can articulate it. This leads me to ask, what is it about Whitman, which can foster an immediate connection with a complete stranger?

Maybe Whitman is our little secret… hidden somewhere between Seattle and Boise, between ivy-league prestige and the “40 miles of blowing dust” you passed to get here. Maybe we share a unique four-year experience that not many people in the real world know about or even care about (hopefully with the exception of our future employers).

What I am talking about is more than what the admissions office sells you: you know… the beautiful campus, the bazillion-dollar climbing wall, the twenty-four-seven library, one of the best college radio stations in the nation, the ten-to-one student-faculty ratio, and the rigorous academics. The truth is you can find all of that at other elite colleges and universities.

But because Whitman is so small, and in a town like Walla Walla, we form an intimate community… a community where the many threads of our lives inextricably weave together for better or worse: friends, relationships, classes, jobs, sports, and so on. We must share Whitman and all the choices that it offers. Maybe we take for granted the fact that we have these options, or maybe we never even noticed them in the first place.

For example, at Whitman, you will take classes outside your comfort range, but you also have the option to stay up until 2 a.m. to learn Maoism from your roommate, Jonathan, who was reading the eleven-hundred-page text for pleasure. Or if you watch some excessively violent Quentin Tarantino movie, afterwards someone might say, “Wow, that was graphic,” whereas a Whittie would respond, “Yeah, but it was clearly a social critique of the media’s obsession with violence.”

At Whitman, you will make friends from your freshman section, but you can also make some of your best friends over the years that follow. You can raft Hell’s Canyon together on an OP trip. You can join the Greek system or an interest house. You can dance in a Twinkie costume at a party, or you can even run the naked mile together. Knowing each other in multiple contexts can make you better friends, and in turn, help you learn from each other in the classroom. Your soon-to-be Whitman friends are more diverse than you might assume at first sight and maybe more diverse than you will ever fully know, but please try.

At Whitman, you will seek help during your professor’s office hours, but you can also strike up conversation with your Physics professor on the way to the farmer’s market; you can attend a Sociology class in the basement of your professor’s house; and you can even discuss your English thesis with your advisor at the bar.

At Whitman, you will apply what you learn to your papers and exams, but you can also apply it to the campus, community and world. You might choose to direct your own silent film, to take part in the international climate talks in Copenhagen, or to teach sustainable agriculture in Guatemala. Hey, you might even convince ASWC to fund it.

At Whitman, student government is no longer just the piggybank behind campus concerts, lectures, and student-run clubs. I am proud to say that ASWC has become a strong advocate for students and an impetus for change on campus. Perhaps it speaks to the success of the faculty. They urge us in every class to critically analyze our text and the world around us. Be doubtful. Ask questions. Look for improvements. As students, we are not passive consumers, but rather we work with the college to actively shape both its future and our future.

Finally, I am not claiming to know why you might love Whitman, or why you might not. But rather, I hoped to touch upon some aspects of what it’s like to be a student here. You won’t have the same experiences as me during your time here, nor should you. But you will have a myriad of opportunities and choices thrown at you every day – some thrilling, others painstaking – and all will shape your Whitman experience. I am excited for you because you already chose Whitman and everything that comes with it. I hope you get involved, and that you continue to choose wisely, no matter the choice. On the behalf of the returning students, I am honored to welcome you and glad to have you join us.