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August 28, 2023: Convocation Remarks

Remarks by President Sarah Bolton at the Whitman College Convocation ceremony held on August 28, 2023:

Students, staff and faculty and guests, I am delighted to add my welcome to the start of our year together. Thank you to our wonderful speakers—Provost Alzada Tipton, Professor Hanrahan and Professor Arch, for your thought-provoking and inspiring remarks, which give such great insight into why the journey of learning that happens here at Whitman is so important—both while students are here and long after they graduate. Thank you also to our musicians for the wonderful music, and a special thanks to Dean Helen Kim and everyone in the Provost’s office and facilities team who have made this event possible.

Convocation means a calling together. And being with you all—in this brilliant, diverse and intentional community—is a gift for which I am deeply grateful.

This moment of the year is a special one. It provides an opportunity to reflect on the work we are called to do, as individuals and as a community. In some ways, it is part of the pattern of our lives that extends for many years—fall means the start of a new school year in a pattern that repeats for decades. But in other ways, this moment is a brand new beginning, and completely different from any other year.

For those of you—students, staff and faculty—who are new to Whitman, welcome! We are so glad you are here, at the beginning of what I hope is a wonderful journey.

For all of us—whether we have been at Whitman for just a few days or a year or for decades, this season is different from other times we have “started a school year,” because the world is changing so fast. (Indeed, at this time last year Professor Davis spoke with us about AI that can write text, and most of us thought that was a radical idea!)

And because this is a new time for all of us, and in light of Professor Arch’s remarks I’d like to suggest three questions for all of us (not just the students!) to reflect on as we open the year.

First, what knowledge would you like to gain and create? Second, what community would you like to build? and finally What change would you like to make?

Let me say just a few words about each of these for our students.

What knowledge would you like to gain and create? For new students, you have been thinking all summer about what classes you want to take, what subjects you are passionate about, what you might want to major in. And these are great things to consider—thank you for thinking about them so hard! I invite you also to zoom out—to think about the perspectives you might be missing, the areas where you are more hesitant to begin, the places you want to grow.

Every course you take, every book you read or music that you listen to or art that you study, every perspective that you gain, will have an impact on who you are and in the work you do in the world. So, invest yourself fully in all of these subjects—the ones you know you love as well as the ones you didn’t like in high school, or were afraid of, or even landed in by accident. It’s when you bring them together that you gain the most unique—and perhaps the most groundbreaking—insights; ones that will allow you to go where others have not gone before.

As you think about the knowledge you seek, realize that some of the questions you have don’t have answers yet. And that is a great thing! One of the exciting things about Whitman is that new knowledge is created here. Your faculty are scholars in their fields, and while they teach you things that are known, they are also making new discoveries, new art, and new ways of thinking every day. They will teach you, and also bring you to a place where you can be part of that creation—asking new questions and creating new insights of your own.

What community would you like to build?
As you start this year, I invite you to think about who you are, the strengths and wisdom you hold, the truths by which you navigate, and the ways—both large and small—that you might act to build a strong community in the year to come. As Professor Arch said, college is not just about learning—it is about learning together. And each of us here is surrounded by brilliant students, staff and faculty from across the country and around the world. The diversity of lived experiences and identities in this space is extraordinary. So, invest yourself fully in the people around you—not just the ones with whom you have a lot in common or those with whom you immediately agree—but with everyone. The community you build holds some of the deepest opportunities for learning, for growth, and for joy.

What change would you like to make?
You have wonderful opportunities here for learning and growth, but also great opportunities to take action. Both here on campus and in the larger community, there are many ways to contribute, to connect, and to make a difference.

Colleagues, thank you for the incredible work you do and all the ways you make Whitman such a great place to learn and grow. And students, welcome to the start of a tremendous journey!

I hereby declare the 2023–2024 school year open! I wish you a marvelous year.

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