Welcome remarks at Opening Convocation: Sept. 5, 2023

Greetings, everyone, and welcome. It is terrific to see you all gathered here, in this very special place, ready to launch a new academic year at Bates.

I’m Garry Jenkins, my pronouns are he/him, and I’m the new president at Bates.

Before I begin my formal remarks, I just want to say thanks to all of those who played a role in pulling this major event together. There are too many people, even too many departments to name. But we can still give them a huge round of applause and our thanks. So please join me.

I am thrilled to be with you for my first Opening Convocation, having been a member of this community for only slightly longer than the newest students and faculty among you. But in that time, I have received so many warm, open, and enthusiastic welcomes! So let me try to live up to that standard.

First, welcome new members of the faculty. We are so pleased that you have joined us. I know that you’ll be bringing your scholarly expertise, of course, but also your joy of teaching to our intellectual community and to the academic enterprise.   

Welcome, too, to new staff colleagues all across this campus. All across this campus you contribute mightily to Bates’ mission in so many different ways, and I am so glad that you all are here.

And a huge, hearty, special welcome and congratulations to the Class of 2027. I hope that you all have started to settle in, to make connections, and learn a little bit more about what this place is about. You will each make your mark here, in your own way, and you will have one another and the rest of this community to support you as you explore and learn and grow over the next four years. We’re here for you — and we know you’re here for those around you.

And then, finally, welcome to all the returning members of the Bates community in the audience: our faculty, our staff, some of the students. We are thrilled that you are here, that you are back, and that you are bringing the campus fully back to life.

So this ceremony, our Opening Convocation, is, of course, the formal induction of the newest class of students into the Bates community. But let me give you an outline of our program today.

I will offer a few words, and then the class will then be welcomed by your Student Government co-presidents, Rebecca Anderson and Dhruv Chandra.

Rebecca is a senior biochemistry and mathematics major from Boone, N.C. She is a member of the cross country and track and field teams, and works at Post & Print and the Student Academic Support Center.

Dhruv is a member of the Class of 2025 and a major in economics and mathematics. He is from India. His other campus involvements include the Manic Optimists, Robinson Players, AESOP, and the Student Academic Support Center.

Following their remarks, we’ll have the Convocation Address, delivered by Andrew Mountcastle, associate professor of biology. The Convocation speaker is chosen by the outgoing senior class as a gift to the incoming first-year class — and Professor Mountcastle was the choice of the Class of 2023 for the Class of 2027.

He studies insect flight, looking at the connections among physiology, ecology, and evolution. In his lab, he works with students to, as he says, “combine novel experimental techniques, comparative approaches, and computational modeling to answer fundamental questions about the design and performance of flying insects.” He is a graduate of Bowdoin College and the University of Washington, and has held research appointments and fellowships at the Lobster Conservancy, the University of Washington, and Harvard University.

And then, finally, at the end of the ceremony, Brittany Longsdorf, our multifaith chaplain, will lead us in a benediction, after which we will march out, as we marched in, led by the mace bearer and our faculty marshals. There will then be a brief tree planting ceremony near the Class of 1927 Mouthpiece honoring those members of our community who have died during the past year.

But before I turn the podium over to Rebecca and Dhruv and then Andrew, I’d like to say a few words to the entering class.

I love that this ceremony takes place in the same spot every year. It’s also the same spot where Bates holds its Commencement each year. So it’s here, at the heart of this beautiful campus, where generations of Batesies have come to both celebrate the start and the end of their studies. 

It reminds us of what a rich, rich legacy we are all a part of — one that is grounded in the liberal arts as a dynamic force for public good and in the affirmation of human potential and the power of embracing and celebrating our differences; that’s grounded in the opportunity, in the value of open inquiry, of dialogue, and the power of ideas; that’s grounded in seeing and growing and developing the whole person in all of our humanity, all of which is rooted in a powerful sense of place and being part of local, regional, and global ecosystems.

And this year, as we sit or stand in this place, it’s our turn, our job, our commitment to carry those ideals and this institution into our lives and into the future.

Class of 2027: You are a remarkably talented group, bringing experiences and accomplishments and ambitions from all across the globe to this little corner of Maine. I may be biased, but I think you have chosen brilliantly when it comes to the quality of your undergraduate education.  

Because first and foremost, you will be challenged here, challenged to work hard in order to learn, grow, and stretch yourselves in our classrooms, studios, and labs. The Bates faculty — who are gathered today in what I can tell you is very hot academic regalia — are among the most distinguished teacher-scholars in their fields. They have high expectations, but you will rise to meet them, learning so much along the way. And when you come back to this very site to receive your diploma, one of the things most of you will say is that during your years at Bates you have learned that you are capable of far more than you had before thought possible.

And second, while so much has been accomplished at and because of this important institution, the best is truly yet to come. And I have faith in you, our newest class, and what you will achieve.

You are here because you are meant to be here — each of you bringing something special and unique to the particular alchemy of this class in this moment in Bates’ history.

You are meant to be here, and we — Bates’ exceptionally dedicated faculty and staff — are here, as I said up front, to help you explore all that your new home has to offer. We’re here to support your academic work, your decision-making, your explorations into new subjects, and ideas and ways of engaging with the wider world. So don’t hesitate to ask questions or seek advice. That’s what we’re here for.   

In addition, I can assure you that the entire community is eager to know you as well. To really know you.

It can be daunting, this plunge into newness — new home, new roommates, new choices, new freedoms. But remember, you’re all in the same boat — 509 of you, swimming in the new, so take comfort in that. Also, I hope you’ll believe me when I say that every set of first-years from time immemorial has felt the same way: a bit of anxiety, a bit of excitement, scared about the new, excited about the new, but swimming in the new, nonetheless. 

And by the way, I’m right there with you. I’m totally plunged into the newness of Bates and, because of that, I feel a special connection to the Class of 2027. And you know what? We’re all going to be just fine. 

Let me tell you a couple of strategies for success, and you can see if they will work for you. First, set expectations, but know that they won’t always be met, and that’s OK. This goes for expectations you set for yourself and those you have for others. Challenging yourself, and aiming high, are good things. But don’t be unreasonable with yourself, and don’t set yourself up for failure. Instead, find value in the effort; find meaning in the work.

Valuing the effort, and finding meaning in the work, can apply to what you do in the classroom or the lab or the studio. It can equally apply to your pursuits. This is true in the Bates community, and I certainly see this all around. It’s your pursuit as artists, your pursuit as athletes, your pursuit as volunteers in our local community, or any combination thereof — it’s not just one or the other. You decide where the meaning lies and what expectations you have for yourself for finding it and fulfilling it. As long as you are putting in the effort and intention, you are succeeding.

And as for having expectations of those around you, this can be dicey. Many sages have written on the folly of expecting anything from other people. But when you live in a community, as we do at Bates, there is a certain set of expectations that seem fair, to me, to maintain. We can pledge to be gracious to one another, and we can expect to be treated graciously. We can commit to kindness, and expect others to hold the same commitment. We can act with respect for the dignity of humanity in every way that it manifests itself. And we can expect the same in return. This is true at Bates, and I see these values enacted around me each and every day.

Remember that we are a community — one community of different people, with different perspectives, but with the same love of learning, the love of Bates, and a desire to be happy and contribute in our way — so please treat each other with kindness and a generous spirit. [Applause.] You can applaud for that! [Applause.]

But also, consider releasing yourself from what you know to be the expectations of what others have of you. You’re starting a new chapter — write it on your own terms. And if it helps, remember what the writer Joan Didion said: “To free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves — there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect.” One of the things that makes Bates Bates is that here you get to be who you want to be.   

Second piece of advice: Be a learner and a leader.

You’re new here, I’m new here — we both have a lot to learn, a lot to take in, to observe, to synthesize and assign meaning for ourselves. But we can’t just be passive. We can’t just consume. We need to be actively participating as well, even while we’re learning — contributing — helping to shape this community of which we are now a part — and finding out what roles we’re going to play as leaders.

For some, that’s going to mean identifying an unmet need on our campus or in Lewiston or Auburn and setting about finding ways to answer it. For others, it may be realizing that there is no club organized around a particular interest or hobby, and working to get one up and running. You might lead by jumping into a seminar conversation when your peers are quiet, or by stepping forward in some meaningful way on your team, or by spearheading some type of fun activity for your floormates when everyone could use a break. It could mean asking a question that unlocks new ways of seeing things. All of those are acts of leadership and they’re welcome here.

My third piece of advice is a related one: Find ways to be part of the solution. We are a community organized around the ideals laid out in our mission statement: to “educate the whole person through creative and rigorous scholarship in a collaborative residential community,” and to “engage the transformative power of our differences, cultivating intellectual discovery and informed civic action.” But we are also part of a community of humans, which means that we are imperfect. We don’t always achieve these ideals. But as a community, we work together to do better. Each of us must be engaged in the work and ambition for fuller realization of our goals. There’s no us versus them at Bates. There’s only us. And each of us is a part of the solution. 

So, set expectations, but give yourself and others grace. Strive to be a leader and learner. And be part of the solution.

I’m going to follow that advice. I hope you will, too. We’ll check back in, right back here in this very same place, at your graduation in 2027, and see how we did. [Applause.]

For all of our students, I’m so excited for what’s in store for you and all that you’re going to embark on. This will be an extraordinary intellectual and personal journey that will challenge you, that will change you. With a rigorous liberal arts education you will find that you are poised to make a difference in our society. To work and contribute in all kinds of ways. And at the end of the day, your success is our success.   

On behalf of the entire college, welcome to Bates and welcome to our community of learners. And as my mom would say: Learn, care, share, and enjoy. Now, please join me in welcoming first, your BCSG co-presidents, Rebecca and Dhruv, followed by Professor Andrew Mountcastle. 

The text is presented as it was spoken.