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Address to the Class of 2014

President Williams gave this speech to the class of 2014 and their families on Saturday, September 4, in Haggin Auditorium. The speech was part of the official induction ceremony of the entering class.

Welcome Class of 2014. Welcome to what will be one of the most fulfilling and rewarding times of your life.

You are about to be transformed.

Rest assured it will be a journey. But, as we like to say here at Transylvania, it is all about the journey, not the destination; it is more about the questions you will ask than the answers you will find.

Okay, from time-to-time, your professors will expect some answers from you; professors can be difficult like that.

Nevertheless, we hope you will ask many questions over the next few years.

And among the questions we encourage you to ask are these:
Who am I?
What shall I do with my life?
How can I make the world a better place?

As the new president of Transylvania University, I feel a special bond to all of you.

I only began here this past month, and already I have come to love this place. I hope your first days at Transylvania will be as wonderful as mine have been and that your first month gives way to a happy and productive undergraduate experience.

You are the most recent members of the Transylvania family, a family that traces its roots to 1780, a family that includes some of the most famous people throughout American history:

Richard Johnson and John Breckenridge, the ninth and fourteenth Vice Presidents of the United States, attended Transylvania. United States Senator Henry Clay, a man who many credit with having held the nation together during the antebellum era, taught here. Stephen Austin, founder of Texas, and Cassius Marcellus Clay, one of America’s most respected abolitionists, both attended Transylvania, as did Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, one of the most courageous and prescient people to ever serve the nation’s highest court. Altogether, 50 U.S. senators, 101 U.S. representatives, 36 governors, and 34 ambassadors attended this college.

Transylvania has been home to some of the finest medical and legal minds of the nation, and Transylvania was among the first colleges in America to admit women, which it did beginning in 1889, almost a century before some of the best colleges in the country.

This is a special day, the beginning of your college years.

If you don’t mind, allow me to share with you two suggestions: Shed fear of failure and seek intellectual discomfort.

My guess is that most of you are pretty nervous right now: you don’t know many people here and you have no idea how well you will do. But know this—everybody fails, we fail at various times and, if we are lucky, we fail often.

Failure is an inevitable dividend of risk-taking and adventure. No pioneer ever proceeds without changing course many times.

We all strive to be successful in some way or another, of course, but successful people are people who make the most of their failures. Don’t misunderstand me—I am not suggesting you set out to fail, rather, that you not be afraid to try new things, reach for the best you can do.

Personally, I have failed many times in my life. Although I don’t include those moments on my resume, I can assure you that they are the building blocks behind those accomplishments I have enjoyed.

The sort of failure I am talking about implies effort, learning, adventure, opportunity, and all the things that make life exciting and worth living. You will inevitably experience missteps, probably several.

But your only serious failure will come when you throw in the towel, when you give up, when you stop trying to improve yourself.

Be bold, take chances; treat failure as a time for reflection, redesign, and renewal.

As Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States once remarked:
“Far better to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”

As Robert F. Kennedy even more forcefully observed, “Only those who dare to fail greatly can succeed greatly.”

Some of your setbacks will be tiny, unknown to anyone but you; others will be whoppers, recognized by many of your friends and peers. Don’t let either sort bother you, because…Successful people are indeed those who make the most of their failures.

As to my second suggestion:

During your first year at Transylvania, make an effort (a real effort) to forge friendships with others whose worldview is different from your own. The more different the people you befriend the richer this experience will be. Pick at least one person, someone whose position on an issue you find utterly intolerable, and make that person your friend. Try to truly understand how he or she thinks.

The respected neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl once observed:
“Between stimulus and response there is a space;
In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response;
In those choices lie our growth and our happiness.”

Much of the space between the things that happen to us and the way we deal with those things is genetically and environmentally determined. But there is a part of that space that represents opportunity, the opportunity to take what has been given to us and improve upon it, to stretch the regions in which we operate. That is what we here at Transylvania University hope to encourage and help all of you to do.

We know you come to us as people of integrity, caring, and respect, all values we expect you to further develop while here.

Yet we want you to stretch yourselves, to increase the ways in which you contribute to our community, our nation, and our world.

Expand your horizons, engage the unknown, and embrace the uncomfortable; these are the challenges I ask you to accept.

To that end, I wish you many failures during your years at Transylvania. The extent to which you explore, examine, and experiment will determine your eventual success.

We have a tremendous faculty at Transylvania, no doubt, but some of your best teachers will be your fellow students. Listen to each other, be respectful of one another, get involved, have fun together, and by so doing—make the Class of 2014 the best class to graduate from our fine college.

To the parents of this class, thank you for entrusting us with the education of your loved ones. To the Class of 2014, welcome to the Transy family.

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