First-year student Convocation 2020

Aug. 23, 2020

Thank you, Vice Provost Phillips.

And thank you to everyone who has worked tirelessly and imaginatively to make this program and orientation so special under such dramatically changed circumstances.

Welcome—officially—to the great class of 2024, and to all of our extraordinary transfer students who are now and forever a part of the Hopkins community! I know this is not how you pictured your entry into college life.

I’ll confess, this is not how I typically meet you for the first time, either. But, this is, to put it mildly, a new experience for all of us and one truly unlike any our academic community has lived through in recent memory.

Indeed, throughout this pandemic, we have all had to relinquish many things we took for granted just a few months ago, stark reminders of all the ways this virus has upended our daily lives.

Some are momentous, like attending high school graduation in-person or going to prom.

Others are small but still meaningful: sharing a celebratory dinner with friends or family at a restaurant or taking in a summer blockbuster at an actual movie theater.

Of course, one of the boons to living in 2020 is that, on the movie front at least, we can stream. While I have no doubt about the Oscar potential of tonight’s convocation ceremony, I want to speak about a different movie I streamed earlier this year—one that speaks to our moment in a profound and unmistakable way.

It’s a comedy. Called Palm Springs.

I know ours aren’t funny times, but bear with me. It’s a classic tale of boy meets girl. Boy inadvertently reveals a mystical portal in the mountains to girl. Girl enters portal and finds herself caught in an infinite time loop with him where they have to relive the same day over and over for eternity—and that day also happens to be the worst wedding ever.

Now, the trope of having to live the same day over and over again ad infinitum is a familiar one in film. For parents out there, you’ll recall Bill Murray’s enduring work of artistic genius, Groundhog Day.

It is a trope especially pertinent to our time, when quarantine has made life feel like the same day on repeat. Of course, the central challenge of any time loop movie is how to escape the loop. Traditionally, the answer is ethical: just become a better person and you can go back to living your life.

Not so in Palm Springs—though its protagonists do, fortunately, become better people. Instead, after spending years repeating the same day, the film’s heroine, Sarah, takes a different tack.

Every morning, she wakes up, grabs her laptop, and studies quantum physics. She does this for months—possibly years. She masters the science; she consults the experts, including, we might hypothesize, a few Hopkins faculty, like our Nobel laureate and astrophysicist, Adam Riess, and she begins conducting ambitious experiments. In short, she does what any typical Hopkins first year would do.

At the end of this period of study, Sarah’s new expertise leads her to an evidence-based method for shattering the time loop (spoiler alert: it involves explosives).

And it works. She breaks free and gets to continue her life.

I recount this tale because as all good works of art do (even screwball comedies), it captures something fundamental in human experience: the power of knowledge to change our circumstances—and those of our communities—even in our darkest moments.

It reminds us that if we pursue truth fearlessly and rigorously through strenuous contemplation and vigorous debate, there is no mystery we cannot explain, no problem we cannot solve, no time loop we cannot escape. No pandemic we cannot begin to see a way through.

And tonight, even as you are scattered across the world, you are being inducted into an academic community with an unyielding commitment to that very proposition.

As our university’s motto states emphatically: “Veritas vos liberabit.”

“The truth will set you free.”

The stakes, as you know, are higher than ever: our world is facing a host of complex, global crises that will require deep expertise, critical thinking, and persistence to meet them.

And so, my call to you is this: Pursue the truth. Seek knowledge fiercely and fearlessly as part of a university that celebrates the myriad ways the life of the mind can free and transform us.

Your search will undoubtedly compel you to grapple with and incorporate into your own thinking facts that stand in stark contrast to your own beliefs. You will find yourself having to live alongside people whose experiences and ideas are vastly different than your own.

Along the way, hold strongly to your beliefs, but remain open to such ideas. They will free you to think anew, and your thinking will, in turn, strengthen and inspire the ideas of others. This is what it means to be deeply embedded in an academic community.

And if you remember nothing else from this evening, please know that no matter where in time or space you find yourself, you are not alone in this endeavor. From this moment, you have by your side a community of scholars and friends who share your desire for new knowledge and your determination to turn it into action.

Class of 2024, you enter college at a time in history unlike any we have seen in generations. Our world needs you, and we look forward with great anticipation to all you will discover as you lead us forward into a different—and better—future.

To our newest Blue Jays, bon voyage!