2010 Freshman Convocation

Remarks by President Ronald J. Daniels
Decker Quadrangle

[Introduction by Pam Flaherty.]

Thank you, Pam, for joining us today, for your kind introduction and most importantly for your leadership of Johns Hopkins in your role as Chair of our Board of Trustees.

I am thrilled to be here with you and my colleagues – our deans, senior leaders and faculty members – to greet the newest members of the Johns Hopkins community.

Welcome, welcome to the great Class of 2014!

And an equally warm welcome to our transfer students!

With Move-In behind you and classes starting tomorrow, expectations are running high.

And questions abound.

From the practical:

“Will I be able to figure out where my classes are?”

“Will organic chemistry really be as much fun as the upper year students say”.

And “They expect me to read how much… by Wednesday?”

To the more philosophical: Will you meet your parents’ expectations for you? Or your professors’?

To the most important of all: will you live up to your own expectations for success?

Rest assured the answer to all of these questions is: yes.

But at the end of your four years here, I hope you’ll be surprised by what success looks like.

You have all come to Hopkins because you were disciplined and directed.

You showed us that you know how to succeed.

You understood that to get into a great university required faithful adherence to the standard recipe of extraordinary grades, dazzling test scores, stellar extra-curriculars, and glowing supporting letters. And to achieve these things, you planned hard, and worked even harder.

But as much as you might think that that you were admitted to Hopkins because of how scrupulously you followed the established path, I want to share something with you that might be a little surprising and hopefully more than a little re-assuring.

You are here not only because of how well you excelled at the conventional challenges, but, equally, because we saw something else in you –an unusual, perhaps even weird, kind of intelligence, a driving instinct for improvisation and creativity, and an agility in responding to changing or unusual circumstances.

In truth, planning, self discipline and focus all matter.

But in this magical community of which you are now a part, they are not the only values that count.

Hopkins faculty and students see the world in unusual and novel ways.

We pursue paths that others wouldn’t dare.

We take risks in our scholarship.

We are entrepreneurial.

We are fiercely independent, yet profoundly collaborative.

We go our own way –but with the support and encouragement of others.

And we excel in ways that others can barely imagine.

And so, as you begin your time here – bursting with plans for the future – I am going to ask you to do something unusual.

I am going to ask you to temper your instinct for planning, for the conventional, with a continuing openness, even a taste for, the unexpected, the spontaneous, the serendipitous.

Consider one of my favorite stories about the world renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

In a conversation with journalist Malcolm Gladwell, Ma recounted this story. At age 17, Ma set himself the goal of giving the perfect performance. He practiced the same Brahms sonata for over a year and his final performance was technically flawless. But in the middle of it, Ma said, he felt like walking off the stage. He was bored.

In that moment, Ma realized that the best performances are the ones where something unpredictable happens – a string breaks – and you have to deal with it.

Even if it’s on stage. In front of hundreds of people. With your mother sitting in the front row. (I added that last factor).

Far from dooming your effort, that moment pries open an opportunity to create something wholly new. “Something,” in Yo-Yo Ma’s words, “living”.

I witnessed this willingness to veer off the beaten path when I visited Uganda this summer with Dean Mike Klag of the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Arriving in Uganda’s rural Rakai district, we were awe struck as we toured the state-of-the-art Rakai Health Sciences Program facility in the heart of one of the poorest countries in the world.

And the truth is, Hopkins researcher Maria Wawer could not have imagined it either when she and her Ugandan colleagues began their work studying the effects of HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa over twenty years ago.

After receiving an unexpected call from the NIH, Dr. Wawer agreed to take a flyer, to travel to Uganda to talk with local scientists David Serwadda and Nelson Sewankambo.

Serwadda and Sewankambo were some of the first to observe that slim disease — the syndrome that was just beginning to ravage Africa — had striking parallels to the newly identified illness afflicting Gay men in San Francisco. Their findings, although preliminary, required further investigation.

When Dr. Wawer arrived and saw the challenging conditions, she was skeptical. In fact, she recalled thinking, “I’m out of here.”

But after conferring with her Ugandan counterparts, she changed her mind.

She became determined to help them — even if it meant living and working for months at a time out of a squalid motel room adjacent to a bustling bar and brothel.

Dr. Wawer had no idea that her serendipitous trip would change not just her life and the lives of her colleagues, but the lives of thousands of Africans who have benefitted from the anti-retroviral therapies provided through the program’s clinics or their groundbreaking research on HIV transmission and prevention.

As Dr. Wawer did, I am hoping that when the time comes and opportunity presents itself, you, too, will take a deep breath and then take a risk.

Indeed, I would go even further, and encourage you to seek out those experiences that pose the greatest likelihood of upending your nascent sense of the world.

There is no better time to do so.

Concretely, if you are an engineering or pre-med student, make sure that you take courses in the humanities or social sciences, and vice versa.

Take a stab at addressing a difficult or perplexing question that requires immersion in ancient texts, foreign fieldwork or a research experiment in one of our many life science laboratories.

Go to a campus concert, a lacrosse game, a play or a movie. Check out the many culinary delights – some highbrow, others decidedly low, that are on offer in this area.

And, most of all, open yourself up to involvements in the community of which we are part.

Hopkins is not only at or in the city of Baltimore, but of it. As students at Hopkins, you are very much a part of the fabric of this city, and we count on you to make it, and yourselves, better and more interesting while you are here.

And know that although the way — the Hopkins way — to self-realization is never easy, I am confident that it will maximize the chance that you will create for yourself a life that is authentic and meaningful.

After all, discovering who you really are, what makes you happy, what gives you a sense of meaning and purpose is the greatest asset you can have in a world in which so many certainties are in flux.

So, as you look ahead with mounting expectation to the next four years, I ask you to revel in the unexpected, let curiosity drive you, and, as you find the answer to one question, always risk asking the next.

To the Class of 2014, your great odyssey has begun.

We can’t wait to see the paths you will define and pursue, the friendships you will make, the ideas you will embrace and the ideas you will create.

Bon voyage!