2011 Freshman Convocation

Remarks by President Ronald J. Daniels
Ralph S. O’Connor Recreation Center
(As prepared)

[Introduction from Walter D. Pinkard, Jr.]

Thank you Wally – for being here today, for that kind introduction, and most importantly, for demonstrating the support and excitement that Johns Hopkins’ Board of Trustees feels about this class.

I also want to thank JJ Braddock, the Orientation Committee Chair, and the entire orientation committee and its staff, who did a phenomenal job with this year’s program, despite one or two minor interruptions to the schedule.

Thanks finally to the Archipelago Project for the music that graced our procession, and to the Sirens and the All Nighters for their lovely rendition of the national anthem.

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

I should start by saying we have our eyes on the Class of 2015. … Any class that can make the earth shake and trees fall as they arrive on campus promises to be a class worth watching! Welcome! And a warm welcome also to our transfer students!

Usually at Convocation, I don’t have to worry about students being anxious to get back to the library or distracted by the problem sets due tomorrow. Usually, the incoming students have had to ask someone – their RA or a passing upper classman – how to get here.

Usually, I’m talking to a group who has little sense of what stands before them.

But three weeks into the semester, you’ve already gotten a taste of Johns Hopkins. You’ve chosen your classes, made your way across campus without a map, joined a club or two and maybe even begun some of the friendships that will survive long past your undergraduate years. So why are we here?

Of all the communities that you will join in the next four years, the most central one to your experience at Hopkins is the academic community, formed of the faculty, and collected in the departments. They are represented by the people gathered behind me on this stage.

We choose to come together in this moment to formally welcome you to this community and encourage your unabashed participation within it.

I want to share a story.

When I was in college, I ended up backpacking through Europe. For a variety of reasons, not all of which I will discuss tonight, my time in Paris stood as a highlight of the trip. I have a cascade of memories from Paris, but certainly one of the most enduring was a fleeting incident that took place on the metro – the city’s subway system.

I was sitting in the middle of the subway car, when a reggae band entered at one end and began to play.

They were pretty good, and pushed a hat along in front of them, collecting change from passengers. At nearly the same moment, an oompah band entered at the other end of the car with a hat of its own. I’m not kidding: an oompah band. They were wearing lederhosen and German alpine hats with feathers in the brim. There was an accordion, a tuba – the whole shebang.

Competing for our pocket change, each band started playing a little louder. I remember my ears beginning to ring as these discordant groups made their way toward each other, somewhat aggressively, one trying to out-play the other.

But what happened next is probably why I remember this so vividly: the two bands met in the middle and began to jam.

What had been a discordant cacophony became – somehow – a cadenced melody, a melding of a rhythmic lilt and a thumping tuba. These bands probably never met again but for a brief few songs they created something truly unique.

I imagine if this happened today, this ultimate “mash-up” would have been filmed on a smart phone, uploaded to YouTube, and remixed as a ringtone before we arrived at our stop.

So, I know what you’re thinking. You have assembled at this august moment, as you are finally and formally welcomed to Hopkins, and the president is talking about some subway ride from his misspent youth?

Why this story?

I share it this evening because it seems to sum up the possibilities that await you here at Hopkins.

Let me try to explain.

Every one of you arrives here with a skill, an outlook or an experience that made your application stand out among the record-breaking 19,388 we received this year. You are a remarkable group of individuals.

(I should add that I am personally thankful that, for most of you, that winning trait was not expertise in oompah music.)

And every one of you – I hope – chose Hopkins because you recognized this as an institution that will help you foster and develop your talents and interests. Whether your academic focus is public health or bioengineering… whether you will spend your time on the playing field or playing the violin… whether your passion is tutoring 2nd graders or classical Indian dance… you will find a place here.

But, as much as I believe this university will live up to your dreams, my hope for your time at Hopkins is that you will find yourself in a place you never expected.

That’s what happened to an extraordinary woman named Sarah Hemminger, a recent Ph.D. graduate from our department of biomedical engineering.

Every morning, her commute to the East Baltimore campus took her past the city’s Dunbar High School. One day, stopped at a light on the corner of Caroline and Orleans streets, she began to wonder about the kids inside.

This was no fleeting thought. She wondered, then pondered, then eventually took action.

That action was the creation of the Incentive Mentoring Program to empower truly at-risk students from Dunbar.

These were kids whose GPAs were nearing 0 – literally 0 – and whose complicated lives dimmed their future prospects.

Sarah assembled teams of volunteers who provided holistic support to each individual student, whether that student needed help getting the heat turned back on at home or a basic lesson in algebra.

In the seven years since the program began, 97 percent of the participants have graduated from high school. Remember: these were kids who weren’t on track to finish their freshman year.

Sarah didn’t come to Hopkins to change the lives of struggling Dunbar High School students. She came here to pursue a passion in biomedical engineering. Maybe that’s what JJ referred to as the “magic of Johns Hopkins.”

In the book Where Good Ideas Come From, the writer Steven Johnson describes the concept of “the adjacent possible” – a phrase borrowed from the scientist Stuart Kauffman.

“The adjacent possible” is the sense that even radical ideas are built from previous concepts and nearby elements, cleverly cobbled together in new ways. As you enter a new environment or explore a new frontier, “the adjacent possible” expands, exposing new ideas that add to mix.

As Johnson observes, “The trick is to figure out ways to explore the edges of possibility that surround you.”

For Sarah Hemminger, Dunbar High School marked one of those edges of possibility. As you start your Hopkins career, those edges have just stretched well beyond what used to be your farthest reach. Think about the possibilities in this audience alone!

What creative sparks might fly when the classmate who founded a film company and the one who started a business that creates and sells apps on iTunes begin to dream together?

What might happen when the classmate who has represented the U.S. and China in international figure skating competitions, connects with the nationally ranked Irish Dancer?

What will happen when the young woman who serves on the board of the Carson Scholars Fund, supporting academically talented young humanitarians, meets the Nigerian potter, or the New Yorker who’s undertaken statistical assessments of climate change, starting with data from the 1700s?

Just imagine the possibilities when the classmate who’s worked with local shepherds on a Senegalese dairy farm meets the competitive Corgi handler, who’s taken her dogs to sheepherding workshops!

Perhaps you’ve seen some of these sparks in the past few weeks.

This is a place where serendipity reigns … where chance collisions among you will generate some truly unexpected, creative, and sometimes wholly implausible, interactions.

The worlds you have opened up just by being adjacent to the people in this audience are truly mind-boggling. This – and the entire university before you – is your new adjacent possible.

Not every opportunity will be as obvious – or as admittedly bizarre – as an oompah-raggae band jamming in lederhosen and dreadlocks on a Paris subway car.

Sometimes these moments will simply emerge from unforeseeable interactions with the person sitting next to you, the professor you’re about to meet, or the book beside the one you’re seeking on the shelf of the Eisenhower library at 2 a.m.

But each of these moments has the potential to open new prospects. Explore them. That sense of serendipitous opportunity, of unexpected collisions, of adjacent possibilities – that’s the magic of Johns Hopkins.

Welcome to this incredible community!