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Prepared Remarks: New Student Convocation

August 21, 2016

Greetings and Introduction of the Class

To all of the new Wahoos gathered here this evening: welcome to the University of Virginia!

There are about 4,300 of you in this entering class. You may know a few classmates who came from your home town. And maybe you’ve made some new friends this weekend. But for the most part, you’re strangers to each other. To help you get acquainted, let me tell you a bit about yourselves …

Your class has 3,685 first-year members, and 675 transfer students. Among the transfer students, 365 are from Virginia’s Community College System.

In the first-year class, 67% of you are from Virginia; 33% are from elsewhere. You come from 45 U.S. states and the District of Columbia and from 76 countries around the world, making this a truly global university.

You have done well on your tests. Your mean SAT scores are 667 reading; 679 math; and 665 on writing. Your mean for math and verbal is 1346. Your mean for all three is 2011.

Thirty-six of you scored perfect 800s on both the reading and math portions of the test.  Five of you scored perfect 800s on all three portions.

88% of you were in the top 10% of your high school’s graduating class, for high schools that report class rank.

You are a diverse group: 46% of you are men; 54% of you are women. You come from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, and from a range of socio-economic situations. Preliminary numbers show that 33% of you are participating in our AccessUVa financial-aid program.

More than 400 of you are the first members of your families to go to college. This diversity in your class ranks will make you stronger, both as individuals and as a class.

You recently received a welcome message from me, and in that message, I made a request: that during your first semester here, you make the effort to get to know someone who comes from a completely different background than you do …

Someone of a different race or ethnicity … Someone whose religious faith is different than yours …

If you’re from the U.S., get to know someone from one of the foreign countries represented in your class. If you’re from Virginia, get to know someone from a state far away.  If your parents and siblings are all college graduates, get to know a classmate who’s the first member of his or her family to go to college. If you’re a first-year student who just graduated from high school, get to know a transfer student from a community college. All of those people have unique stories to tell.

The experience of getting to know people from various walks of life will make you a wiser and more empathetic person — and ultimately you will be better prepared for the diverse global economy you will enter after graduation.

Rights and Responsibilities
I want to say a few words about your rights and responsibilities, both as citizens and as members of this UVA community.

More than 200 years ago, the founder of this University and his colonial colleagues began a great American experiment in self-government, one that continues today. If you’re a U.S. citizen and at least 18 years-old, your rights and responsibilities under our system of self-government include voting rights.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past year, you know that we are in the midst of an election season in the United States. If you’re eligible to vote, I encourage you to register so you can fulfill your responsibility as a citizen on Election Day.

UVA has many student organizations that will provide opportunities for you to discuss and debate the issues leading up to November 8th.  I encourage you to join the fray in this stormy election year, and to exercise your rights this fall. This is your opportunity to help shape the future of our country.

You should also plan to vote in UVA student elections later this year. This will be your opportunity to shape your University experience by choosing strong student leaders. I also encourage you to run in student election when your time comes.

For the next few years, you will be living in Charlottesville for the majority of each year, and spending less time in your hometowns. So I encourage you to be civically engaged here. You can serve this community in various ways. Each week, more than 3,300 students volunteer their time and energy to better the community through Madison House, our student volunteer center. Students serve as tutors, construction workers, day-care supporters, youth mentors, peer counselors, and in many other roles.

You can learn about these and other opportunities at the Activities Fair on Tuesday, August 23, 11 AM to 2 PM, on the lower end of the Lawn and in the Amphitheatre.

I encourage you to choose one or two activities that appeal to you, but don’t sign up for everything that’s available, or you may soon be overwhelmed by your commitments.

Just as we have an American system of self-government conceived by Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues, UVA has a long-standing system of student self-governance that defines life and learning here.  The Honor System plays a central role. Tonight you will sign the honor pledge. With this pledge, you promise not to lie, cheat, or steal. If you break the pledge at any time, you will be asked to leave the University.

Although I endorse the Honor Code, I do not enforce the Honor Code; the Board of Visitors delegates that responsibility to the students. This means that this is your pledge — and now this is your community, complete with all rights and responsibilities.

Remember that we are more than an academic community at UVA; we are a social community as well. As members of this social community, each one of you has a responsibility to be a good citizen.

We want you to look out for yourself, and we also want you to look out for the well-being of your friends and classmates. By looking out for each other and by taking an interest in one another’s well-being, we create a caring community defined by a sense of shared responsibility.

All of you are smart, and you may think that you’re smart and street-savvy enough to take care of yourself on your own, without any help. But consider this analogy … 17 athletes and two coaches from UVA participated in the 2016 Olympics, including UVA swimmer Leah Smith, who won a gold medal and a bronze medal. If you watched the swimming competition, you may have noticed something curious: at Olympic swim meets, where the very best swimmers from all over the world compete, they still have lifeguards on duty. 

Like those Olympic athletes, you are some of the best and brightest students from the nation and the world; you are an entire class of Michael Phelpses and Leah Smiths and Katie Ledeckies. But you still need to look out for each other. All of you need to serve as unofficial lifeguards for your classmates — always vigilant, always on duty.

You need to be aware of the dangers of alcohol and drug use, and you need to be smart about the decisions you make. Living away from home for the first time brings new freedoms, but it also brings new opportunities to make mistakes that could alter the course of your life. An evening that begins with celebration can end in calamity, if you fail to make the right choices.

You also need to be aware of your responsibilities related to sexual conduct. If you are uncertain about what constitutes sexual assault, what constitutes affirmative consent, or if you have other questions about these issues, you can visit to get answers.

In the meantime, let me abundantly clear about my position on this issue:  In UVA’s community of trust and respect, there is no place for sexual assault or other forms of sexual misconduct, or violence of any kind. We condemn it, and we will not tolerate it.

There’s a catch-phrase that has become a sort of universal slogan among students at elite universities such as UVA:  “Work hard, and play hard.” It’s a catchy slogan, but believing the myth that hard work earns you the right to play hard with alcohol or drugs, with no consideration of the dangers, can lead to disaster.

I encourage you to adopt a new slogan: “Work hard, and play smart.” You can have fun and celebrate, using good judgement, without making decisions that could ruin your future.
Play smart, Class of 2020.

A Moment of Unique Opportunities
As you begin classes this fall, you’re entering UVA at a unique moment in our history. We have just completed a multi-year renovation of the building behind me, the Rotunda.

As the Rotunda reopens this fall, it will once again serve as the center of student life at the University, as it did in Thomas Jefferson’s day. Classes will be held in the Rotunda, and there will be new spaces for students to study and socialize. Rooms throughout the Rotunda will be used for seminars, dissertation defenses, and student meetings.  This Rotunda now belongs to you. I encourage you to use it while you’re here.

You are coming to UVA as we approach a major milestone in the University’s history: about 14 months from now, in October 2017, we will launch the University’s bicentennial celebration. The first events will take place on October 6th to mark the 200th anniversary of the laying of the University’s cornerstone at Pavilion VII.

Bicentennial events will continue through the anniversary of the University’s charter on January 25, 2019, and culminate in May 2019 with the graduation of students who will become the first alumni of our third century. Students in your class will be among the first graduates of UVA’s third century.

The celebration will feature activities for students, including academic programs, research opportunities, distinguished guest speakers on Grounds, exhibits in our museums, and so on. An advisory group that will include students will give advice to the Commission that’s overseeing the bicentennial, and students are even helping us select the official bicentennial logo.

All of this means you will participate in two once-in-a-lifetime UVA experiences: You will help us launch a new era for the restored Rotunda, and you will help celebrate the bicentennial of this great University, which has stood for 200 years as a global standard of excellence in higher education.

Looking Ahead
Let my close by looking to the future. A few years from now, when you gather on the opposite end of the Lawn for Final Exercises, you will begin a new phase of your life — a phase in which your success as professionals and public citizens will come largely from the work that you do here over the next few years.

On that day, you will take your well-earned place among our global network of alumni. Our alumni are known for their life-long commitment to the University.

Because they believe in the significance of this University and its mission, they invest in its future. They support UVA with gifts; they serve on advisory boards; they serve as mentors; and they volunteer in other capacities that strengthen the University.

The Jefferson nickels that you found on your seats this evening were provided by alumni to help you recall the contributions that Thomas Jefferson made to the creation of UVA and to the founding of the United States. But the nickel also symbolizes the gifts that our alumni have given to UVA.

We ask that you keep this nickel as a reminder of the great tradition of giving that has made this University so strong and durable through the years.

You will have opportunities to join that tradition in the future, and your approach to the future at UVA begins right now.

I look forward to seeing all of you at Carr’s Hill for the reception after this ceremony. Good luck as you begin your journey at UVA.  

Seven Society Letter
Now, at this point in the ceremony, it’s customary for the Seven Society to present a letter to the entering class. It also customary for me to ask a favor of one of you …. 

Will the student sitting in the seventh row of the section on my right, at the very end of the row on the right side, please come forward and read the letter to your class.