When In Doubt, Build a Bridge

August 26, 2018  |  Undergraduate Convocation

I want to thank Dean Groves for that kind introduction. In addition to being the Dean of Students, you might be interested to know that Dean Groves also set a Guinness World Record on the Lawn five years ago by high-fiving more than 2,100 different students in one hour. Sadly, that record has since been broken, so I’m hoping he will take another run at it with your help.

As you’ve heard, my name is Jim Ryan. I am the president of the University of Virginia, and on behalf of the entire community here, I would like to welcome you to one of the finest universities in the world.

Like all of you, I’m new here, or at least sort of new. And like all of you, I’m living in University housing—right down there in Pavilion VIII. So if you happen to be walking by and see me, please say hello. And if you happen to be running by, at night, please don’t.

I will say right up front that I am not so good at remembering names, but I am pretty good at remembering unusual or what they call “fun” facts, so if you are inclined to share, I’m all ears. Just to get it started and so it’s not completely one-sided, I will share with you that I was adopted shortly after birth and first met my biological mother five years ago at a rest stop on the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey.

Other fun facts might occasionally appear on social media, and I am told that it is appropriate at this moment to shamelessly self-promote by suggesting that you can follow me virtually, or the virtual me @presjimryan, which is actually where I will be delivering the remainder of this speech. Thanks, all of you, for coming.

In addition to introducing myself, I would also like to introduce you to each other. A year from now many of you will know each other very well—having the kind of bond that only comes from sharing a bathroom with everyone on your hall who has a 9am class. But right now, most of you are strangers to each other. So I want to share a bit about who you are.

There are 3,840 of you in the class of 2022—with about 65% of you coming from Virginia. The remaining 35% hail from 43 different states and 82 different countries, from Argentina to Vietnam. 662 of you are transfer students, including 331 students who transferred from a Virginia community college. More than half of you are women and almost three quarters of you went to public high schools.

You are also incredibly accomplished—and when I say that, I’m not talking just about GPAs and SAT scores, though those are incredibly impressive. I have somewhat different numbers in mind. For example, together, you have taken more than 8 quintillion selfies, which is more than the total number of grains of sand on every beach in the world. Somehow, you have watched more hours of YouTube than you have collectively been alive—which shouldn’t even be possible, but these are the facts I have been given. I have also noticed that you have an uncanny ability to walk and text at the same time, which has led you to develop a radar-like sixth sense that allows you avoid obstacles. But I have also seen spectacular failures of that sixth sense, so I would ask you to please keep your heads up. I’m also told, finally, that one of you has a serious fear of being called out in public. Hey, Todd! (Just so you know, that really was a joke.)

As you begin your careers here, I want to begin by making something clear. It should be obvious, but I think it’s worth emphasizing nonetheless: you belong here. I say this as a first-generation student, as about one in ten of you are now, but it is a message for all of you.

College will open doors for you and change your life in ways that you probably can’t even imagine at this point, and you will look back on your time here, I am confident, as four of the best and most important years in your life. But you may not feel that way now, as it’s only natural when you come to a new place to feel slightly uneasy.

I remember when I arrived on campus my freshman year, it was like landing on a different planet—one where I didn’t know the customs or fit in very well. I remember, especially, meeting a lot of kids from boarding schools like Andover and Exeter. I grew up in a small, blue collar town in northern New Jersey, and the only kids I knew who went to “boarding school” did so at the strong insistence of the juvenile justice system. When I met all these kids who went to boarding schools like Exeter and Andover, I thought, “Those schools must do a remarkable job at rehabilitation.”

In addition to feeling like I didn’t understand the place very well, I also stumbled a bit, and you may as well. This, too, is pretty routine, or at least that’s what I tell myself when I think back to my earliest days at college. To give you one example: shortly after arriving on campus as a freshman, I struck up a conversation with a female classmate. The conversation, to me, seemed to be going quite well, and I was thinking that this might lead to a date, which was an old, quaint custom where you would go out to dinner or a movie. I have to pause here to let you know that, at this point in time, I was not the 5’9” hulking frame that stands before you today. I was maybe about 5’4” or 5’5”, and I’m sorry to say that puberty was a long six or seven months away. I looked like I was about 12 years old. So back to the conversation, we’re talking and my classmate finally says, “Can I ask you a question?” and I thought, “This is it! This is college. I’m about to be asked on a date.” And instead, she said, “Are you one of those, you know, child prodigies?” We did not go out on a date.

No matter how things start out, I promise it won’t take long until you feel at home. You are entering an incredibly caring community. The faculty, staff, and your fellow students will care not only about how you do in the classroom, but how you do outside of the classroom as well.

So understand this: you belong here. It doesn’t matter where you are from, the color of your hair or the color of your skin, your gender, your sexual orientation, your religion—whoever you are and wherever you are from, you belong. People are fond of saying that this is Mr. Jefferson’s university, but know that this is also, very much, your university.

Now, I recognize that it’s customary in speeches like this to offer advice. In my experience, that advice is often quickly forgotten. And to check on this, I talked with my son, who is a junior in college. I asked him, “Did you go to convocation?” and he said, “I think so.” And then I said, “Do you remember who spoke?” and he said, “No.” And I said, “Do you remember anything that was said?” and he said, “Are you kidding?” And I said, “What do you remember?” and he said, “I remember it was hot.” And I said, “Well I have to give a speech at convocation, what should I do?” and he said, “Look, the only way people will remember anything that you say is if it’s really good. And let’s face it, that’s a long shot. The only other way they’ll remember is if you do really poorly. So I think your best bet is to try to be forgettable.”

I thought about this for a while and decided that I’d like this to be somewhat memorable, and so what I want to do is boil this all down to one single, simple piece of advice, and that is this: When in doubt, build a bridge. Raise your hand if you understand what I am saying. Ok, great, we’re off to a perfect start. I saw three hands, probably from the architecture and engineering schools.

Here’s what I mean, at least in part. By building bridges with your fellow students, with faculty and staff, and with the broader Charlottesville community, you will both strengthen this community and you will learn and grow as a person. Just like the brain builds connections across neurons as it develops and grows, a community is only as strong as the connections within it, and you, personally, will grow by making connections with others. But enough with the simplified neuroscience analogies. Let me give three concrete examples.

First, try to build a bridge by reaching out and getting to know someone who comes from a different background, or took a different road to get here. This is a remarkably diverse community, but even amidst this diversity, it’s easy to stick with the familiar. I promise you will have a richer experience here if you build bridges across lines of apparent difference.

When I was a law student here back in the last 1980s and early 1990s, I helped a friend, Ted Small, start a group called Students United to Promote Racial Awareness, or SUPRA for short. The group was started because Ted, who is African-American, noticed that law students tended to self-segregate based on race, and he wanted to do something about it. So he put together a small, interracial group of students who met once a month at someone’s apartment over dinner, and we had discussions around pre-selected topics having to do with race and identity. At first, as you might imagine, the conversations were fairly awkward. People were walking on eggshells. But fairly quickly, we developed a level of comfort and trust and had really honest and candid conversations about topics that people today still find difficult to discuss. It was one of the most rewarding and important experiences of my life, and it had to do with building bridges.

As you engage with your peers, I especially encourage you to engage with people or ideas you may disagree with, perhaps quite strongly. It is one of the best ways to sharpen your own thinking and, sometimes, to even change your mind, both of which are part of learning and growing. I also encourage you to practice the art of generous listening—do your best to understand a view, and the rationale behind it, before deciding whether you agree or disagree. Assume good intentions, even with those with whom you disagree. Our public discourse today is often far too strident. It is possible, I believe, to be both persuasive and passionate while also being civil and respectful of others.

A second way you can build a bridge by reaching out to faculty and by getting involved in the life of the university. A recent large-scale survey of 100,000 college graduates sought to find links between how students spent their time in college and how fulfilled they were after graduation. The biggest predictor of fulfillment, it turns out, is whether students were able to connect with a mentor, take on a sustained academic project, or play a significant role in an organization on campus. I encourage you to take a professor out to lunch, go to office hours, take advantage of an undergraduate research grant, and get involved in an organization here on Grounds or in the community.

And speaking of community, my third suggestion is that you build a bridge to the broader Charlottesville community. This is a wonderful place, but like other small cities, it has its challenges and a complicated history, and the relationship between the university and the community could be stronger than it is. I encourage you to learn about and engage with this broader community. There are countless ways to do so, including through the amazing programs at Madison House. UVA is your immediate home, but UVA sits within a larger community, and if you get involved in that community, I predict you will gain as much as you give.

These are just three examples. There are other ways to build a bridge that will become apparent to you over time. It may involve building bridges across disciplines as you pursue your studies, partnering with other students to complete a project for class, or building a bridge to a foreign culture if you study abroad. My goal here is not to exhaust all the possibilities. Instead, I would like to get one simple idea stuck in your head, so that it pops up when you need it: When in doubt, build a bridge. I won’t do a call and response now, even though it’s tempting, but I may quiz you when I see you. So if I come up to you and say, “When in doubt…” I’m hoping you will say: “Wait, what?” Whoops, wrong speech. I’m hoping you will say: “Build a bridge.” When in doubt, build a bridge.

Welcome to the UVA community and the UVA family. We promise to offer you a world-class education with some of the best professors on the planet, professors who are first-class researchers and first-class teachers. You will have a chance to explore in class and outside in ways that you have never before and may never again. I hope you will have a chance to watch the UVA basketball team become the first and only team to lose to a 16-seed one year and win the national championship the next. All we ask in return is that you engage, that you act responsibly and consistent with the honor code and that you treat others—whether faculty, students, or staff—with courtesy and respect.

The next time we all get together as a group will be four years from now, on the other side of the Lawn for graduation. All of you—all of us—will be different people then, shaped by the choices we make over the next few years. I hope you choose to build bridges. Thank you, good luck, and I look forward to seeing you around the Grounds.