Although I like to wander around and soak up the sights and sounds as much as I can, I’m officially on deck for a Presidential Welcome in the Cintas Center at 3:30 p.m. It’s our first opportunity to teach them who we are, what we think is important and how we do things here at Xavier University—just as commencement in May is our last such opportunity.
For years now, we’ve set it in the context of prayer. There’s music and singing, an inspirational but non-scriptural reading, and it closes with blessings where we go for the emotional jugular. Parents and families bless their departing students first, but then we turn the tables and have the students bless them back.
We’ve worked hard over the years to get the language just right, and I’m proud to say that the Kleenex tissues could be seen popping out everywhere by the end of the blessing.
The center of the ceremony is a long talk I give whose broad theme is welcome to Xavier and welcome to the rest of your life and what Xavier and the rest of their lives have to do with each other. And it introduces them to a lot of what we believe makes the Jesuit tradition here so important. The talk has stayed pretty consistent for years now, but I tweak it here and there every year to keep it fresh. It’s one of those changes this year that I want to tell you about.
It came at the end of the final section of the talk, as I round third and head for home. In that section, I give them three “Rules for the Road,” so to speak. I invite them to be open to ideas, to be open to themselves and the deep gifts they have, and to be open to others, to resolve that they will become people who will help others get the best from themselves (to paraphrase a nifty quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson I learned from Skip Prosser years ago).
So this year, I decided to put that last point into action. I had the freshmen stand, all 1,221 of them. Then I had them look right and look left. You know what’s supposed to happen next, right? You’ve
heard the stories, I’m sure. The Person In Charge says something along the lines of, “One of you won’t be here in four years.” Sometimes, even two of you won’t be. Powerful words of welcome aren’t they? I’ve never quite understood why this is something a university is supposed to be proud of.
So as they were standing, I told them what universities sometimes say but that isn’t what we say here at Xavier. Here at Xavier, we want them to take responsibility for one another, to resolve right now that they will help make sure that the people around them all make it to graduation. And then I had them shake on it.
And you know what happened next? Everybody applauded. It started with the parents and families sitting down and spread to the students themselves. There was no cue for them to clap. It wasn’t something we asked them to do. They just did it.
I’ve been reviewing statistics from the admissions office about this incoming freshman class and discovered all kinds of wonderful things—that close to 60 percent of them, for example, come from outside the state of Ohio. That 20 percent are the first members of their families ever to go to college. That students of color comprise something approaching one quarter of their number. That the academic markers of the class are right where we want them to be.
But when they applauded the notion that they would take responsibility for one another, that they would make sure that, four years from now, they would help each other get to the other end of the arena bowl where graduation happens, I knew that the admissions office had done a really, really good job this year.
When people ask me every year about this time how things are going, I liken this part of the school year to that first hill on a roller coaster ride, where they winch the car slowly up to the top of that big first hill—after which they let you go and all you can do is hang on and scream. But it’s great to begin this year knowing that we have a massive transfusion of 1,221 kids who are ready, willing and able to
make a great contribution to who we are and what we do here at X. Should be a terrific year.