Convocation Address 2009

Convocation Address
President Scott S. Cowen
Tulane University
August 22, 2009


Be a Difference Maker

It gives me great pleasure to welcome the class of 2013 to Tulane University. Based on the authority vested in me by the Tulane Board of Administrators, I hereby declare the class of 2013 officially matriculated at Tulane University with all the rights, privileges and responsibilities thereto.

I now ask the audience to join me in a thunderous round of applause for our newest Tulanians.

Today, each of you becomes a member of a scholarly community that was founded as the Medical College of Louisiana in 1834.  Since then Tulane University has evolved into one of the most respected and distinguished universities in the U.S.

Your class will add to this legacy of accomplishment and distinction because you are among the “best and brightest” students to graduate from high school this year. Your academic credentials and list of contributions to the communities where you lived and went to school support this lofty observation.  However, from my perspective, you are not merely among the best, you are THE BEST entering college class in America and there is none other we’d rather have. Why--because you chose to come to Tulane University in New Orleans at this historic moment, which demonstrates to us your character and personal values.  

It’s no accident that you are here.  You chose Tulane because you know an education is more than acquiring knowledge or perfecting a skill. A true education is a process that transforms you into the kind of human being this world and city needs.

While you are at Tulane University you will have the opportunity to develop the habits of the mind and heart that will allow you to make substantive lifelong contributions to your chosen professions and to society in general.  You will become a “difference maker” at Tulane—someone ready and willing to change the world by working to eradicate its most intractable problems.

I was thinking about all of you a few weeks ago when I was reading about Greg Mortenson, an exemplary difference-maker and author of the bestselling book Three Cups of Tea.  If you have not read this book, I recommend it to you.  It is a remarkable story of how one person has devoted his life to building schools for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Thus far, he has built over 170 schools in the remotest areas of these countries so the next generation of young women will have a better life and, in turn, be difference-makers in their countries and the world. Mortenson’s accomplishments are inspirational, remarkable and visionary.  But his journey began just as yours is with a desire to make a difference.

Now let me give you another example much closer to home.  While volunteering as a high school teenager on a camping trip with low-income kids from Atlanta, current Tulane University student Laura White was asked to supervise a swimming trip that suddenly turned disastrous. Fortunately, Laura, a competitive swimmer, was able to rescue five children from drowning.  

For most people carrying out such a heroic act would have satisfied their desire to help others. But Laura wanted to do more.

After saving the children, Laura realized that she and her fellow swimmers had a valuable skill they could share with these and other children, who had been robbed of many of the opportunities we often take for granted.   At 16 years of age, Laura started Wild and Water Swimming, a nonprofit organization that teaches swimming and water safety to low-income urban youth. When she began her collegiate studies at Tulane University last year, Laura expanded the program to New Orleans.

Wild and Water Swimming has taught 150 low-income children how to swim. But beyond just swimming, this innovative program fights poverty holistically by using the sport of swimming as a medium to greater confidence and achievement.   

Laura is now a sophomore majoring in Political Economy and Social Policy. She is also a Youth Venture Ambassador, working to inspire other youth to start non-profit organizations and social ventures. Laura is truly a difference-maker.

I promise you that your undergraduate experience will be unlike any other in the U.S. because of the intellectual and civic engagement opportunities provided by Tulane. These include participation in the greatest recovery of an America city since the Civil War.  Your education will be holistic, substantive, unique and, most importantly, it will transform you.

All of you are privileged.  Not because you have had an easy life or come from great wealth.  You are privileged because you have been given the opportunity and gift of a first-class education.  With privilege comes responsibility to make life better for someone less fortunate than you. This is how you will change the world. This is your destiny. I have no doubt you will embrace this responsibility as your life’s purpose, pleasure and passion.

I now leave you with two short bits of advice and a story. First, the advice:

  • Make the best use of these four years—both in the classroom and in the community. I guarantee you that the time will go quickly and you want to take full advantage of this unique opportunity, which is one of the most precious gifts you can receive in life.
  • Remember the golden rule as you conduct your life –“do unto others as you would have them do unto you."  Be responsible, respectful, tolerant and accepting of those around you and the community in which you belong.  

Now I want to share with you a story about Paul Tulane, for whom this institution is named. Tulane was a trader and cotton merchant who often conducted business in New Orleans but who was actually a native and resident of New Jersey. In his later years, Paul Tulane approached his alma mater, Princeton, and offered the trustees a gift if they’d rename the university after him. Obviously, since Princeton is still called Princeton, they turned him down—something he took quite personally.

But Paul Tulane was persistent and he wanted to make a difference in the world.  In 1884, he offered the money instead to the state of Louisiana to name a university in New Orleans after him. The state was already stretched too thin in the post-Civil War economy to adequately fund both the University of Louisiana and LSU, so they funneled the money to the University of Louisiana, privatized it and renamed it Tulane University.

After his death, Tulane was buried in Princeton but with his back turned to the university and his head pointed purportedly toward the South.

There are many lessons hidden in this story but one of the key ones is to never disappoint or rebuff someone from New Jersey. By the way, in the interest of full disclosure, I should add that I was born and raised in the Garden State myself.  Therefore, it is always advisable to properly behave so the revengeful component of Paul Tulane’s spirit as handed down to this Jersey Boy in front of you never has to be evoked.

The second lesson is to never give up. If you are persistent and determined in life more often than not you will achieve what you seek.  I suspect, however, that you already learned this lesson and it may account for why many of you are here today.

Finally, Paul Tulane, despite his idiosyncrasies, was a difference-maker by realizing his dream for a better world through the creation of Tulane University.

To be a “difference-maker” you must have the knowledge, values, experiences and interpersonal skills to identify and implement change.  At Tulane, we are totally committed to your development as advanced citizens of the world who will lead with wisdom and integrity, and who will make a difference by making the world better.

Remember, the measure of your life will ultimately be determined by what difference you make for others not just what you do for yourself.

I look forward to taking this journey with you and watching you grow every step of the way. You have chosen Tulane and Tulane embraces you.

I offer you my warmest welcome to the Tulane community.

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