2013 Convocation Address

President Scott S. Cowen
Tulane University
August 24, 2013


Saying Hello


Good afternoon.

On behalf of the Tulane University community I am delighted to welcome you - the class of 2017/18.

Students, are you excited? Parents, are you excited? You all have every reason to be excited.

The academic community you join today was founded in 1834 as the Medical College of Louisiana. In 1847, the Medical College merged with the University of Louisiana, a public university, and finally, in 1884, the University of Louisiana was privatized and named for its benefactor Paul Tulane.

For many years Paul Tulane worked as a trader and cotton merchant here in New Orleans, but he was actually a native of New Jersey. In his later years, he approached his alma mater, Princeton, and offered them a sum of money 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, being a Tulanian in the truest sense of the word, was persistent. 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.

Still, Tulane never forgot Princeton's refusal. After his death, he was buried in Princeton but with his back turned to the university and his face pointed toward the South. But it didn't stop there. Just a few months ago his great, great, great, great, great, great niece graduated from Tulane -- not from Princeton.

There are many lessons in this story but one of the key ones is to never disappoint or rebuff someone from New Jersey. And in the interest of full disclosure, I should add here that I was born and raised in the Garden State.

But now New Orleans is my home and it is your home, too. And this is the day we say hello. We smile and shake hands. Most likely, I will give you a hug. I will tell you how truly glad I am to finally meet each of you and your families face-to-face, and I will mean it.

I will also remember that in just four or five years, it will be time to say goodbye. The time between the hello and the goodbye will go like a flash. But these lightning years are the ones that will play a significant role in not only what you will do with your life, but who you will become.

So what happens between the hello and the goodbye - what will you do, how will you spend your time, what will you accomplish?

I would like to offer two suggestions, "explore" and "engage."

It's the shock of the new that opens the pathway for deeper thinking and feeling. Now is the time to launch a lifelong journey into intellectual and emotional experience; this is one of the few times in your life that you will have the freedom and flexibility to develop your emotional intelligence while also gaining knowledge and competencies that will shape, mold and define your future.

Commitments, obligations and distractions will inevitably steal your time later in life. But now, you are free. Take advantage of it! Use your freedom wisely.

A Tulane education is a participatory event -- a vibrant, exciting and memorable experience that encompasses the entire city of New Orleans and the world. For example, one of the Tulane Interdisciplinary Seminars (TIDES) is devoted to the study of Mardi Gras: its social meanings, its racial history, its anthropological roots. You'll experience Mardi Gras Indians in full costume, brass bands, second lines, floats and beads. You'll also experience what it means when "the good times roll." You'll explore the city and learn its neighborhoods, its enclaves, its customs.

Some of the richest, deepest learning comes from collision with what is different and unknown. The public service component of your curriculum will bring you off campus and into relationships that are new and unfamiliar. These encounters will change both you and the people with whom you encounter and engage.

Years from now when you mention that you went to Tulane, get ready for people to expect a good story from you. You will be ready, too, if you partake of all the delightful cultural and social experiences New Orleans offers. Do it smartly and safely, and you will learn about the food, music, architecture, and most of all about the resilience and grit -- two attributes that will serve you well in the future -- of the wonderful people of this iconic city.

Stretch yourself academically and socially, get out of your comfort zone, and develop interests and skills you never thought possible. Science majors take a course on Shakespeare. Business majors take a course on Aristotle. English majors take a finance course. Pre-med students take a theater course. Theater majors take an engineering class. Environmental science majors take a dance course. In fact, everyone should learn how to dance. It just makes you feel happy.

Attend at least one game, every semester, in every sport played here at Tulane. Our student-athletes represent you at the highest level of intercollegiate competition. They need and deserve your support.

Likewise, attend at least one campus art exhibition, concert, play and extracurricular lecture every semester. The arts need and deserve your support. You need and deserve their lessons, too. Attend at least one service or event sponsored by a religious or political organization of which you know or care little about so that you will know and care a little more.

Make friends outside the group with which you normally associate. You may find these are some of the best friends you will ever meet. Occasionally, these new friends may also remind you of why you don't socialize outside your group. But, either way, you will be richer for the experience.

Before you graduate develop a tangible product that displays your capabilities -- a book, a painting, a piece of software, something that demonstrates your talents in ways that are valued by yourself and others. Find out where your passion lies and develop the roadmap to achieve a career worthy of that passion. If at all possible, create your own job rather than waiting for others to give you one. New Orleans is filled with businesses, buildings, events and opportunities created by Tulane graduates. We need more.

Most importantly, make a difference in someone else's life, especially those who need help the most. This is what a Tulane education is all about -- using what you learn in the classroom to make the world outside the classroom a better place. When this happens knowledge becomes wisdom and skill is refined until it becomes empowerment that transforms your life and the lives of others.

This is what it means to truly grow intellectually, ethically and emotionally.

This is why we are the first and only major research university to integrate public service into the core curriculum of every undergraduate.

This is why "Only at Tulane, Only in New Orleans" is not just a slogan but a way of life.

This is why when you graduate you will not only have knowledge and skill, you will have the real-world experience, ethics and empathy to become the leading thinkers, doers and changers of our society. You will be a different person, a better human being.

You will get more than good grades and a good job. You will achieve a sense of fulfillment by becoming the person you want to be. You will help others achieve their dreams, too, and become who they want and deserve to be.

And while you are doing all this, be sure to keep in touch with your family. They will worry about you, especially the ones who seem so excited right now to get you out of the house. So make life easier for them. Besides they may be paying your bills and it is always wise to stay on the good side of your funders.

One more thing before I let you go. When you exit through the front doors of this building you will see the Tulane Victory Bell. Thousands before you have rubbed this bell as their first official act as Tulane students. Now it is your turn.

Remember all those who came before you as you rub the bell and those that will come after. This time between your undergraduate "hello" and "goodbye" is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that will shape the rest of your life. It is the beginning of your legacy. It is your time. Do not waste a second.

Office of the President Emeritus, 1555 Poydras St, Suite 700, New Orleans, LA 70112 504-274-3638