Remarks by President Katherine Bergeron presented at Fall Weekend 2014
October 11, 2014
Good morning everyone, and welcome home Camels! I am so pleased to be here with you this morning and to extend my warmest greetings to all you alumni and parents and family members who make up the extended Connecticut College family. We are thrilled to have you back on campus.
I hope you were able to catch some of the a cappella concert last night... And how about that women’s volleyball team? The weekend is off to a great start. And we have a very full and exciting schedule of events lined up for the rest of your time, so I encourage you to take in as much as you can.
This has been an exciting fall for me. I have now embarked on my first full year as President, and I can’t tell you how good it feels to be leading one of the finest liberal arts colleges in the country. I had the pleasure of opening the new academic year at the end of August, and what a beautiful event that was! We welcomed almost 40 new faculty, coaches, and staff members to campus, including Rabbi Susan Schein, our inaugural director of the Zachs Hillel House. And we ALSO celebrated a historic milestone when we ushered in the 100th class to enter Connecticut College. It was a large class, with 530 new first-year and transfer students. They come from 4 continents, 20 countries, and 30 different states, and they speak Urdu, Arabic, Fulani, Hindi, Mandarin, Cantonese, as well as German, Spanish, French, and many other languages. 34 of them have parents or grandparents who attended the College, including one student who is a fourth generation Connecticut College student. 59 are the first in their families to go to College. The class even includes THREE sets of twins who are making a big splash on the women’s soccer and field hockey teams.
You know, when I met the class of 2018 for the first time, one of the things I told them was that coming to Connecticut College would be the best decision they ever made. And I meant it. I have spent the last 8 months in a mode of listening: getting to know students, faculty, staff, parents, and alumni. And I’ve learned some powerful things. So I thought I would begin today by sharing some of these impressions with you along with a few highlights from the last months. And then I’ll touch on the critical projects that we are undertaking to improve the student experience and further enhance the College’s national and international reputation.
Observations and highlights
One of the strongest impressions I’ve come away with in my first months is that Connecticut College is a place where learning is taken very, very seriously — by everyone. It’s clear to me when students sign up for my open hours. I usually ask them to tell me about the best aspect of their time here, and they invariably point their academic experience or to their professors. Just last Sunday, in fact, I was talking to some students over breakfast in Jane Addams, and the seniors were discussing the complications of getting letters of recommendation. This is a common complaint among college seniors, but here at Conn, I learned that the students find it difficult simply because they have so many faculty who know them well that it becomes difficult for them to decide whom to ask.
But in some ways I am not surprised: our faculty is unparalleled — and here I’d include our coaching staff as well. I have honestly never encountered a collection of people with higher standards or more devotion to the educational mission of the institution. They are what I would call exceptional teacher-scholars: they make their research come alive by bringing it into the classroom; and at the same time they are working on their pedagogy to make their teaching ever more effective. In the last year, several of our faculty received awards that recognize these efforts.
• James Downs from the Department of History was named the 2014-15 Distinguished Lecturer by the Organization of American Historians, for the exceptional work he did in his book, Sick From Freedom, which chronicles the early post-civil war reconstruction. The book was the inspiration for new musical by Jim and Ruth Bauer that was previewed this summer at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Institute.
• Mohamed Diagne of the Department of Physics, who specializes in lasers and optical communication, won a Fulbright to teach and do research in Senegal this year.
• And Andrea Lanoux of Slavic Studies and Amy Dooling of East Asian Studies together received a $700,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation to advance the College’s efforts in global liberal arts education. Prof. Lanoux gave a wonderful talk yesterday about a unique discussion course she created here that brings together Connecticut College students with students from the St. Petersburg Higher School of Economics. What her talk demonstrated was the dual passion that informs our best teacher-scholars: how a passion for research leads to new forms of teaching, and a passion for teaching leads to new pathways for research. That’s what happens here all the time and it’s frankly inspiring.
What’s also inspiring, of course, is the openness that this kind of teaching requires: a willingness to try new things and to work hard in the process. And these values, as I’ve discovered, are equally embraced by our students. Which is another thing that has struck me in my first months: I am struck by the openness of this community; by the openness to new people and to new ideas; and ultimately, by the openness to change. I almost feel like our Admission Office should say to our students: don’t come here if you’re not prepared to change and to work hard at it in the process. That’s what people at Connecticut College do.
I would also say that our students see themselves, to a large extent, as change agents. They want to use their education as a way to make a positive difference in society. In fact, a recent research report on Connecticut College showed that, by comparison to peer schools, students here were far more likely to see the “return on investment” in their education not in terms of getting ahead in the world but rather of giving back to the world. There are countless examples to demonstrate this. Looking at this past summer alone, I will mention a few:
• Azul Tellez (from the class of 2015) and Emily McGibeny (from 2016), both scholars at the Goodwin-Niering Center for the Environment, won a $10,000 award from the Davis Projects for Peace to create a new enterprise in Portland, Oregon, devoted to bringing healthy food into an impoverished section of the city.
• Moustafa Ndiaye, an astrophysics and computer science major from the class of 2017, spent his summer teaching for a non-profit called “All Star Code,” which is devoted to preparing young men of color for careers in technology.
• and Melissa Montsalve (from the class of 2014), who majored in economics and environmental science, headed to Washington, DC right after her graduation to begin a prestigious White House appointment to the U.S. Geological survey. She is the youngest person working in the division, currently focused on two projects, one on the California drought and another on water in New York City.
The mission of Connecticut College, as we like to say, is “to put the liberal arts in action,” and these projects are wonderful realizations of that mission. When I have been on the road meeting alumni, I see the same mission operating in their lives after college — with the same tendency toward positive change, and the same outwardly-focused vision. When you ask an alum of Connecticut College about their path after graduation, you never get a straight line, but rather a wonderfully curving and creative path, a story about ever-expanding possibilities and continuous learning.
That’s probably the most profound thing I’ve learned during my first months here — the sense of expanding possibility that lies at the core of this institution. And if you think about it, it is even echoed in the campus landscape. The large open green space on the campus that we call Tempel Green is iconic. And so is the long vista looking south, toward the ocean. I find it striking that, in the 100 years that this College has been in existence, no one has ever dared to fill in that open space, or put anything up that would obstruct the view. To me, that’s significant. Because these features of our landscape remind us to do the most important thing for an environment dedicated to learning. They remind us always to look UP and OUT, toward the future, and new horizons of possibility.
Now, this is a moment when the institution is very much looking up and out. And so it’s perhaps a good moment for me to turn my attention to the state of the College, and spend a few minutes telling you now about the most important projects that are on the horizon.
The first thing to mention is one of the most visible: the renovation of Shain Library. This is one of the major projects we are undertaking this year. If you walk over there you can see that we have literally raised the roof. Construction began in June and it has been remarkable to watch the transformation. It’s a $9.1 million renovation that will provide new high-tech classrooms; new collaborative study areas; an exterior café that will also be a 24-hour study space; and a central glass addition that will bring much more natural light into the building. The second floor will house our new academic resource center — putting critical academic support services in a central location. The building will be complete this summer and we can’t wait for the reopening. We are grateful for the support of parents, alums, and trustees who made this project possible.
And during this building renovation, our faculty has been at work on another important project: rebuilding our curriculum. They have been engaged in the most comprehensive discussion about the educational program at Connecticut College in 40 years. They have been asking: what should a 21st century liberal education look like? What kinds of capacities should a student be developing across their four years? After I arrived in January, the conversation really took off, and it has been enormously exciting to be a part of this. What they are talking about involves not just new courses but a whole new four-year plan: with a strengthened first-year foundation; a more intentional sophomore year where students map out their future course of study; a junior year where they engage with the world beyond campus; and a senior year that puts it all together in an integrative project. The faculty will be taking a series of votes on the requirements over the course of this year. When this is complete, I am convinced that Connecticut College will have THE best liberal arts program in the country.
And that’s because, I should say, at Conn we are just as concerned about students’ lives after College. During these deliberations about the new academic curriculum, in fact, there has been an equally inspired discussion of what you might call a new career curriculum.
I hope you all saw the wonderful op-ed in the New York Times on Labor Day. . . It called out Connecticut College for the excellence of its career-preparation program. And the Princeton Review named Connecticut College among the top 20 schools for career advising in North America — the only liberal arts college in New England on the list. Many of you know that, since about 1999, the College has had a pretty distinctive career education program that includes funding for a summer internship in the junior year.
We have been proud of this program and what it has done for our students. But in the current climate, we cannot afford to be complacent. So this past summer I put together a task force to think about what we must do to advance our program and ensure our leadership position in the future. The group came up with several recommendations, including enhanced internship opportunities for all students; semester-long internships for select seniors; expanded alumni networking events; winter and summer workshops; and a new space for career advising. These recommendations will form the basis, I think, for one part of our next strategic plan . . .
. . . which is the last project I want to mention. In January, I will be completing my first full year as President of Connecticut College — a year that has been characterized by listening and learning. I want to capitalize on that new knowledge in the coming months, by launching an inclusive strategic planning process sometime this Spring. Events like this weekend, where I can talk to parents and alumni, allow me to expand my perspective on the College, and to understand the directions we should be taking for the future. And you can be sure that, as part of our future planning, I will be seeking more input from you. So stay tuned.
Finally — last point. This fall, as I said, we welcomed our 100th class to Connecticut College. This anniversary offered an opportunity to reflect on our origins. Connecticut College was a school born in passion, and with a mission. It was conceived to be a new kind of college, dedicated to educating a new, more modern generation of women, at the dawn of a new and very modern century. And so the original curriculum was quite progressive in its design; it merged the rigors of the traditional liberal arts with professional training that would ensure the future success of graduates in the world. This original concept is all the more relevant and meaningful today, in the increasingly competitive marketplace that our students face. We are in a unique position to build on the College’s progressive legacy with new programs that will produce the savvy and successful leaders of our 21st century. And that is what we are planning to do. I look forward to telling you all about it in the weeks and months to come.
For now, let me end by thanking you again for being here this morning. To you parents, thank you for supporting your sons and daughters in the important work of their learning. To you alums, thank you for carrying on the mission of putting the liberal arts into action. And all of you: thank for your love of and your loyalty to Connecticut College. Enjoy the weekend!