2011 Convocation Speech: Project 2015
Given by President Beverly Daniel Tatum
August 25, 2011
Print Version (pdf)
Good morning! Thank you, Raven, for such a warm and gracious introduction. I am really looking forward to working with you and all of the other student leaders this year. If the positive energy you brought to “When and Where I Enter,” our opening new student orientation event last week is any indication, you are off to a great start! Congratulations!
And this morning, let’s pause and thank our musicians again – our wonderful Glee Club under the direction of Dr. Kevin Johnson, and Dr. Joyce Johnson, our delightful college organist and professor emerita of music. Thanks as well to Dr. Butler and Dean Rhodes for starting us off with their words of wisdom and blessing.
It is great to see all of you here. This opening convocation is one of my favorite events because it marks the beginning of a new school year, a school year that offers new learning opportunities for all of us – not just students, but faculty, staff, administrators – new opportunities for all of us to embrace what it means to be a part of this special academic community. It is also another opportunity to welcome our newest students, attending their first opening convocation at Spelman College.
Again, I want to welcome our new Pauline Drake Scholars, our transfer students, our international and domestic exchange students, and of course, the Class of 2015!
And to members of the class of 2012, moving ever closer to that graduation date – Sunday, May 20, 2012 -- welcome to your last opening convocation as students at Spelman! And of course, we welcome our sophomores and juniors as well.
I also want to thank our faculty and staff who have joined us this morning. Today we will have the great opportunity to spotlight some very accomplished members of our faculty as part of this morning’s program – and I want to thank their friends and family members for joining us to help celebrate their achievements.
Some of you know I have a Twitter account and I like to take pictures of events at Spelman with my I-phone and post them on Twitter. If you will indulge me, I am going to take a picture of all of you right now with my phone. (BDT takes picture).
Thanks for your patience. Now, I am turning my phone off and students, I would like to ask you to turn yours off too. I am going to need your undivided attention, because we’ve got important work to do and I am going to need all of your help.
It is customary on this occasion to lift up the successes of the year that has just ended and preview some of what is to come in the new academic year. Last year I titled my talk “Sustainable Spelman” and highlighted three forms of sustainability – environmental, personal, and communal.
The sustainability theme continues to be important as we continue our work as signatories to the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. Our Sustainability Task Force, led by Art Frazier and Dr. Fatemeh Shafiei, is doing great work, and we will continue that effort this year as we look to reduce our carbon footprint and increase our stewardship of our natural resources such as clean water and clean air with the development of our Climate Action Plan. I was delighted that our students had a chance to see the film, Carbon Nation, as part of new student orientation, and hopefully you got some ideas about how each of us can make a difference in our effort to reduce our environmental impact at Spelman.
Also, we are continuing our focus on personal sustainability, as we expand our health and wellness program on campus. Students, you may know that the Surgeon General of the United States has said that yours is the first generation that is predicted to have a shorter lifespan than your parents because of sedentary lifestyles and poor nutritional choices.
At Spelman, we are investing a lot in your education and future success, and we want you to live long and healthy lives so you can put that education to good use. Now is the time to develop healthy habits that will last a lifetime, and that is why we have expanded our wellness program (with so many great work-out options) -- and this year in partnership with Aramark, our dining service vendor – we will be working to increase the healthy choices in our cafeteria, which will benefit all of us. We were so fortunate to have First Lady Michelle Obama as our commencement speaker in May, and we embrace her “Let’s Move” campaign to reduce obesity and increase the longevity of our young people.
We also want to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS and the toll it is taking on the African American community, particularly among young adults in general, and African American women in particular. We will combine our focus on HIV/AIDS and the importance of physical activity and community service when many of us participate in the 5K Atlanta AIDS Walk on October 16. I want to thank Secretary of the College Cathy Daniels and Professor of Mathematics Colm Mulcahy, along with Dr. Aditi Pai in Biology for leading this effort among faculty and staff. Students, we hope you will join us in this College effort. Whether you want to run or walk (I will be walking), join us for that Spelman team effort. Stay tuned for more information about that from our Spelman Aids Walk Atlanta Committee.
Our attention to communal sustainability through preservation of the Spelman brand is always important, and our Standards of Excellence – civility, commitment and consistency – now integrated into the Student Honor Code – are a continuing part of our effort to ensure the sustainability of our reputation for excellence – operational and organizational excellence as well as excellence of character and academic achievement.
As president, I will also be very focused on the sustainability of our fundraising efforts, efforts which have brought us more than 2/3rds of the way to our campaign goal of $150 million, and led us to an alumnae annual participation rate of 41%. Kudos to our Institutional Advancement and College Relations team for this great work! And I want to recognize our Vice President for Business and Financial Affairs and his investment team who have been navigating the volatility of Wall Street and the financial markets, and continue to grow our endowment – now valued at $327 million – allowing us to continue to provide scholarships for students and support the efforts of our faculty and staff. These efforts and the fabulous leadership of our Provost, Dr. Johnnella Butler and her team working closely with our faculty on our curriculum give us tremendous momentum as we enter this new academic year.
But the title of today’s talk is not Sustainable Spelman – Part Two. My presentation today is titled, Project 2015.
Project 2015 – what is that, you must be asking?
With all due respect to the Classes of 2014, 2013 and 2012, I have to be honest and say that, Class of 2015, this project is all about you – you, the Class of 2015. As you may know, we have a strategic plan, entitled “Strengthening the Core: The Spelman College Plan for 2015.” Our strategic plan addresses all aspects of the College, but its primary focus is on our academic program. It includes ambitious goals for all of our students – global experiences, opportunities for undergraduate research and career-related internships, alumnae connections (already in evidence at our induction ceremony on Sunday), leadership development plans, and service learning linked to the curriculum in important ways. These bold educational goals are embedded in what our faculty creatively named the Spelman MILE (my integrated learning experience).
The Spelman MILE is very familiar to some of us by now – it begins with First Year Experience, then Sophomore Year Experience, introduces interdisciplinary “Free Thinking Seminars,” leads to in-depth study within a major, and finishes with a capstone experience allowing students to demonstrate their ability to think critically, drawing from multiple sources of knowledge to solve complex problems, and communicate ideas clearly and effectively – all hallmarks of an excellent liberal arts education.
There is a verse from Proverbs (9:1-2) that someone paraphrased and illustrated for me that hangs in my home office in Reynolds Cottage. It says “Wisdom has built herself a house and set herself a table.” And I think of it when I think about Spelman. Beginning with the founders, Sophia Packard and Harriet Giles, and the indispensable Father Frank Quarles, there have been generations of wise women and men that have devoted their time and energy here to build this house of learning, and set a table of academic opportunity for generations of students.
Today, with the Spelman College Plan for 2015, it truly is a world-class learning opportunity that is being created here at Spelman - a veritable academic feast is being set on the table. All of our current students will benefit from the efforts we are making each day. But it is the Class of 2015 that will be the first class that will have the opportunity to sit at the Spelman table and enjoy the fruits of our new strategic plan in all of its dimensions.
So let me embellish that image just a little bit. Imagine that we set a big long banquet table perhaps, like the one in the Harry Potter movies (at Hogwarts), with a hundred places set at the table . Everyone is gathered at the table to eat, except as you look around the table, every fifth chair is empty. The table is set for 100 people, but only 80 are eating. The other 20 people are missing from the table.
This is like the situation we currently have at Spelman. We have the best graduation rate of any HBCU in the nation, and better than most PWIs. The national six-year graduation rate among all colleges and universities is only about 50 %. For African American college students, in particular, it is about 40%. So when I tell you that the six-year graduation rate at Spelman is about 80%, you can appreciate that we have been doing a great job at Spelman. Still, at the graduation banquet table, every fifth seat is empty. Twenty percent of our talented student body has had to leave the table before completing their educational goals.
Our faculty and staff are all working hard to set a most excellent table of educational experiences. We have re-examined our general education curriculum, strengthened our advising processes, expanded our opportunities for students. We have been particular about who we invited to the table – each year choosing only those we thought were ready and able to take full advantage of what was being offered. Now our newest specially selected guests have arrived.
Class of 2015, I want every single one of you to experience the whole banquet – from beginning to end – not just 80% of you. So, I am asking you today to join me in making history!
2015, you have the chance to change the world – the world of expectations – by being the first class to graduate nearly 100% of its members in the next 4 years. Some of you will pursue the dual-degree program (that’s 5 years), and some may have other compelling reasons to take more than the usual 4 years to finish, but I believe that many more than usual can cross the stage on May 17, 2015 and shake my hand as I give you your diploma. In fact, I am holding a vision of nearly 100% of you, members of the Class of 2015, crossing that stage on May 17. But it can’t happen without your active participation. You are the ones that will bring that vision to reality.
I know that is your intention. No one enters college without the desire to graduate. But things happen that may lead you to doubt yourself and the possibility of success. Maybe there is a financial struggle that seems insurmountable. Maybe you aren’t doing as well on those first exams as you expected. Maybe that sense of homesickness you might be feeling just doesn’t seem to be going away. Maybe none of those things will happen, but sometimes they do. And if they do, I have one request of you. Talk to someone – your faculty advisor, one of our deans, a counselor, another student, maybe your RA, come to my open office hours – sometimes just sharing the situation out loud makes a difference. Talk about it with someone who can help before you make any rash decisions.
But, let me caution you - whatever you do, don’t cheat. Whatever your situation, cheating will make it worse. Principles of honesty and integrity are at the heart of our 3 C’s and we want Spelman women to be exemplars in this regard. There are no shortcuts to success. We have been reminded of that quite dramatically this summer as the details of the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal have been uncovered. Nothing was gained and much was lost as the result of that dishonesty. At Spelman, if you find yourself in academic difficulty, know that there is help available. You can make improvement through hard work and effective effort – but academic dishonesty will derail your progress to graduation very quickly. There are no shortcuts to success. And if you see someone about to make that mistake, be a good sister and try to talk her out of it. If you can’t talk her out of it, be a good sister and turn her in. All of us must be willing to work together to maintain academic integrity within our community. I say that every year, and I know it is disturbing to some to hear me say “turn your sister in.” I hope none of you ever have to face such a dilemma, and with all the supports available to ensure your success, you shouldn’t have to. We believe you have what it takes to be successful the old-fashioned way – to earn it with your hard work and dedication to excellence.
Your success at Spelman is important to all of us, and we believe you can do it. More than 6,000 students applied to be in the Class of 2015 – you are the ones who were chosen. We chose you because we believed you have what it takes to become a Spelman woman – a woman undaunted by the fight to achieve her goals.
There are lots of people, people like the faculty and staff who are here today, who are holding the vision of your success, and are ready and waiting to help you reach your goals. But you have to do your part.
So what do you have to do? There are ten things that will help you on your journey – along that Spelman MILE.
These ten things came to me while hiking this summer. Some of our faculty and staff know that I often draw inspiration for my opening convocation speeches from my summer vacations. I like to take vacations where I can be physically active, and one of my favorite places is in the Baja California region of Mexico (just South of San Diego) at a fitness retreat where you can go on a guided hike every morning before breakfast.
It is a beautiful place and you can choose hikes at your desired level of difficulty - from short hikes over rolling hills at the base of the mountain or longer, more challenging hikes that take you up and over the mountain. I have been going to this location twice a year since 2007 and for the first two years, I only did the rolling hills hikes. I admired the people who went up the mountain every morning, but I questioned whether I had the stamina to manage the steep and steady inclines. But, I was really curious about what you could see from the top. Finally, in 2009, I decided to try a 3 mile mountain hike. It was hard. The calves of my legs ached as the inclines increased, and I often found myself short of breath. I walked slowly, and stopped often, but eventually I made it to the top and down again. I was thrilled! I have been hiking the mountain ever since, and each time I visit, I try a hike a little more difficult than the one before. This year I tried one that was 5.5 miles. I wish I could tell you that I finished it. I didn’t. I took the 4 mile exit off the trail. But along the way, I reflected on 10 lessons about a challenging journey (like the one you have embarked on here at Spelman) that I believe will help you finish yours.
- Unplug and listen. When you start on one of these mountain hikes, you will see a sign that tells you to unplug from earphones or other devices that distract you from your environment. There are rattlesnakes in the area and other wildlife, and you need to be able to hear the warning sounds and be alert to your surroundings. The same advice applies at Spelman. We don’t have rattlesnakes, but we do have opportunities that you will miss if you are not paying attention. The perfect scholarship opportunity, the chance to travel abroad or apply for a fabulous internship will go unnoticed if you are texting when the announcement about it gets made. Whether in Sisters Chapel or a classroom in Cosby – give your learning opportunities your full attention.
- Don’t hike alone. When I hike, I am often walking alone because the people walking faster than me are up ahead, and the people walking slower than me are lagging behind. I don’t mind that because I don’t really want to make conversation. I like to have a little space between me and the next hiker. I like the quiet of the morning and to be alone with my own thoughts. But even though I am walking at my own pace, I am not hiking alone. There is safety and success in numbers. The same is true at Spelman. You have to do your own work at your own pace – but there is value in journeying in the company of others. That is what this sisterhood is all about – learning in the presence of others who share your goals will be a source of encouragement. When I am hiking and I see that I am not the only person who is getting tired or out of breath, I feel better, and I am motivated to keep going. In the same way, if you are struggling with a topic, and you see others are too, you can problem solve together. Research tells us that students who study in groups tend to be more successful than those who study alone.
- Encourage each other. This is perhaps related to #2. One of the reasons I decided to hike the mountain the first time is because another hiker encouraged me. He said, you can do it, just put one foot in front of the other, and take your time. You can do it. And he was right. That is just what I did. But the encouragement was what I needed to make the attempt. Offer that kind of encouragement to each other.
- Set challenging goals for yourself. Of course, by choosing to come to Spelman, you have already done that. But now that you are here, continue to aim high. You may not hit your target the first time, but you will be stronger for the effort. [5.5 miles turned out to be more than I was ready for, but I would not have achieved my personal best of 4 miles on the mountain if I had not started out aiming for 5.5.]
- Expect the unexpected. I am a person who almost always has a plan for what I intend to do next, and that has served me well. I am sure many of you are like that. You planned to be ready for admission to Spelman. But one thing I have learned on the hiking trail and off is that you can’t plan everything. Stuff happens – but you can’t let it derail you from your goal. On one of my hikes this summer, I was walking with purpose and determination when I turned the bend in the trail and discovered that there was a pack of wild horses eating grass along the trail, completely blocking my path.
There was no way around them, and they did not seem in any hurry to move. “What’s a girl to do?” Take a picture with the I-phone. But, don’t let the unexpected derail you from your task. Become a problem solver. Which leads me to Lesson #6…
- Ask for help. I suppose I could have chased those horses away on my own, but if I startled them, and they ran toward me, there was nowhere to safely move out of their way on the narrow trail, with rocks on either side. I had to ask for help. I turned back and walked toward the hikers who had been lagging behind me. The guide with them, experienced with the horses, moved ahead and forcefully chased them away. I felt a little foolish (maybe I could have done that myself, I thought), but the reality was I did need help. There will be times when you encounter situations at Spelman that you cannot solve on your own. There is no shame in asking for assistance from your advisor – from the dean- from an RA – from a counselor. Knowing when to ask for help can make the difference between a successful journey to graduation and one that ends prematurely.
- Pause if you have to. There are times when you are hiking that you just have to stop and rest for a minute. Catch your breath, give your legs a break, take a sip of water. Recharge. Whenever I do that and I see other hikers that I was ahead of, now passing me by, the competitive aspect of my ego gets a little bruised. I don’t want to stop. I want to be at the front of the hiking line. But sometimes you just have to give yourself that opportunity to recharge. At Spelman , the need to pause might be because of finances. The money you need just isn’t there, and you might have to pause.
This year we are launching a pilot co-op program which we hope will help students who need to pause for financial reasons find a way to “learn and earn” for a semester with competitively paid employment that allows students to generate more of the resources they need to continue their education and at the same time provide meaningful career-related experience. The program will begin this year with a small group of students who will be selected and prepared this fall, and who will do their co-op placements this spring. We will assess how it works, but we hope this might be a mechanism to help students for whom there is such a need.
- It’s effective effort that counts. When you are walking up a steep incline, the natural tendency is to hunch over as you pull against gravity and move up the mountain. When you do that, you start to huff and puff. You are working hard, making a lot of effort, but it’s not effective effort. It’s not effective, because in that hunched over position, your lungs are closed in and you can’t breathe very well. It is much more effective to stand up straight and put your hands on your hips or even clasped behind your back, because that forces your lungs open, and you can breathe more efficiently. Less effort, more effective.
When I was a classroom instructor, I occasionally talked to students who had not done well on an exam who would say, “I studied so hard for that!” and it was true. They studied hard, but not effectively. If you are working hard, and not getting the results you expect, talk to your professor or visit the Learning Resources Center so you can learn more effective methods. It never would have occurred to me to walk with my hands behind my back when going up a steep incline, but it does work. It is easier. There are going to be strategies for academic success that you may not have thought of – when in distress, open up and don’t forget Lesson #6 – ask for help, and turn your hard work into effective effort.
- The 9th lesson did not actually come from a hike. But I thought of it on a hike. That is “Clear the Clutter.” When I am really busy, the piles around me grow. Piles of mail, piles of magazine articles I intend to read, piles of draft speeches I am working on, piles and piles of stuff. When the piles get too high, I can’t think because I am distracted by my piles. Clearing the piles away always makes me feel better, and allows me to focus my mind once again on the important things I need to do. Everyone has clutter in their lives – maybe piles like mine, or clutter of another kind – bad habits like procrastination, or people in your life who are a source of negative energy, or mindless TV watching. If something or someone is preventing you from focusing on your goals, do what you can to “clear that clutter.”
- “Begin with the end in mind” The 10th lesson I have borrowed from Steven Covey’s 7 habits of highly effective people. It works for hiking as well as it does for academic success. Understand what your goal is and what it will take to achieve it. I have a goal of completing that 5.5 mile mountain hike. I haven’t done it yet, but I am confident I will. Persistence pays off! You have a goal of graduating from Spelman, and I am confident that all of you can – if you persist and keep your eye on that prize.
Unplug and listen, don’t “ hike” alone, encourage each other, set ambitious goals, expect the unexpected, ask for help, pause if you have to, learn effective strategies, clear your clutter, and keep the end in mind!
Do these things and you will complete your Spelman MILE in great form – and together the Class of 2015 will make history!