New Student Convocation, Fall, 2010

Sunday, August 22, 2010

When you attend your graduation in what those of us on stage and I’m sure you and your parents hope will be a mere four years from now, you are likely to hear President Delaney refer to the occasion as a rite of passage. Graduation is indeed a rite of passage, but so too is convocation. More accurately they should be regarded as two components of one continuous experience. The former will mark your exit from UNF as proud possessors of bachelor’s degrees. The latter, the occasion we are here to celebrate today, marks your entry into the institution from which you will obtain those degrees.

In the early part of the 20th-century there was a French anthropologist named Arnold van Gennep who wrote a book on the subject of rites of passage. According to van Gennep, every rite of passage is invariably not a twofold but in fact a threefold process: first you separate from the group of which you have been a member; then you undergo a period of transition during which you are neither in the world you have left behind or the one you will eventually enter; and finally you are reincorporated into the world as a different person from the one you were when you left it in the first place.

You already know plenty about the world you are ready to leave behind, and if what I can remember of high school is accurate I can assure you that you have more to look forward to than to miss. Further, as a result of long acquaintance with your parents and other adults you have at least a good sense of the world of limitless possibility and heightened responsibility that you will join upon your graduation. What I want to share with you are a few comments about what to expect during what anthropologists refer to as the liminal stage of the rite of passage, that delicious and indeed privileged period in which you are given license to transcend the boundaries of the past while not yet having to attend to the duties of the future.

What lies between you and your future is UNF itself. As you can no doubt tell from the frequent use of the word “transformation” at today’s event, UNF’s function is to be an agent of change. Viewed as a chemical process, our faculty might be regarded as reagents of change, but you yourselves will be the subjects of that change. I hasten to emphasize that UNF can only assist you in this process. If your transformation is to be meaningful, if you are to achieve your full potential, then the process must be informed by your active participation and involvement. If you had hoped to be passive you have come to the wrong institution. But I also hasten to add that you would not be in the audience today if you had not already demonstrated the capacity to benefit from the opportunity that awaits you. In fact, you are the strongest entering class in UNF’s 39 year history, with test scores, GPAs, and personal qualities that give us every confidence that you will achieve academic and personal success.

As for the nature of that success, whether it is your goal to study music or mathematics, education or engineering, philosophy, physics, or physical therapy, I can assure you that the university has faculty who are prepared to assist you in the exciting odyssey of mind upon which you are about to embark. What distinguishes UNF faculty is not just their expertise—something they share with faculty at universities across the country—but their dedication to sharing their expertise with their students. Your job is to seek them out. When you do, you will find that they will be delighted to take you into their laboratories, regardless of whether those labs are the traditional laboratories of the scientist, the real-world lab of the social scientist, or the representational laboratory of the text or image inhabited by our professors of English and philosophy and art. By virtue of your membership in the UNF community you have a standing invitation to engage with your faculty in the process of discovery. I encourage you to revel in this opportunity because it is this process of discovery that is at the very heart of the process of transformation. Before you can change the world—and it is our expectation that you will indeed find ways to do so—you must discover how to change yourselves, intellectually, socially, and culturally.

That is our mutual task over the next four or so years of your lives. It is not an easy task, and it will not be without its moments of doubt and perhaps even despair. But my prediction—in fact, my promise—is that if you commit yourselves to this challenging task with all the energy, enthusiasm, and talent that you bring to it, this task will not prove to be daunting. On the contrary, you will leave UNF four years hence feeling exhilarated, enlightened, and empowered. In a word, you will truly have been transformed. Remember that, according to the invariable pattern of rites of passage, you will reenter the world as a different person from the one you were when you left it. I cannot say, of course, what form that re-entry will take but I can say that the next four years are likely to be among the most exciting and formative years of your lives. So say good-bye to your past, and welcome to UNF, not a site of mere transition but a place of profound change.

Thank you and good luck.