The Catholic University of America

Freshman Convocation, 2007
James F. Brennan, CUA Provost
Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
Sept. 12, 2007

Fr. O'Connell, President of the University,

Vice Presidents and Deans of the University,

Esteemed Colleagues from the Faculties of the University,

Members of the Class of 2011 of the University:

Now that you have survived two and half weeks, I would like to welcome you to The Catholic University of America on behalf of the almost 400 fulltime faculty, 300 adjunct faculty, and 500 academic support staff. It is my fervent hope that you are discovering in The Catholic University the special place that we on this stage and among your faculty think it is.

First of all I would to thank those who have contributed to the organization of this year's Convocation: Vice Provost Shavaun Wall and Ms. Katherine Gamelin of the Office of Undergraduate Studies; Prof. Leo Nestor, Director of Choral Activities in the School of Music, William H. Atwood, Organist, and the talented students who are leading us in the musical program today. I want to thank members of my staff in the Provost Office for their efficient behind-the-scenes efforts to make this ceremony one of welcoming dignity. I also want to thank Msgr. Walter Rossi, Rector of the Basilica for letting us use this beautiful and impressive venue. This edifice is an international symbol of the American Catholic Church, yet at the same time it is our university church, and the staff of the Basilica are consistently welcoming and supportive of the university throughout the year.

At some point over the last 18 months, you had indicated an interest in The Catholic University of America, you applied, you were accepted, and then you made a final deliberate choice in selecting this university as your academic home, supporting the next stage of your lives. And, The Catholic University chose you. This 2-way relationship is central to your success, and your success defines the university's success. It's as simple as that.

And, thank goodness you're here. Today's convocation marks a kind of rite of passage. As students of The Catholic University of America, we have very high expectations of you. As Father O'Connell said to you on that very first day of orientation two weeks ago, we will expect much from you, and by right you should expect much from us. The notion of a "match" in choosing the right college or university, on your part, and choosing the right mix of students, on our part, makes for what we hope will be a mutually constructive relationship.

What can you expect from The Catholic University? Stated quite simply, the kind of academic community that exists at this University is centered on students and our ability as a community of scholars and practitioners to provide our students with access to the American dream, by opening the life of the mind for each and every one of you. Your success brings vitality to this institution.

There are three great scripture stories about Jesus growing up, which are instructional for us in trying to describe our expectations:

The first is from St. Luke, who is the evangelist who gives us so much of the detail of Jesus' early life. The scene is in Jerusalem where his parents, Mary and Joseph, were fulfilling the Jewish law and presenting the young boy Jesus to God in the Temple. The story is filled with a lot of prophetic messages, but ends with the statement that the after these rituals, the child went with the parents and he grew and became strong, and he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him.

Fast forward 12 years, and St. Luke describes the scene again in the Temple of Jerusalem where the family had gone for the Feast of Passover, and they lost track of Jesus for a few days. After finding him, they got into a bit of a argument that all kids have with parents when they stay away too long without permission. But at the end of that conversation, St. Luke states that Jesus became subject to his parents, returned with them to Nazareth, and he advanced in wisdom and age and grace before God and people. The final description is more visionary and comes from St. John at the very beginning of his Gospel. John talks about the mystery of the incarnation, when the Word of God became a man in Jesus, and dwelt among us. And in his glory, he was filled with grace and truth.

So from these stories, we have three descriptions that provide the model for growth and maturity - wisdom, grace and truth. These goals very simply describe the essentials of an educated person. This is the objective: through wisdom, grace and truth come knowledge, skills and leadership. This is success; this is the program.

In meeting this vision, the University engages in renewable cycle that truly remakes us each academic year. This August, we welcomed to this community 880 of you freshmen who joined 5,500 continuing students. Our students are taught by faculty hired, and continued, not only for their cutting edge scholarship, but for their commitment to bring students into the excitement of that scholarship. At The Catholic University of America we create each academic year the stability of protected intellectual exploration, while also responding to the vicissitudes of the reality that is the mosaic of life in the United States and beyond.

This University provides the way to fulfill these goals, to achieve wisdom, grace and truth, and I believe it does so within a climate of excitement and anticipation. We have a rich curriculum that you need to explore. While we of the faculty are continuing to develop new programs and update existing ones in response to accelerating growth of knowledge and information, as well as changing opportunities in the workforce, we have not done so at the expense of the fundamentals, what is at the core of the liberal arts and sciences. We keep our eyes always on the basics, on what we do best, which is to teach students to think critically and creatively, to communicate well and clearly through both written and oral expressions, and act honestly and with respect as we value our differences and embrace our diversity. The world of work of the 21st Century requires thinking people who can solve problems, work with others, and embrace the diversity of language and culture that characterizes the global economy.

Some of you will go from this point in a straight line to commencement over the next four years. Some of you perhaps will be more focused and finish in less than four years. Others of you will, to borrow an image from sailing, tack your way to the goal, and the journey may take longer. If you are a "tacker," we are here for you when you exaggerate your path and stray to far from the pathway and the goal.

But, no matter what your strategy, I have three points to make with you; these are the street smarts for academic success.

First, don't close yourself off from the wealth of disciplinary and interdisciplinary areas represented in our curriculum - both in the liberal arts and sciences and in the professions. Trust me; you will be going to school, in one form or another, for the rest of your life. Sociologists tell us that not only will you change jobs numerous times in the course of your career; you will actually change careers two or three times. You need to acquire conceptual abilities to serve you in careers involving life-long learning. You don't need to cram all of the content into your brain during these 4, 5, or 6 years as an undergraduate. Don't overspecialize - with our rapidly changing world of information, the details are going to change anyway. You can pursue a major in French and still go to medical school. You can major in civil engineering and still go to law school. You can major in Nursing and still go get an MBA. Explore this place and soak it up. Go to concerts and plays. Attend lectures about politics. Work for a political party or a candidate as we approach the 2008 elections. Get into ministry, join a club, volunteer for the Little Sisters of the Poor across the street. Grow your mind - this is your big chance. It doesn't get any better than this in terms of your pursuing what you want to pursue. The silliest question to ask an 18-, a 19-, or a 62-year old is what do you want to do when you grow up? The answer is at best irrelevant and certainly unimportant, and if you do answer it, you're placing a limit on a world of knowledge that is unfolding before you. You want to grow in wisdom, and grace, and truth.

The second point is especially for those of you who will tack your way through life. If you tack too far, ask for help. Academically, this is a very complicated university, but size-wise, it is small as universities go. The Catholic University has a human dimension to it in the sense that not only do we care for you in the abstract, we want to know and support you as an individual, thinking person. Don't be afraid or too proud about letting us in. Even for those of you who are focused and go the straight line from here to commencement, you don't need to have all the answers. You will have questions, doubts, crises in confidence - let us in. We can help, and we won't be intrusive.

The third point is have fun. Back in the Stone Age when I was a college freshmen, the president of the institution where I received my bachelor's degree once remarked that 95% of all learning in college takes place outside of the classroom. I thought then, as I do now, that it is a very radical statement, one that would never appear in a university recruitment brochure because it implies that this structure we have organized here is unnecessary. Yet there is some truth to what he said. We learn through iterations with others. We bounce off ideas on our friends and colleagues. We test ourselves and our convictions by arguments sometimes that really exaggerate what we start off as a belief. Scholars have recognized this mode of learning, and it is valuable. So learn together, talk, goof off, play games, but in the end listen to each other.

With a University of over 6000 students, 83 undergraduate majors, 90 masters programs, 20 post-masters certificates, and 41 doctoral programs, we are a complicated academic organization. We have two law schools, one in Canon Law and the other in Civil Law, three ecclesiastical faculties accredited to the Holy See, and a number of programs that are nationally ranked as tops in the nation. So, a certain amount of bureaucracy is necessary. However, in the final analysis for learning and true education to occur, we don't need much of the structure, building and even the people typical of any university. Only the dyad of teacher and student represents what is essential for learning and education. Here at The Catholic University, that relationship between teacher and student is precious indeed.

You bring so much in talent and intelligence to this academic community, and, here anyway, we want you to learn and nurture those gifts so that you grow in grace, and wisdom and truth, as leaders in service to others.

Welcome again to this student-centered and values-centered research university.

Thank you.