Welcome to the Conversation

New Student Convocation

By Nathan O. Hatch

Wait Chapel, Wake Forest University

Good morning. It is my privilege to welcome you to Wake Forest University. Julie and I begin our third year in this special place. We trust your experience joining this community will be as positive as ours has been. This morning, as you woke up in an entirely new environment, I trust that you are as excited about the future as we are.

For all of you, students and parents alike, this is a momentous day. On any scale, going off to college is a seismic event. The emotional Richter scale jumps to new levels. For some of you, entering Wake Forest is a threshold that you will cross with exuberance, while others will inch towards with apprehension. Leaving home and finding one’s place amidst academic rigor and talented peers is no easy chore. Today, whether you are brimming with confidence, or with apprehension — or just plain numb by the swirl of events around you — I want to begin with several words of advice.

Today we welcome you with open arms into the Wake Forest family. There’s nothing more to earn, to join, or to accomplish. You are a member of this learning community in full standing. There is no first-class or coach section. We at Wake Forest are privileged that you have chosen us to become your alma mater, and today we embrace you with an unqualified welcome. We are thrilled that you are adding your gifts and talents, your commitments and concerns to this community.

Wake Forest provides a rich banquet of opportunities for learning and service, for making friends, for experiencing the arts, for participating and for watching sports. You can join a fraternity or sorority, or you can choose not to do so. I encourage you to explore this rich banquet of activities and opportunities.

This is a community where, above all, learning is prized, and I have three simple words of advice as you begin the pilgrimage of being a university student. Allow me to draw from personal experience.

In my first semester of college, I had a history professor who picked on me. When I raised my hand to respond to questions, he seemed to respond by showing how limited were my answers, or he added a second question that was a curve ball that I had no chance of hitting. He seemed to single me out for tough assignments. Early in the term he assigned me to write a report on a lengthy treatise of Niccolo Machiavelli, a name unfamiliar to me. Professor Hutchinson challenged me to make sense out of the book on my own before going to a textbook or encyclopedia for easy answers. (And, of course, that was in the days before Google.) When I did well on an early test in the course, Professor Hutchinson wrote in response: “Nathan, I will send up more flack next time.”

George Hutchinson picked on me, and you know something? I loved it. He had a keen sense how learning takes place, an understanding that a student’s mind is not a bucket to fill but a fire to light. I found that history class engaging and invigorating, not easy to be sure, but it evoked my curiosity and generated a passion for learning that contributed in no small measure to my love of history.

At Wake Forest our goal is to pick on you in this way. This campus is honeycombed with tremendous learning opportunities. It is a banquet to which we invite you to bring healthy appetites. Do not sit on the sidelines. We are blessed with hundreds of faculty members who have given themselves to study the marvelous world in which we live, from the complexities of molecular biology to the dynamics of modern political campaigns, from the insights of Aristotle and Augustine, to the forces at work in Wall Street markets. Faculty love to have conversation partners. Make sure you engage them at every opportunity.

Let me also share a second story. The single most valuable class I had in college was one with a professor whose classroom and lectures did not buzz with the electricity of Professor Hutchinson’s. But Professor Thomas Kay also understood learning. In a fifteen week term, this teacher of medieval history assigned us twelve short papers from a broad list of suggested topics. I remember spending two solid days per week doing the research, the careful thought and reasoning, and the writing of these papers. By the end of the term, I had a sense that something had changed about the way I thought, the way I could argue a point, and the way I could write with more conviction. It was if my mind had gone to the weight room for regularly conditioning. I walked out of Professor Kay’s class a far more capable and confident person.

I mention this to encourage you to remain active learners. What you are willing to invest in classes here at Wake Forest is just as important as what is delivered to you in lectures, seminars, and laboratory sessions.

My final story has to do with a class I took in classical Greek. This was an introductory course and had great potential to be dry as dust — memorizing a new alphabet, conjugating verbs, struggling with vocabulary. But the class was anything but boring because the teacher, Professor Hawthorne, had an infectious love for his subject and for awakening his students to what was really important. Today, I remember very little of the Greek I learned in that class. But I remember many lessons and insights learned from a marvelous human being, whose values and whose approach to life I deeply admired. It was not so much what Professor Hawthorne said that was impressive but how he approached life, what he believed, how he reached out and helped other people.

I trust that your coursework at Wake Forest will not be academic in any narrow sense. At this place we invite you to search out life’s bedrock questions: What can I know? What ought I to do? In what can I believe? How can I serve? A generation ago, polls tell us, 85% of entering students expected the college experience to help develop a philosophy of life. Today less than half do.

So, above and beyond your daily assignments, I challenge you to find in the curriculum here an opportunity to wrestle with what you really believe and in what values are worth investing your life.

We meet today in Wait Chapel, whose magnificent spire can be seen from most places on campus. On many nights, when I return to campus, I turn the corner and there above the dark outline of academic halls and stately trees rises this beautiful landmark pointing upwards. Such a view reminds us that learning at this place should, in the end, involve grappling with questions of meaning and purpose. Our goal here is to assist you on a path and not just how to make a living, but how to live.

My advice today, then, is simple. First, we welcome each of you to this community with open embrace. You are a member in full standing. Second, engage the faculty. They love to have conversation partners. Third, become active learners. In most cases, what you get out of a course will be proportionate to what you invest in it. Finally, wrestle with the big questions about the meaning of life, about faith, service, and vocation. When all is said and done, ask this question: In what do I want to invest my life?

On behalf of all of us at Wake Forest, let me say again how delighted we are to have you as a student here.

Welcome to the conversation.