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President's convocation highlights Wildcat Welcome

• Classes start Tuesday for students, who come from 48 states and 56 countries
• Some 1,990 first-year students and 100 transfer students join the University
• President Schapiro: 'I want you to educate yourself for a lifetime of learning'

EVANSTON - Welcoming Northwestern University’s most diverse class yet, President Morton Schapiro told the Class of 2020 and new transfer students Monday that he wants them all to succeed, challenge themselves intellectually and graduate with a dedication to educating themselves for “a lifetime of learning.”

Speaking to a sea of students wearing purple T-shirts in Welsh-Ryan Arena, the president also gave the crowd some practical advice on what to expect from their new intellectual environment, how to cope with roommates and how to navigate expectations for romance in the days ahead.

But he drew his loudest cheers and wildly enthusiastic applause when he addressed the sensitive issues of safe spaces, trigger warnings and microaggressions -- endorsing the importance of providing the first two and underscoring the need for guarding against the third.

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“Look for those safe spaces,” President Schapiro declared, denouncing those who would criticize the need for them, as some have done. He emphasized that safe spaces are crucial in a university environment, where students will often be exposed to uncomfortable learning settings and the disparate, not always considerate views of others. “If you can’t find them, we’ll help you find them. This is Northwestern, please!”

As Northwestern University Band members played fanfare and music, some 1,990 first-year students and 100 transfer students joining the University this year filed into the arena for the capstone event of Wildcat Welcome week. Senior officials were on hand to greet them.

Christopher Watson, dean of undergraduate admissions, welcomed them with a clever speech outlining the many identities of members of the Class of 2020, and he delighted them when he said that in choosing them all, “It looks like we got it right.”

Watson said the students, who start classes Tuesday, come from 48 states and the District of Columbia -- all except Montana and Wyoming this year -- and from 56 countries. Some 200 of them are citizens of other nations. More than 200 are the first in their families to attend college. The student who traveled the farthest came more than 9,800 miles from Jakarta, Indonesia.

To gain admittance, the first-year students in the Class of 2020 were chosen from among more than 35,000 applications from students at more than 6,000 high schools, Watson said.

The most popular male names are John and Juan, while the most popular female names are Sara and Emily, he said. Ten students came from senior classes that were composed of less than 15 students.

In addition, this year’s class is 51 percent female and 49 percent male, with underrepresented minorities comprising nearly 25 percent of the entire group. Some 122 students came from Chicago Public Schools and 19 from Evanston. Reflecting Northwestern’s commitment to access and equity for all students, nearly 18 percent of the class is Pell Grant-eligible.

Associated Student Government President Christina Cilento also welcomed the new students, and she gave a moving speech about what they should expect in their first year and their time at the University, urging them to focus on taking care of themselves along the way. Given the competitive atmosphere, she told them to make sure they get enough sleep, try to stay healthy and active and “remember to drink … water.”

“Like my friends did for me, look out for your fellow Wildcats, and step in if you see something going wrong,” she said, emphasizing the need for students to speak out or intervene when they see others saying things that are bigoted or doing things that hurt fellow students. “Caring for yourselves is the most important lesson you can learn. Go ‘Cats,” she concluded. “Here’s to a fantastic year.”

Stephen Carr, professor of materials science and engineering and of chemical and biological engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, addressed the arena for the One Book One Northwestern (OBON) program and this year’s selection, “The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail -- but Some Don’t,” by author Nate Silver.

“You got the book -- your first academic assignment -- early in the summer, and interestingly, you don’t get a grade for what you did with it,” said Carr, chair of the faculty steering committee for the OBON program. “And that’s a little bit of a lesson that a lot of the things you do here are going to be highly valuable, but they are not going to appear on your transcript.

“They will be the things that you will remember for the rest of your life. So, I’m hoping this book started you down that path,” Carr added. He noted that the OBON program is now launching a series of activities this fall associated with the book that “will illuminate his (Silver’s) message.” Carr advised students to check out Silver’s website to stay current with his thinking and his prognosticating.

“This book allows us to understand how statistical analysis of data leads to understanding of human endeavors,” Carr added. “This book really lets you get insight into that.” Silver will be giving a keynote speech for the program at Northwestern Oct. 6.

Carr also spotlighted other activities associated with the OBON program this year. The first was NUpredicts, an app for mobile devices that students already used at the Duke game in an initial competition. Each student earned a certain number of points for the accuracy of their predictions. Carr announced the winners to loud applause: Deborah Turetsky, Virginia Arguelles, Lauren Bagshaw, Samuel Rubin and Tyler Rodgers, listed from first to fifth place. Each will receive a gift certificate as a prize.

In addition, Carr said, there were teams of peer advisor groups competing, and the winning team -- Group #129 -- will get an all-expenses-paid pizza party. Finally, he also announced there will be a campus-wide Puzzle Hunt Oct. 8 organized by the One Book program.

Vice President for Student Affairs Patricia Telles-Irvin urged the students to start defining for themselves the “great story” of their lives. Pulling from a commencement address Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos gave at Princeton in 2011, Telles-Irvin advised new students to start their lives here by asking questions.

“Will inertia be your guide, or will you follow your passions?” she asked. “Will you play it safe, or will you take appropriate risks for greater learning and growth?” 

The most important question, according to Telles-Irvin, is a moral one: “Will you be clever at the expense of others, or will you be kind?

Telles-Irvin told students the answers to these questions form the first cobblestones in the path for each student’s unique “Northwestern direction.”

“The Northwestern experience is holistic,” Telles-Irvin said. “It aims to nurture the mind, the body and the heart. It is equated with excellence, not perfection.”

President Schapiro spoke last and praised the other speakers, echoing some of their remarks. He noted he was impressed that the new students had run so quickly across Ryan Field in the traditional dash of the new class before the football game against Duke Saturday. He noted they may have inspired the Northwestern football team, which went on to beat Duke.

The president recapped his advice to students from the day they marched through Weber Arch a week ago, noting that during the Wildcat Welcome celebration, they would learn about the Northwestern community, fellow students and themselves. And he also advised the students Monday to keep in touch with their parents, who already will be missing them. “Give them a call, give them a shout-out,” he said. “Be nice to your parents.”

The president underscored the importance of safe spaces and trigger warnings in a passionate part of his remarks, responding to critics of those things. “You deserve a place where you can let your guard down. You have to feel safe in order to get out of your comfort zone and engage in uncomfortable learning,” he said.

Then President Schapiro concluded his remarks with advice on how incoming students should navigate Northwestern -- and life -- over the coming years.

“You’re going to be prepared for professional success. We do this at Northwestern,” the president observed, asking students not to worry too much about the job market. He urged the students to care strongly about their grades, “but don’t be obsessed about your grades. You want to learn. You want to challenge yourself intellectually.”

More importantly, he told the crowd to remember what they owe the world going forward and to learn the respect, civility and a lack of entitlement that comes with Midwestern values. “So when you go back to wherever you are from in the world, I want you to be deeply imbued in the best of Midwestern values. I want you to be a good person.

“I want you to be the kind of person that you dream about -- not someone who thinks the world owes you,” he said. “You, in fact, owe the world.”

Finally, he added, “I want you to have some fun here. Life is too short to always suffer. There are a lot of serious things in the world, and you should always care about them,” the president said. But mostly, he urged, “You should take care of yourself and each other and our community. And you should try to have some fun, because this is a great, great school.

“I don’t want you to look back and say that I suffered. I want you to look back and say that I grew as a person. I am a better person. I am prepared to educate myself for a lifetime of learning. And I have the desire to educate myself for a lifetime of learning.

“Also, I want you to look back and say, this is a great experience here. It’s a great community. I made this community better, and I had a good time doing it. Thank you and Go ‘Cats.”

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