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Pioneer Passage

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Rebecca Chopp

Speech  •

Welcome to the University of Denver. This “Passage” marks the beginning of a profound transformation that you will undergo in the coming years. Our mission is to provide the community—the faculty and staff educators, your fellow students from around the globe, alumni and friends—and the opportunity—scholarships, resources, internships, connections throughout the region—for you to find your talents, interests and passions and to pursue them.

I have only been here for a year, and I have totally fallen in love with this place. What a year we had! We won a national lacrosse championship. We started two new amazing buildings: the Daniel Felix Ritchie School of Engineering and Computer Science (which will have some really cool things to do and a great café, in addition to adding to improving the School) and the Anna and John J. Sie International Relations Complex that links us globally. The Sie Complex will also have some tremendous views. We were ranked #1 among all research universities for our study abroad programs. We brought in fabulous new faculty and staff members to teach you, coach you and support you. Over 96% of our students got jobs or entered graduate programs within 6 months of graduating. And we started an amazing new planning process, Imagine DU, to make sure DU is providing the best education, the best scholarship and the best engagement with our area.

But when I think about how great the past year was, what I really think about are the people. I believe in institutions—buildings, programs, services and such—but when it comes right down to it, it’s the people who make the institution. And, for me, last year was all about getting to know some amazing people.

Faculty members and staff educators who care deeply about our students—who mentor students even if they aren’t in their classes, who welcome students into their labs and offices, and who want to see students learn and grow in all dimensions.

Board members who say constantly “it’s all about the students.” We are a private institution so our Board of Trustees—all of whom are alumni, parents and friends—are important leaders. I want you to meet them.

Staff members who care and care deeply about this place. You may know that there was an awful hail/rain storm on June 24. Millions of dollars in damage was done to the Ritchie Center and Sturm Hall. Staff members worked through the night for several days and worked tirelessly through the summer to ensure our facilities were fully ready for you. They care about DU.

Most of all I met our students. A couple of specific illustrations:

Last year in a planning exercise the provost and I went to the Undergraduate Student Government to ask them what must never change about DU. Every one of the two dozen students present said “students’ relationship with the faculty.” One by one, each told a story. A faculty member who pushed and supported a woman student in a difficult class. A faculty member who taught a course on monsters and opened up how some very common things are actually very complex. An advisor who went above and beyond in advising a thesis. Students here love our faculty.

Last year I got in a golf cart and chased some students down—same planning process, but I was curious about random students. I was at Anderson Academic Commons and saw a group of students playing whiffle ball. I just took off cross country in my golf cart to talk with them. Seeing me drive like mad across the green must have made them think they had done something wrong—and a group of apprehensive-looking young fellows came up to the cart. By the end of a very pleasant and informative interaction, one of them, who was a student in Daniels, had sold me three expensive t-shirts!

Final story: a recent graduate who, like me, had been a first generation college student. First generation students often feel like they don’t fit in and don’t know how to access things. He pushed against his discomfort and used every opportunity he had at DU—more so, I think than I did in college. He now has a good job, a big heart, and friends from every group on campus. He is networked for life. He is one of my many heroes.

Students came up to me all year, telling me of their favorite place for great views on campus, their success as a tour guide, their favorite hike or simply saying hi. Of course some are shy, and some struggle. But what I like about our students is they are friendly, they are engaged, and they are all about building their futures and this community.

Without revealing the complete details of my life, this is my 57th “start of school.” Which means that for 35 years as a faculty member and administrator, I have helped students start college. Needless to say, I have a few tips for you. Indeed, I am going to teach you Chancellor Chopp’s ABCs of getting started. I am not talking about what you need to do for four years or even your first year (though I think my ABCs are good for all your time in college). These recommendations are specifically intended for your first quarter.

A. Ask questions . And then ask more questions. What a wonderful opportunity you have for at least the first few weeks, if not the whole year. No one expects you to know everything, and everyone is pleased when we ask questions. Imagine you are a detective trying to figure out the DU mystery, or an anthropologist trying to understand the community here, or maybe just a journalist hoping to write the grand expose on why DU is such a fantastic place. Find out what makes this place tick! I love being a first year at any thing because it is my job to ask about everything. Ask questions of everyone. Ask them why they study history or chemistry. Ask them how they came to DU. Ask them what is the best thing at DU. Ask them what they do to stay well. And if you need help (and we all do), ask staff and faculty. Please, ask them. Their passion—more so than any other place I have ever been—is to mentor and help you. I believe that leadership is the art of asking and listening. So be a leader now: ask but also really listen.

B. Balance . As in, keep your balance. I grew up with the good midwestern phrase: stand on your own two feet. But then I had four surgeries on my left foot and ended up on crutches for 6 months! I learned a new phrase and one I prefer: keep your balance. Keep your balance when you are learning to navigate this place. Take things in, but don’t get overwhelmed. Go at your own pace! By the way, hikers (like me) and climbers know that it is often easier to balance when you are moving than when you are standing still. Our curriculum is designed for you to have balance—take a lesson from that in other respects. Don’t just do sports or arts or politics: get some balance. Find friends you are comfortable with, but for the sake of balance and growth, try to make friends with folks who are different than you. And keep your health in good order through balancing nutrition, exercise, academic, social and spiritual or reflective time. Find YOUR balance—not that of your roommate or friend or anyone else. Everyone has their own ways of gaining balance; find yours. By the way, the first 100 days can be the riskiest period of time in terms of unsafe behavior, so be especially careful with your balance. Take it slow—you have four years here.

C. Connect . One of the things I love about undergraduate education now is that we have learned that all of you can learn if you have the grit or resilience and if we provide the right support. But you have to ask and maintain the balance. The other thing an incredible amount of research is showing is that connecting with a few people whom you trust will make all the difference. A book published last year entitled How College Works argues that students who are successful in college do two things: 1) engage with faculty and 2) connect with friends. A recent Gallup poll shows the happiest people are those who are engaged at work and in their communities. Those people, in turn, were almost always connected during their college years. So I suggest you connect with at least 3: a person who seems like yourself, a person who is different but whom you trust, and a faculty, coach or staff member who can mentor you and help you begin to navigate DU.

So those are the ABC’s. Ask questions. Keep your BalanceConnect with others.

And I leave you with one parting piece of wisdom—and I say this as a reminder to myself, too. At least once daily, look to the west and be awed by the Rocky Mountains. Awe is a powerful emotion that science is just beginning to understand. I find that when I look at our mountains, I am inspired to achieve more. A professor and dean here at DU once told me that he thinks of the mountains as a metaphor for DU: they are free and open to anyone with the ability and determination to reach the summit.

Good luck, and, please, stay in touch. If you see me around campus, stop and say hi. Ask me questions. Connect with me. Share with me how you are keeping you balance.