President Pelton Welcomes the Class of 2015

August 31, 2011
Emerson College

Today is the end of one thing and the start of another.

You may feel some anxiety regarding what is ahead of you. The anxiety you feel, to paraphrase another college president, is the tension, freedom, and giddy dismay of independence. But it is this state of independence that will become an “essential feature of your inner landscape, the terrain within, that you will cultivate and make your own” as you live and learn at Emerson College.


Political comedian Jon Stewart once said, “As a freshman in college, I was quite a catch. Less than five feet tall, yet my head was the same size it is now. Didn’t even really look like a head, it looked more like a container for a head. I looked like a Peanuts character. Peanuts characters had terrible acne. But what I lacked in looks, I made up for with a repugnant personality.”

Now, keep in mind that this is a guy who was at one time named by People Magazine as one of 50 Most Beautiful People in the World, thus proving that college has the capacity to transform even those who seem to others—and to themselves—the least likely to be transformed.

Your class arrives here well prepared and able.

As I said to your parents yesterday, I have been on the job less than two months and while I have much to learn, there are a few things of which I am certain.

Emerson College is a special place, a magical place even—a commonwealth of learning of national distinction and international reach. Our students are determined and focused—they already have a sure sense of what they want to do with their education. Emerson students are “doers”; they work hard; they get things done.  

Emerson will offer you an integrated educational experience that is truly distinctive in higher education. We stretch the classroom, as it were, to include meaningful engagement in our marvelous creative laboratories on campus, in expansive internships off campus, in collaboration and group projects with other students as you work side by side with committed faculty and celebrated practitioners in diverse, high-demand professional fields.

You will experience the curve of your educational development as a seamless whole, a synthesis of advanced achievements across general and specialized studies. At Emerson, students learn wherever they are. At Emerson, work is play and play is work.

Emerson programs are located in the urban centers of politics, entertainment, publishing, arts, communication, not only in Boston, but also in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and abroad in places such as the Czech Republic and the Netherlands.

You will benefit from a network of alumni that is unparalleled in its connection to industries and new ideas that will help you jump-start your career quickly.

So, don’t squander this opportunity, neither be overwhelmed by it, but rather seize it with the same passion that brought you here.Learning surrounds you—much like the air that you breathe. It has no end. It has no beginning, though it has certain signposts that mark your educational maturation.

Your business here is learning and that is up to you. We will provide you with able teachers, caring advisors, and experienced administrators—all of whom will help you successfully navigate the learning process. Yet, our expectation is that you—not your parents, professors, or administrators—you will take primary responsibility for your education.

I have some advice to give you:

Seek out people who are different from you. The very best students learn from other students whose cultural backgrounds and interests are different from their own. 

Read often and broadly. By this, I mean read not only the books that are assigned in your classes, but read the world’s great literature: poetry, prose, and drama. Art has the capacity to elevate the mind, connect us to life’s enduring themes, and humanize the landscape of historical events.

Reserve time in your busy schedule for personal reflection. The rhythms of daily life form patterns that shape the days and years of our lives. They are filled with meaning. Set aside time each week for contemplation and renewal. 

Get to know your professors. The core of Emerson College is its commitment to undergraduate and graduate teaching. 

Most of all, be curious. 

Cultivate it daily. For a truly educated person not only possesses knowledge and the intellectual capacity to learn, but curiosity: the impulse, as Tennyson’s Ulysses described, as the yearning to “follow knowledge like a sinking star...beyond the utmost bound of human thought.”

Be curious about those around you, who may have different opinions, beliefs, and ideas, who may challenge yours. Be curious about the world, about other cultures, people, and places. Curiosity is the precursor of human excellence.

You inherit a world characterized by incredible change.

In Democracy in America, Alexis De Tocqueville wrote, “I confess that I believe that democratic societies to have much less to fear from boldness than from paltriness of aim. ...the leaders of the new societies would do wrong if they tried to send the citizens to sleep in a state of happiness too uniform and peaceful, but that they should sometimes give them difficult and dangerous problems to face, to rouse ambition and give it a field of action.”

You will inherit a world in which paltriness of aim will simply not do.

In your communities—wherever you live, work, or study—you will encounter the increasing diversity of the United States. You will encounter how a new “globalism” has changed our relationships with neighbors that once seemed so far away and so abstract; and how this new proximity and interdependency changes the way we think about education, commerce, the arts, communication, and society.

Enormous change. The new biological sciences are challenging our long-held notions of what it means to be human and to have a family as well as producing remarkable advances in health care. New technologies are developed each year, increasing our access to information and expanding the frontiers of knowledge. As you well know, arts and communication—in their various forms—are at the heart of this change as the media and the message increasingly converge, challenging how we know and think about the world, transforming human society, in ways not all of which are positive.

Our educational mission at Emerson is to educate the people who lead in the face of change, who they themselves will change the world through engaged leadership in the arts and communication—an engagement that is informed by liberal learning—the introduction to the best that is known and thought in the world, to the ideas that will liberate you from old modes of inquiry, ideas that will quicken your imagination and creativity, awakening you to the endless possibilities of wonder and hope.

Film writers, producers, directors, actors and actresses, poets, novelists, editors, publishers, marketing and communication experts in business, politics and nonprofit organizations, journalists, new media entrepreneurs—yes, you will be all of these and even more.

But, most important, we ask that you seek to acquire during your time here—in the classroom and studios as well as your many associations outside of both—those habits of mind that will give you the capacity to think deeply and—this is most important—to think for yourselves.

You and I came to Emerson together with the same hopes and fears about finding our place here. We have a special bond that will last a lifetime.

Let us, you and I, honor our time here by seeking, by doing great things here.

Let us, you and I, live lives of integrity. I do not mean this in the way that narrow-minded politicians or moralists of limited imagination too frequently use it. But rather let’s, from this day forward, seek to live our lives with purpose and meaning.

Let us, you and I, seek to add, rather than merely extract, value from this place.

Let us, you and I, live a life of no regrets while we are here. Where we see wrong, right it; where we see hurt, soothe it; where we see a broken heart, mend it.

Let us, you and I, beware of holding back when those who love us want us to be that wonderful and splendid thing we have never been.

In closing, listen to the word music of Nelson Mandela:

“Our worst fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be?...Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.”

Welcome to Emerson College.

Good luck and good cheer.