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Opening Exercises

Connecting education with world issues begins on day one

By Ruth Stevens

Princeton NJ -- President Tilghman offered a syllabus of sorts to new students, outlining a course of study on making the most of their four years at Princeton. She also urged them, even as freshmen, to begin thinking about connecting their education with the world beyond the campus.


President Tilghman speaking at Opening Exercises.

''The challenge facing you is to embrace your studies in a way that only a university such as ours allows, but to do so without losing sight of the ultimate purpose of those studies,'' said Tilghman in her Opening Exercises address on Sunday, Sept. 5.

''This purpose, in its most basic form,'' she continued, ''is to make our world a better place ethically, economically, socially, politically, environmentally and in a host of other ways, not just because you have to live in this world yourselves but because more than 6.3 billion other people do as well.''

New students and their families, as well as returning students and faculty and staff, filled the University Chapel for the interfaith service that traditionally marks the beginning of each academic year. People flying colorful kites on long poles and a band of African drummers led the procession of faculty members and administrators in their academic regalia into the chapel. As part of the event, undergraduate students were recognized for their academic achievements during the previous year.

Welcoming the class of 2008 to their first major event on campus, Tilghman said that she has the good fortune to serve as an ''oratorical bookend'' to their time at Princeton -- addressing them both at Opening Exercises and at Commencement.

''And if the University has done its job well, you will be poised as you leave this privileged place to assume the mantle of the next generation of leaders in your communities and your fields of endeavor,'' she said.

But, she said, first things first: ''The most immediate challenge that you face is to remain cool, calm and collected, a mantra that also comes in handy when balancing your budget or driving on Route 1,'' she quipped. ''I have no doubt that you are feeling rather nervous, and that elation and self-doubt are vying for the foremost place in your minds. It may, however, comfort you to know that what you are experiencing now is nothing new, and is shared by every newcomer who has ever sat in this chapel.''

She reassured the freshmen that ''you will master the geography of your dormitories, you will find the room assignments for your classes and you will not be forced to wander for eternity in Firestone Library's darkest stacks.'' Once getting over these initial hurdles, Tilghman encouraged the students to explore the ''extraordinarily rich smorgasbord of the world's knowledge and ideas'' that exists at Princeton.

''This fall alone,'' she said, ''we are offering 648 undergraduate and 381 graduate courses, sprinkled among 110 departments and programs, from environmental studies to Slavic languages and literatures to applied and computational mathematics.''

Tilghman urged the students to take advantage of the opportunity to explore new fields and embrace the unfamiliar. At the same time, she encouraged them to pursue their passions.

Princeton University Chapel during Opening Exercises on September 5

''… take possession of the questions that excite you most, whether you find them in books, in Petri dishes or in computer programs,'' she said. ''If you do so unreservedly, you will find that the bewildering number of choices that confronts you now will narrow to the point that you can advance with confidence. There will still be plenty of room for side trips, but you will never lose sight of your ultimate destination.''

She reminded the students that their primary mission is more to make the most of any body of knowledge than to acquire a specific body of knowledge. ''A university education is more than studying the structure of DNA or the sources of the Enlightenment, important though these subjects may be,'' Tilghman explained. ''Your overriding goal should be to hone the intellectual tools you need to discriminate fact and fiction; to pose tough questions and provide full answers; to observe acutely and interpret soundly; to articulate your arguments in a concise and cogent fashion; and to be open to other ideas without surrendering your own.''

She also reminded the students that their educations extend beyond the classroom to playing fields, performance stages and community endeavors. She encouraged the students to get involved in Princeton's 226 registered undergraduate student organizations. ''These activities are sources of friendships, fun and relaxation, and personal growth, and they will form a very important part of your Princeton experience,'' Tilghman said.

In closing, she discussed the University's unofficial motto -- ''In the nation's service and in the service of all nations'' -- explaining that it applies to students not just when they graduate, but the minute they step foot onto campus. ''Even as freshmen, you should be thinking of ways in which you can establish a connection with the world and the issues that confront it,'' she said.

''As one of our trustees declared, global awareness should be 'built into the DNA' of Princeton…,'' Tilghman said. ''I am happy to say that each of you has an opportunity to make this aspiration a reality through study abroad, international internships, and a wealth of courses and events within walking distance of this chapel.''

She concluded by telling the students that she hoped their time at Princeton would not only meet, but surpass, their expectations. ''I hope that you will leave Princeton saying, as so many have before you, 'This place changed my life.'''

The text of President Tilghman's full address is available online at <www.princeton.edu/pr/news/04/q3/0905-smt.htm>.