Major Addresses

2017 Opening Convocation for New Students

Welcome, members of the Alvernia Class of 2021, and transfer students who are joining the Classes of 2018 or 2019.

I am pleased to welcome you formally into the Alvernia community. We are confident that with hard work, strong motivation, and as Sir Paul McCartney once said memorably—“with a little help from my friends”—namely, with the challenge and encouragement of our faculty and staff, you will succeed and grow here at Alvernia.

Parents and family members, welcome to you, too. You are a valued part of the extended Alvernia community. We may not see you in classrooms, scoring goals, performing on stage, or working with inner city kids, but we value the love and support you extend to your sons and daughters and family members as they begin new chapters of their lives here.

And we look forward to the time you will spend with us over the next several years — at sporting events and arts performances; during Homecoming and Family Weekend; perhaps at Honors Convocation and eventually, on Commencement weekend.

This event has some of the trappings of a graduation ceremony, but before any of our parents get too excited and think this is the best college deal you’ve ever heard of, let me confess it will take a little longer and a lot more effort before you see your loved ones walk across the stage to receive diplomas.

Students, all of us at Alvernia are committed to helping you develop your talents; discover your passions; and grow intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. We know that each of you possesses distinct gifts and that each of you must chart your own course to a lifetime of professional success and deep personal meaning.

During your college selection process, many of you heard me talk about the Alvernia Advantage: the ways Alvernia offers the best of both worlds. You will develop your ability to think, reason, make ethical decisions, and communicate effectively AND receive invaluable preparation for the world of work. You will enjoy the advantages of the individual attention and personalized education found only at a small college AND the variety of programs and opportunities found at much larger universities. 

You will benefit from what we call “real world learning” experiences — hands-on experiential learning opportunities, both on and beyond campus--that will enable you successfully to apply classroom learning as you begin your first job and as you likely transition to other careers. Internships, collaborative research with other students or with your faculty mentor, service-learning courses, participation in our Alternative Break Program or in one of several leadership programs, study abroad for a semester or an intense shorter period—in Ireland, China, the Dominican Republic, Australia, or somewhere in Europe. There are so many appealing choices.

Your challenges will be picking and choosing your favorite option. For unlike at many schools our size where opportunities are limited, or at a large school where there is too much competition to get your choice, at Alvernia you have more opportunities than you can possibly imagine. We believe the results of the Gallup Poll Study of 30,000 recent college graduates, namely that your success in college is directly linked to two factors: your active engagement in activities outside the classroom that foster your learning and growth and your connection with a few key faculty, coaches, and staff who will make a difference in your life during and after college.

Speaking of some important new people in your life as a college student, another part of the Alvernia Advantage is that you will benefit from our faculty’s professional and scholarly expertise, especially as you pursue your major. And unlike at most universities, all of your faculty will actually be faculty, never graduate students. You will study and, in most cases, live on an intimate, secure campus while having ready access to both a small city and a major urban center only an hour away. And, yes, as you heard me promise, still another advantage, believe it or not, is that there will usually be some dust and dirt somewhere on this otherwise beautiful campus, as we continue to make improvements in your living and learning environment. Our new stadium will be open by mid-October, and work will begin soon to clear the ground east of campus for the PLEX, a large academic and recreation center that we hope to open at the beginning of your junior year. 

Perhaps the most distinctive part of the Alvernia Advantage that you’ve heard mentioned is that being at a Franciscan university makes a special difference for you. At Alvernia, a Franciscan education, rooted in the Catholic and liberal arts traditions, is designed to help you become, in the words of our mission statement, “ethical leaders with moral courage. 

You’ll learn more about this during the weekend, in your Freshman Seminar, and in the years ahead. But for your families’ benefit, I’ll define the Franciscan educational tradition this afternoon by saying simply that it values open inquiry, knowledge, and learning not only for itself but as it relates to a life of love and service, rooted in the values of the Christian gospel and the example of St. Francis of Assisi.

The first great Franciscan intellectual, St. Bonaventure, espoused the ideal of “knowledge joined with love,” to which Dr. Cicala referred earlier. This idea guides how faculty teach and advise their students and how we expect you will act as students and graduates of Alvernia. We take all of this very seriously at Alvernia: we aim to help you develop habits of the mind, habits of the heart, and habits of the soul. And as you heard from Aijah (Aischa), at the end of her talk, when you leave here, we expect that you, as those who have gone before you, will do well and do good.

Students, one of the advantages of having chosen Alvernia is that — beginning today — you no longer need to sit on the sidelines and listen while people like me talk about our progress. It is now yours to experience!

After 12 years fortunate to serve as president, I am surely not objective about this special place called Alvernia. But I am confident, Members of the Class of 2021, that you have chosen to join a community--an academic community--that will support and guide you on the journey ahead.

We share much in common here, such as a passion for service, and we also share the belief that the variety of our backgrounds and cultures, the diversity of our interests, the differences in points of view form a rich human tapestry. Trust me, we are far from perfect, but at our best as a community we live, learn, work, and serve together and treat each other with kindness, compassion, and respect. We don’t expect you to be perfect either, but we expect that, whatever your beliefs and attitudes, you will learn how to agree and disagree and debate and question and even argue in ways that are respectful of all. The kind of hatred--expressed in racism and bigotry of many kinds--all too often visible today in our country and our world has no place at Alvernia. Let me be clear: at Alvernia we expect that our students and all of us have many different political views and wide ranging perspectives on important current issues. But rooted in the Franciscan values you have heard about this afternoon, we stand united in unequivocally condemning racism and other forms of bigotry as just plain wrong.

I say all this knowing, first-hand, from many current students and families that most, if not all, of you also chose Alvernia in part because you found here a welcoming campus, the kind of community, where faculty and staff are eager to support you in your dreams. Perhaps you sense that, like the many wonderful students helping welcome you during the coming week, you too have found a second family, a home away from home. But know too, that we recognize you and your families expect more than friendliness and warmth. You should expect to be challenged — urged to stretch yourself toward excellent not merely adequate performance, pushed hard to explore difficult questions, to be introspective, to avoid easy answers or shortcuts to success, to be your own best self. We ask that in return you have high expectations of your faculty and of your academic community, even as we will expect the best from you. 


Students, having sat with my own son not too many years ago at just such an event, I have some sense of the swirl of emotions you and your families are experiencing right now. You are not primarily concerned with what the various talking heads have to say. That is perfectly understandable. You are thinking about far weightier matters . . . such as whether the food will be as good as at home (No Way!) or whether you use cold or hot water when doing your laundry each week. (My son’s solution was to use lukewarm water for everything!) And, no, parents, lest you have any misconceptions, laundry will not be done here as carefully or as frequently as at home.

My simple hope and prayer for you, students and family members, is that you feel confident that you are absolutely at the right place and that you will thrive as a member of this community.

So students, let me encourage and challenge you — and maybe unsettle you a bit when I say that I hope your experience here is memorable, but in ways that today you cannot even imagine.

Perhaps, like a reticent transfer student who found his way after a few semesters, to a major in accounting and countless campus leadership positions and is already a partner at a major firm in Washington. Or another graduate whose liberal arts studies, campus leadership experiences, and off-campus internships led her to government service, initially as a White House staff member and now as an aide to a congressional leader.

Your horizons are as wide as your imagination. Consider a recent graduate who discovered a passion for service through campus ministry, track & field and Holleran Center community projects that led her to a Peace Corps project where she worked for three years with children in Uganda and compare that to a graduate who earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Alvernia and is now a senior intelligence analyst hunting terrorists and IEDs in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Getting actively involved is the common link. That national Gallop poll of more than 30,000 graduates I mentioned earlier found that what was most important was not where a student went to school but rather what they did while there.

The biggest factor contributing to students’ success after graduation was their engagement on campus — in internships and clubs, in academic research and community service, in athletics and the arts. Each of you holds the key to your own success. So plot your course wisely! 

So this is my closing message: explore and broaden, rather than narrow, your interests. Be alert to opportunities. Stretch yourself. Keep up in your classes; one of the few ways to mess up college is by falling too far behind. Get to know your faculty advisor and your professors. Ask for help when you need it. Remember that the more you engage in your Alvernia experience, the more you will derive from it. 

I look forward to meeting you personally at tomorrow’s barbecue and in the weeks ahead. And in a few short years that I promise will go faster than you can imagine, I will be delighted to stand with you on stage for a quick picture, with your Alvernia diploma in hand.

major addresses

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