Thursday, September 20, 2012

It’s a great pleasure for me to join you this afternoon as you embark on—or continue—perhaps the most important journey of your life so far. I want to thank Georgina Dodge, Kelly Strang, the Center for Diversity and Enrichment, and everyone involved with getting the First Generation Initiative off the ground.

I believe this is an exciting and essential effort. Student success is among our highest priorities at the University of Iowa. But of course we know that “students” are not a homogeneous group. Our students come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. We need to recognize and support all students and help ensure their success, including working with the distinctive experiences and perspectives each brings to the table here at the university. Truthfully, our students represent over 30,000 different backgrounds and experiences. Each student is unique, coming to the university from individual circumstances and with individual talents. I don’t think we quite have the capacity to create 30,000 different support programs, however. But we certainly need to be sensitive and responsive to the broad, varied, and exciting array of differences as well as commonalities among our student body. The first-generation experience is much different from that of students whose parents have attended college. For such students, we’re here to make your transition smooth, your studies and other collegiate experiences well-supported, and your achievement the highest it can be.

One thing that all of our students share is that the college experience is a unique time in life. Whether you’re just starting out as a first-year student or if you’re returning for another year, we all experience anticipation, excitement, and, sure, even a little nervousness during the fall semester. And I think as students move through their academic career, at each step they realize how much they are being transformed as thinkers, as individual persons, and as members of society. So one of the first things that I think is important for first-generation students to know is that in a lot of ways, you’re just like any other college student. You all are participating in a new experience that, yes, can be a bit daunting but is also thrilling and life-changing. We are fortunate, though, that this wonderful university community is generous, supportive, and welcoming. The deep love and dedication that our campus community has for this institution as well as everyone’s desire to mutually support each other is something else we all share in common.

Of course, the First Generation Initiative is also about your unique backgrounds, contributions, and needs. For first generation students, all of those common experiences I mentioned earlier can still be different. Your nervousness may be just a bit—or a lot—more intense because no one in your family has blazed the trail of the college experience before. You are the trailblazer. College is more of an unknown territory to you, and you may not have as many people close to you who can show you the ropes, anticipate challenges for you, empathize with what you’re facing and going through, and sometimes even fully understand the joys that you are experiencing.

And I know exactly how you feel from personal experience. I myself come from a family that strongly believed in the power and privilege of education, even though my parents were not able to pursue its higher levels. My mother barely finished high school before she entered the workforce. My father, an immigrant from Czechoslovakia, only finished the eighth grade. But the spirit of learning was fierce in then. Upon arriving in this country at age 12, my father spoke no English. And so they put him in kindergarten. He was mortified—but his solution was to read the dictionary and learn English on his own. Within a year, he was placed in the sixth grade.

Although my parents’ educational attainment was limited, they passed their strong beliefs in learning on to their children. As I said, I was the only child in my family to go to college, but my parents supported me wholeheartedly, even when it was financially difficult. I am extraordinarily proud of my educational and professional achievements, and if my parents were still alive, I know they would be, too. I always keep a sense of their pride in my imagination as I engage every day in this wonderful, amazing task—being the president of a world-renowned university. It both keeps me humble and inspires me to do my best.

To this day, I am grateful to my parents for making sure that I turned that key and walked through that door of opportunity. By being here at the University of Iowa, you’ve turned that key, too. I am delighted and proud that we now have the First Generation Initiative to support you in walking through the many doors of opportunity in front of you here at Iowa.

Whether you are a first-year student or a senior planning to graduate this year, I personally urge you to take advantage—or to continue to take advantage—of the many, many opportunities that the University of Iowa presents to you. That might be athletics, student leadership, community volunteerism, the arts, or academic research. Those opportunities are often the most life-changing.

For me, perhaps the key event of my undergraduate career happened right away during my freshman year. A professor asked me to work on a research project with him. That experience and that support sparked my passion for research, for education, and for the world of the university. So pay attention to the many possibilities here—this university is large and multi-faceted. But even more importantly, pay attention to those people who want to help you succeed. As my own experience shows, opportunity came about as a result of a supportive faculty member who saw potential and a spark of interest burning inside me.

Sometimes that help and support may not come directly to you. Sometimes you may have to take the initiative and seek that help and support yourself. But the university is full of faculty and staff members, fellow students, and departments and programs whose major—and sometimes only—purpose is to help you succeed. Whether it’s going to a tutoring lab, visiting the Pomerantz Career Center, making an appointment with your professor during office hours, joining a student organization, or any other of a myriad of opportunities and services available to you, don’t wait to have help and support come to you. Our First Generation Initiative also encourages you to draw on that special quality that is within you—personal initiative. The key to your success will come to you if you are ready to seize that key and to open the right door. And almost always, that key comes to you when you accept or take the initiative and seek out the help of others.

Many of those others who want to help you are right here with us in this room today. Take a look around you—this very special group of students, faculty, and staff share the common bonds of being first-generation students and wanting to help new first-generation students succeed and thrive. Iowa is a great university, and it is people like you who make it so. If you’re a student and you think you could use a little help, a little support, or just an ear to bend, these people are here to provide that for you.

The University of Iowa is a learning community that both educates and inspires. Thanks again to everyone involved in the First Generation Initiative for your part in sparking and cultivating that inspiration among our first-gen students and helping them fulfill their highest aspirations and meet their loftiest goals. Good luck to all of you for a year filled with inspiration and success.