Sociology Professor Jenifer Bratter’s Orientation Week faculty address focused on “identity,” how we define ourselves and each other, and how these definitions are flexible. I was inspired by the power of her message, and it seemed to me to resonate with two of the themes I want us to think about and work on this year. In terms of identity, the questions are not “Who are you?” and “Who are we as a community?” but rather “Who do you want to be?” and “Who do we as a community want to be?” And these are not trivial questions.
As you begin your year at Rice, if you have not already given considerable thought about the question of who you want to become, now is the perfect time to do so. You are not defined by anything other than your aspirations and your choices and your efforts to achieve both. Your time at Rice is not about demonstrating what you can do; rather, it is about choosing experiences that will help you become the person you want to be and then learning from your experiences, whether they are successes or disappointments or even failures. Many, perhaps most, of you consider college as simply the next thing to do in your life, another step on the road to wherever it is you are planning to go. Some of you have thought of Rice as a four- or five-year joy ride at someone else’s expense (most likely your parents’). In either case, if these are your narrow goals, I suspect you will succeed. But in doing so, you will have missed the greatest opportunity of your life at the most important time of your life. I strongly encourage you to spend time in reflection, rather than to make assumptions about a fixed identity. And I encourage you to make choices necessary to give yourself the time and space for this reflection. Take fewer courses so that you can get the most from each course. Pursue only a single major enabling you to explore the curriculum with more electives. Engage in the many opportunities for personal and intellectual growth that Rice offers through community engagement, independent study, internships and study abroad. Be an active member of your college and your campus, forming lasting friendships.
As for who we want to become as a community, there are too many facets to discuss in this note, so I will focus on a single value we should hold together: honor. Our honor system is one of our longest-standing traditions, if not the single longest-standing. But it is quite easily taken for granted, and as such is quite easily compromised and violated. This year, Faculty Senate in partnership with the Honor Council and the Student Association will undertake an in-depth assessment of the honor system, including policies and processes. This will allow us to reinvest ourselves as a community in this shared value, together answering one of the most important questions of who we want to become. We want to be, now and always, a community where honor is an absolute, with integrity never to be compromised. I encourage every one of you to engage in this conversation so that honor and integrity become a common expectation to which we hold ourselves and one another.
It happens that I am writing these words on Aug. 23, the seventh anniversary of the day our family lost Emma Grace Hutchinson. She was 20 and about to begin her junior year at Trinity University, a place that she loved dearly and an opportunity that she cherished. No one I’ve ever known has better understood the importance of experiencing life to its fullest by a willingness to take chances on difficult tasks, on new relationships, on challenging subjects, on once-in-a-lifetime opportunities not to be missed. No one I’ve ever known has more fully embraced her own uncompromising integrity, living her carefully considered values. No one I’ve ever known has more deeply lived life to its fullest with unfailing optimism about what life might bring. My aspiration for each of you while at Rice and in the years to come is that, like the Trinity student whose life I shared, you find your own inspiration to set your sights high and then to use this opportunity to become the person you most want to be.