Be determined. Stay focused on the reason for your journeys. Reach out and believe in your abilities.

Issue Date: 
September 14, 2009

Kathy W. Humphrey, Pitt vice provost for student affairs and dean of students, delivered the following address during the Aug. 26 Freshman Convocation in the John M. and Gertrude E. Petersen Events Center.

Vice Provost for Student Affairs Kathy W. HumphreyVice Provost for Student Affairs Kathy W. Humphrey

Good afternoon.

I am always excited about the beginning of the school year because the energy that the new and returning students bring to campus is exhilarating. I count it a privilege and an honor to welcome you to our community.

When I begin to prepare for this moment, I always ask myself, “What do you, the newest members of our community, need to hear from me today? What can I say that will assist and equip you as you begin this incredible journey?”

This journey will open the doors to your futures. It will expand your minds in all kinds of directions, and it will require you to grow and develop into the men or women you choose to become.

So I have decided to share with you some wisdom that I have gained when I have taken journeys to new places. I am sharing this wisdom so that you can use it as a possible tool to assist you as you begin this journey to a place you have never been.

This summer, I was fortunate to go to Prague to learn more ways that we can help our students become stronger global citizens. But because of my lack of experience in traveling in the Czech Republic, I found that I needed good preparation and determination. I needed to push fear and doubt away, and I needed to understand that I might be rerouted in my travel plans.

In order to be fully prepared for any journey, most times you must have the proper credentials to gain entrance. Your passport to Pitt was the hard work you performed in high school and in your community.

There were more than 20,000 people who applied to sit in the seats that you are now in. But we selected you to sit in that seat because we felt confident that you had prepared to complete this journey and make it to your desired destination.

Many of you have been fortunate enough to have parents, family members, and/or mentors who have loved you enough to provide you with ample opportunities to ensure that you were prepared to be selected as Pitt students. Those parents, family members, and/or mentors—even in the face of an economic downturn—have determined that your journey was still worth their sacrifice and investment.

Preparation placed you and gave you entrance to this journey, but determination will keep you on the right path.

While some of you are eager to begin this journey and are excited about your independence, some of you are being stricken with something that is very familiar to us: homesickness.

I understand this sickness because I am one of those people who enjoy being in the comfort of familiar surroundings. But I assure you that if you are determined to meet new people and go to new places, your homesickness will dissipate. Nevertheless, it will take work and determination.

You can’t get connected to this community by staying in your room. If you reach out, I promise there will be many who will reach back, because one of this institution’s greatest attributes is that we care about one another. Our Pitt connections are important to us. Just attend any Pitt alumni event and you will see that the connections made here can be lifelong. Commit to getting in union with this community, and soon you will feel at home.

Some of you may know the lines of the poem: “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.” They are from William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus, which in Latin means “unconquerable.”

Up to this point for many of you, others have managed your lives. But now, many of those choices and decisions are up to you. You must be determined to be the captains of your lives. No one can conquer you because you must be the conquerors.

Getting to class and getting there on time, it’s up to you. Gaining new experiences that will challenge your thinking and actions, it’s up to you.

Developing relationships with people who do not look, think, believe, or dress like you will expand and prepare you for your futures. But it will be up to you to make those connections and decisions that will make you stronger individuals.

Recently, I met with a young woman who was supposed to graduate in the spring, but because she made bad decisions, she sat in my office in tears. She desperately wanted to graduate with her peers, but she realized that the consequence of her decisions was that it would take her another semester, maybe even another year, to graduate. She kept telling me about her preparation. She said, “I was an excellent high school student. I was ready to be successful here, but I lost focus, and I did things I should not have done.”

By the time we ended the conversation, she was saying, “I am determined to get back on track and I am going to finish.”

Learn from her and be determined today that you are going stay focused on the reasons for your journeys. College can be a lot of fun—so much fun that I often hear seniors who have managed their journeys well say that they do not want to leave. You can thrive here, but you must be determined to stay focused and manage all pieces of your lives to reach your destinations.

Two pieces of baggage that most carry on a new journey are fear and doubt. A month before I was to leave for Prague, it dawned on me that this would be the first trip that I had taken out of the country without someone who was able to speak the language of that country. Now I must be honest with you: Fear is not something that I struggle with often. You see, when you are number 10 of 11 children, you learn at an early age to be a bit fearless because, as the youngest child, you are challenged all of the time to do fearless acts: See if you can jump from this high place without hurting yourself.

But being in a place where I was not sure how I was going to be able to communicate concerned me just a bit. I could sense fear and doubt trying to make me reconsider my journey. When fear goes unchecked, it has the ability to make us cancel our journey, because fear often makes us doubt our real abilities. Fear is sometimes referred to as false evidence appearing to be real. On this journey, you may believe you cannot succeed in a certain course, but don’t allow fear to make you doubt your ability.

Don’t allow fear to make you give up. Do what I had to do: Keep asking for help until someone understands what you need. Ask for help and do it immediately.

Oftentimes, because many of our freshmen have never struggled academically, when they receive grades that they are not accustomed to, they initially believe it is a fluke. Listen closely to me now. If you find yourselves in this situation, don’t take the chance that things are going to get better without you taking some type of different action.

Don’t avoid seeking help because you fear that someone may believe you don’t belong here. At Pitt, we are here because we know that at some point, whether in or outside of the classroom, you may need some help. Fear is a normal reaction to anything new, but you must repel doubt and fear so that you have the strength to reroute your journey when necessary.

On the return journey from Prague, there was to be a long layover in Paris, so I had made plans, and I was excited. But my flight from Prague to Paris was delayed, which meant all of my plans were shattered. It was no fault of my own, but they were shattered.

In this life, a change of plans is inevitable. It is how we reroute ourselves that determines whether or not—or more importantly, how—we will reach our destination. Having the courage to reroute one’s self is what every great person must learn. One of the best ways I have found to deal with life’s twists and turns is to build the strongest me I can build. As the saying goes, feeling good about one’s self is not a luxury, it is an absolute necessity. Feeling good about one’s self does not just happen: We have to work at it every single day.

You have to remind yourselves of your positive attributes so you have the energy to work on areas of lesser strength. While you may not be perfect, you need to realize there is a whole lot of good inside of you.

“Who am I?” and “What am I to do with who I am?” are the questions that most college students ask themselves. Often those who have spent time gaining a stronger sense of self are better prepared to craft the answers to these questions.

We have many resources that will help you create a stronger you and  our goal is to educate the whole student. We will provide courses, workshops, services, programs, and activities that will feed you intellectually, physically, culturally, spiritually, globally, and yes, even socially, but it will be up to you to take advantage of these resources.

If you start working on you today, you will have not only degrees, but a stronger you to present to the world upon graduation.

Many mornings when I finish dressing for the day, I look in the mirror and I smile. I may be having a bad hair day, but I smile. My shoes may not match my suit perfectly, but I smile. My children may be screaming in the background because one is wearing what the other had planned to wear that day, but I smile. The biggest white zit may have appeared overnight in the middle of my African American forehead, but I still smile.

I get the first smile of the day, and I remind myself that no one on this Earth put the smile on my face—and I shall not allow anyone to permanently take it away.

I have been on many trips where the flight has been cancelled and smiles begin to fade all over the gate area. While rerouting yourselves at times may feel a little overwhelming, just remember that it is sometimes necessary and you are more than capable of handling the detour.

I give you these tools because if you use them, I am confident that these next four years have the potential to be an awesome part of your lives. I give you these tools because I believe that you should not wait and start living when you graduate. I hope these tools will help you to enjoy every moment of your lives at Pitt.

We have every confidence in your preparation and we need you to remember that you are unconquerable. You should know that we greatly anticipate the successful completion of your journeys and we feel confident that in a few short years, we will all be back at this same location as you reach your first graduation destination.

Welcome to Pitt and have a great journey.