Do everything you can to leave the University of Pittsburgh having achieved all that you’ve dreamed.

Issue Date: 
September 14, 2009

This is the printed version of remarks delivered by Pitt Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor James V. Maher during the New Student Orientation session titled “Pathway to Your Success at Pitt: A Pitt Tradition” on Aug. 27, 2009, in the John M. and Gertrude E. Petersen Events Center.

Provost James V. MaherProvost James V. Maher

I’m delighted to be here to welcome all of you. I come to you on a mission, and it’s a mission that means a lot to me as a person who showed up as a freshman for college myself a lot of years ago, and as a person who brought my children to college not quite as many years ago—and who is now watching grandchildren grow up to the point where I can see that it won’t be too many more years before they go to college. I realize what an important event this is in the life of a family.

The people admitted to this University are students of real attainment. You have competed successfully for rare places in this freshman class by being very, very good as students and as well-rounded people through the first 18 years of your lives. But you are not the only ones to be commended for that, for it’s very hard to get to this point without a support system. You almost certainly come out of families that have worked very hard to help you succeed, and they’re here with you, too. I like the opportunity to have an event like this where all of us—both in this room and in the ballroom, where there is another large group of people watching this on TV—can be together and talk about how to make the coming years years of great success for you, the students.

Your families want you to succeed. You want you to succeed. And we at the University of Pittsburgh want you to succeed. That’s something we all have in common.

The coordinating of that success, however, is extraordinarily difficult for a number of reasons. For instance, this is the only country in the world that expects two very difficult things to happen at the same time.

One is that you will begin the most demanding academic period in your lives. You will be faced with very high expectations that you have not, in the past, had to meet. And even though you more than merited the opportunity to meet those challenges—and we’re very confident that if you work with us and try, you can meet those challenges—that’s a strain. The other is something that does not, in general, go on in other countries: This academic challenge hits you at the exact moment when, for the first time in your lives, you are expected to learn to live outside your families and to function well outside your families. And that’s not easy. That involves some real growth.

Those two things go on at a time in life where people typically go through very important personal development, development that stays with them for the rest of their lives. So, we could even say there are three things going on: involving yourself in serious academic work, learning to live outside the family, and entering a period of enormous personal development. We’ve got to coordinate all that and make it work—and make it work for you.

At Pitt, we try to do that in a number of ways. One of the most important means is through good communications: to be reflective, to talk to each other. When I say talk to each other, I mean all of us in the triumvirate: families, students, and University people. We all need to be communicating.

The University is itself enormously complex. The very word university means that all the important areas of human endeavor are being reflected upon within this institution. At the same time, just as we hold a wide variety of disciplines and professions in the composition of our community, we hold a wide variety of levels of sophistication within the community.

There are freshmen, like you. There are juniors and seniors, there are graduate students, there are postdoctoral associates, and there are faculty members. One thing that unites all of us is that we are all striving to learn. Learning is a lifelong thing. It’s a part of a person’s makeup. It’s part of being human.

When you struggle this year with your coursework, we’ll call what you’re doing “homework.” When my colleagues in the physics department strive to learn more about advanced physical topics, we will call that “research.” But it’s all really about learning, and it’s about learning together in this community of learners.

So let’s talk in a serious way now about how we can coordinate all this, how we can make it work so that you succeed. There will be some grim business to get out of the way, and then there will be some exciting opportunities. I’ll dispense with some of the grim business to start with.

First: You—the students here—didn’t get here without a support system. You’re going to be moving out of that support system into another one that we form, but you don’t want to lose that old support system totally. You want to stay in touch. In the expression of, I believe, the Old West, “You want to dance with who brung ya.” Stay in touch with your families.

Parents, there’s a law called FERPA [the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act] that protects students’ records; you may not know about that law yet. I don’t want you to find out about that law only when you first really need to talk to us. That law says that without your student’s permission, we can’t “talk” to you. We can talk to you, of course, but we can’t tell you anything about how that student is doing without that student’s permission. Don’t let it get to that.

There’s a standard way a student can give us permission to talk to you about his or her progress when you call with concerns; the student needs to check the box on the relevant form that gives us that permission. I love my own two children, have always loved them, always got along well with them, but at this stage in my relations with them, I was perfectly clear with them. I said, “Yes, you have the legal right not to check that box. And I have the legal right not to sign the check for the tuition. Now, let us discuss this.”

So, there’s one piece of grim business out of the way. On to our second piece of grim business—and this is “grim” in that it’s another source of student/family misunderstandings: the likelihood that you freshmen will graduate four years from now.

We want you to graduate four years from now. We work at making it possible for you to graduate four years from now. But you won’t graduate four years from now if you don’t work with us on this.

There are so many ways to go wrong. Let me give you a very common and absolutely rotten reason for failing to graduate in four years. The federal government considers you a full-time student as long as you’re taking 12 credits. That’s nice of the federal government to do that, because under federal law, things like federally guaranteed student loans would not be valid if you weren’t a full-time student. So, if you go down to 12 credits, you can still be a full-time student as far as the federal government is concerned. But a lot of people get trapped on that one. They think, “Well, I’m a full-time student, so I’ll graduate in four years.” No. You’re not really a full-time student in the sense of any major university in this country if you’re only taking 12 credits.

All of our programs require 120 credits or more to get a bachelor’s degree. Some take more, but for most of them, 120 does it. Figure in four years there are eight terms; divide eight into 120, and that’s 15. You have to average 15 credits per term to graduate in four years—and there are some programs that you have to average a little more than that. It’s a terrible idea to take fewer than 15 credits unless you’ve talked it over and decided as a family that you want to do it that way. It’s a terrible idea to just drift into a late graduation because you thought, “Twelve credits is enough, and I’ve got a lot of fun to have.” Those four years will go by, and your parents are going to call and say, “So, when do we come to graduation?”

Now let me tell you some good reasons for not graduating in four years. Some of you shouldn’t graduate in four years. But even when there are good reasons, the whole family should discuss them and everybody should be in it together. Those reasons shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody later.

One good reason for not graduating in four years is because you have serious opportunities for personal or professional development. For instance, you may want to study abroad. We encourage all of our students to take a semester abroad some time during their time with us. That does not mean that you have to do that, but about 25 percent of our students do study abroad. We would like every University of Pittsburgh student to have some international experience before getting a bachelor’s degree. We do what we can to make that possible in four years, but some of our programs involve serious professional curricula that can’t really be pursued during a semester abroad and that, therefore, do result in delaying graduation. If you are in one of those programs and talk it over as a family and decide that a study-abroad experience is important to you and important to your development as a student and as a person, and if you’re willing to defer graduation, then that’s a great reason for delaying graduation.

Another good reason for taking more than four years to graduate: internship opportunities. We want you to buy into your own development. We want you to buy into your own education. For many students, that investment comes not just through what they’re getting into in the classroom, but through what they get out of an internship. While many good internships can be done during the summer, some good internship opportunities extend into the school year, which may delay graduation a little bit.

Students who get into an internship find that they are using the skills that they learned at the University, and they find that they couldn’t be doing what they are currently doing in the internship if they had just stopped with a high school education. That discovery is a good motivator. Those students come back to our classrooms knowing that what they’re getting in our classrooms is good for them; once you see that what we’re doing in the classroom is good for you, your courses are going to mean more to you, you’re going to try harder at them, you’ll learn more, and you’ll get a better education out of this place—and that’s what we all want.

Sometimes, your career goals, your personal goals, and your academic goals require you or lead you to want to major in more than one thing. Now again, it’s quite often possible to major in two things and graduate in four years, just as it’s often possible to fit in internships and study abroad, but sometimes, for one reason or another, it isn’t. If your first major has an unusually tight curriculum, then to add a second major may mean that you end up graduating “late.” So, pursue multiple majors if you’ve thought through that decision. As long as everybody knows what you’re doing and understands that your decision is based on your assessment of what is good for your development and what fits your plans for your life, then graduating a little bit late is a good thing.

And then one more reason for delaying graduation: changing your major. Parents, if this arises with your student, I hope you will realize that this is a sensitive time in your child’s life. Even if you don’t especially like what’s going on, try to be receptive to your student’s anxieties: Growth comes painfully in many cases.

A reasonably common but painful experience for someone the age of your student—and students two or three years older—is to discover that, for one reason or another, they cannot abide following the career goals they had set out for themselves when they began studying. Some students find that they either don’t like what they’re studying or they’re quite sure that, even though they like what they’re studying, when they actually got out in the world and tried to use that knowledge, they would hate their jobs. Students may realize that their talents truly lie elsewhere.

Nobody who’s been admitted here is without talent, but that does not mean that everybody here is equally talented in every endeavor. Sometimes, people match themselves to the wrong endeavor and discover that mismatch in the classroom. If your student calls and says, “Look, I just have to change majors, and that does mean that I won’t graduate in four years,” then as a parent you need to look ahead. Realize that if students please you by graduating in four years with their original majors, then they may be absolutely miserable in their jobs for the following 40 years. Reach out to your students. Encourage them to find something that does match their interests and their needs, and then try to deal with the fact that it may mean that the graduation in the four years that we all originally envisioned may not be possible.

Changing a major is not a bad reason to take more than four years to graduate, but again, the worst way to do it is have an important stakeholder—like the person who’s paying the tuition checks—not know that it’s going on. We all have to make sure that everybody is on the same page.

So now I’m finished with the grim business. We can move on to the fun part, what I call the “stimulating insight.” Let’s talk about what we’re about here.

What does the University of Pittsburgh want for you freshmen? Well, in general, undefined terms, we want you to have very meaningful lives. And we want to set you up for those lives. The question is, what are we doing to try to make that happen?

First, by the time the orientation week is over, you will have heard of a program that we call the Pitt Pathway. The Pitt Pathway tries to make it easy for you to think about your goals and to reach your goals. We’re offering the examined life here. Every time you go to register for classes, we want you to sit down with advisors and discuss your personal goals, your career goals, and your academic goals. We want you to discuss what the courses you might take that semester are likely to do for you in reaching those goals.

After your first semester, you’ll start talking with your advisors about whether the courses you took last semester did, in fact, help you reach your goals and about whether in the course of taking those courses your goals might have changed a little bit—because as you learn more, you’re better able to refine what those goals are. Are those goals changing? If the goals are changing, should you and your advisors change the course selection a bit?

Similarly, what are you doing outside of class to help you achieve your lifetime goals? The entire University is set up around this Pitt Pathway program to try to help you with your goals. The residence hall advisors, the academic advisors, the faculty members who teach you, and you are all supposed to be partners talking about the status of your reaching your goals.

At many universities, the career services people only become important when you’re a senior and you’re looking for a job. At the University of Pittsburgh, we want them engaged with you in the first year. We want them engaged every semester. We want you to know who they are. We want you to begin thinking about how what you’re doing now prepares you for what you’re going to do later. Not because we want you to be narrowly professional: We want you to be wide-ranging in your interests. But we want you to be thinking of yourselves and the way that society will look at you, and we want you to be thinking about how you are going to relate with that society and how you are going to need to present yourselves to that society.

Questions that the career services people might start raising in your sophomore or junior year are: If you had to look for a job now, what would you want your résumé to look like? And what does your résumé look like now? And what are you going to do this year to make your current résumé look more like the résumé you’d like to have when you get out of here? That’s a worthwhile activity to undertake before you’re looking for either employment or admission to professional schools.

Secondly, as you think about your academic opportunities here at the University…[pause]. I can carry on indefinitely about academic opportunities. I’m a career academic, and I love it. And I know that one of the things that I could do to please the students here now is to make this relatively short.

So, let me point out a couple of things that I bet you haven’t thought about. One: general education requirements. If you ask typical undergrad students at almost any major American university what they think about general education requirements, they will roll their eyes and give you a pained look. The answers may vary depending on the sophistication and the general attitude of the students, but the answers tend to boil down to something like this: It’s like fraternity hazing. The professors haze us for two years before they let us major in something. I’m here to major in x or y or z, and they don’t let me start until I do all these general education requirements, and it’s boring.

Now, let me tell you what I think about general education requirements. If you survey employers, admissions officers for professional schools, and admissions officers for graduate schools about what they’re looking for in a prospective employee or grad student, it’s remarkable how consistent the answers are. All of them look at the major, of course, depending on the exact job description or school you’re talking about, but that’s not really the big thing on their minds. That’s not the thing they worry about.

Instead, they ask: Can you write well? Can you stand up and express yourself in speech well? Can you sit down at a computer and use it well? Do your mathematical skills allow you to be sophisticated about quantitative reasoning? Do you think clearly? Do you read critically? When you read something, can you make a decision about which arguments are strong and which are weak? Do you understand the society in which you are embedded? Do you understand the diversity of the people of the United States? Do you understand the diversity of the cultures of the world? Are you a sophisticated person?

Employers, graduate schools, professional schools: They’re all looking for that. At the University of Pittsburgh, we offer you a chance to get very, very sophisticated, and we do that through those general education requirements. In fact, you get more out of your majors if you are already very sophisticated in those general education areas. So when you are getting ready to select courses for the next semester, please do not rely on the advice of peers who may steer you away from difficult and “boring” general education courses. Those are exactly the courses that will help you reach your goals.

And that leads me to my next point: Minimize your reliance on bad advice. Talk to your advisors and take time to reflect on your own goals, progress, and achievements. For instance, ask advisors and faculty members you respect whether you are writing as well as you should be writing. If the answer is no, then ask what you can do this term to write better.

Finally: Have fun.

This is a real opportunity, and these years will go by fast. Get to know other students. Learn from them. Think about what you want to do and who you are. Make friends for life. Do everything you can to leave the University of Pittsburgh having achieved all that you’ve dreamed of.

We appreciate you choosing us, and we want you to succeed.

Thank you.