New Student Orientation Remarks: 'Discover something that excites and interests you, something that changes your life forever.'

Issue Date: 
September 7, 2010

This is the printed version of remarks delivered Aug. 26 in the John M. and Gertrude E. Petersen Events Center by Pitt Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Patricia E. Beeson during the New Student Orientation session titled “Pathway to Your Success at Pitt: A Pitt Tradition.”

Patricia E. BeesonPatricia E. Beeson

Welcome, Class of 2014! As you now know, I am the provost of the University. I started in this position just about 10 days ago, and so you and I are starting off together on this new adventure. Like you, or like some of you, I am a little nervous. But I am also very excited. There are so many possibilities ahead of us: so much that we can do, so much that we can accomplish both individually and collectively. I’m looking forward to the next four years, and I know that there are many more records we are going to set.

As I have been moving into this new position, I have been contemplating what I would like the University to be like in five or 10 years and what I need to do to make the University that place. Similarly, all of you who are freshmen will be spending the next few years thinking about the person you want to be when you graduate and what you will need to do over the next four years to become that person.

This is what the college experience is all about: The next four years will provide you with the opportunity to explore your intellectual interests, to find out where your talents lie, and to learn what engages and electrifies you. Our hope for you is that you will have a meaningful life and that the time you spend at Pitt sets you up for success in that life.

I encourage you to think hard about the goals that you have for yourself—your academic goals, your professional goals, and your personal goals. Take advantage of the many opportunities you will have over the next four years to reflect on, to explore, and to achieve those goals.

Some of you may already have a good sense of the career you want to pursue. My friend Danny was like you. His parents gave him a chemistry set for his 10th birthday, and from that moment, he knew he wanted to be a chemist. He spent all his time fussing around making compounds and stink bombs and whatever else 10-year-olds do with chemistry sets. When Danny went to college, he majored in chemistry, and today he is a professor of chemistry.

I was not like Danny.

I did not come to college with a single passion that would shape my professional life. When I went to college, I started off as an engineering major, largely because my parents suggested it would be a good major for me since I had a talent for math. So off I went to Oregon State University with slide rule in hand.

That first year I did well in my classes, but in looking around at the other kids in my class, I realized that something was missing.While I was diligently puzzling over my projects, my classmates were absolutely enthusiastic about theirs—building digital clocks and integrated circuits for class, spending their free time rebuilding stereos and TVs. They loved what they did, and I realized that I wanted to feel like they did about what I was studying.

So I decided to explore some other majors. I thought about becoming an English major because I really enjoyed my literature classes. Unfortunately, while I was enthusiastic and engaged in these classes, it did not take me long to realize that I had no talent in this area. Writing and studying literature were not my gifts.

Economics, on the other hand, was my gift. When I signed up for my first course in Microeconomics with Professor Zvi Orzak, my friends advised strongly against this class. Economics was generally considered to be boring, and Orzak had the reputation of being the hardest teacher on campus. But it sounded interesting to me, it fit into my schedule, and it met a social science requirement, so I kept it.

And from the first day I walked into that class, I loved it.

Even though I was sitting in the third row from the back in the upper left hand corner of a large lecture hall, I felt Professor Orzak was speaking directly to me. During that class, I came to realize that this was a subject for which I had a talent that I could enthusiastically pursue. For 27 years now, I have been a professor of economics here at Pitt, and I have had the good fortune to have a career that I have never considered to be work.

I tell you this story for a couple of reasons. First, you may be like my friend Danny and have very well defined goals that you will successfully pursue over the next four years. If so, that’s great. But you may also be like me and not know exactly what academic area fits you best, or you may find over the coming year that you no longer want to pursue the major you intended to pursue when you came to Pitt. And that’s okay, too. College should be a time when you explore your interests. While you explore, look for a subject that fully engages you, an interest that matches your talents, a profession that you can pursue with your whole heart, as I have pursued economics.

Second, remember that there are many people, including your parents and the faculty and staff here at the University, who want to see you succeed and are here to help you succeed. Talk with them; listen to them; let them help you as you explore. But realize that while your family, friends, and advisors can help, they cannot provide the answers: You have to come up with the answers yourself. If I had dropped that first economics course as my friends advised, or had I stayed an engineering major because that is what my parent suggested I do, I would not be who I am today.

I am certain that your parents would be concerned if I did not note at this point that even though I explored several majors, I completed my degree in four years. I was able to do that because, as I explored my options, I did so in a structured way, and I encourage you to structure your exploration, as well. Use the general education curriculum to guide you as you explore your interests; in this way you will be completing graduation requirements as you explore. Choose a major by the end of your sophomore year and develop a plan with your advisor for completing that major and graduating in four years.

Now sometimes graduating in four years will not be possible: If I had started as a literature major and decided to switch to engineering, I could not have finished in four years. If you find yourself in this situation, talk with your parents and let them know what is going on and what you are thinking. Don’t come home at the end of four years and say, “Oh yeah, by the way, I am going to need to go back next year and will need a little more money.”

I mentioned the general education curriculum as a structured way to explore your interests while you are here, but it is much more than that. Even for those of you who are like my friend Danny and have very clearly defined professional ambitions, the general education curriculum is critical in developing the skills and habits of mind that employers and admissions officers at graduate schools tell us are most important for success:

• Strong communication skills—both in writing and speaking;

• The ability to think clearly and to read critically, to be able to evaluate the strength of arguments, and to be able to develop strong arguments yourself; and,

• An understanding of the culture you are part of, the diversity of people and experiences in the United States, as well as the diversity of the cultures of the world.

The development of these skills and attributes is at the core of the general education curriculum.

I have talked a lot about choosing majors and courses, but some of the most important lessons you will learn—and much of the character you will develop—will come from experiences outside of the classroom. So you should approach those experiences in the same thoughtful and reflective way that you approach your academic experience. As you consider who you want to be when you graduate, think carefully about the activities you choose outside the classroom and how they will contribute to you becoming that person.

In a few minutes, I am going to turn over the stage to Shawn Brooks and his colleagues, who will tell you about the Outside the Classroom Curriculum, the OCC—a program that will help you as you consider your engagement outside the classroom and how that engagement will help you develop the characteristics you will need to build a foundation for a successful life. But before I do, I would like to tell you one more story, a story that I hope you will remember as you progress through your studies.

Several years ago I was talking with one of our graduates, another successful chemist, as it turns out, and I asked him if there was a teacher whom he remembered more than others, one who had had a significant impact on his life. And he said, yes, there was, but that I would probably be surprised to hear that the teacher who had had such an impact was not a chemist, even though he had many great chemistry instructors who contributed in very significant ways to his professional success.

But, he said, none of them had the same impact on my life as the gentleman who taught my World Music class. He did more to shape my life than any other instructor. In that class, I learned something about myself—that I have a very deep and passionate appreciation for classical music. Every morning now, I listen to classical music as I prepare for my day. This music has brought such joy and calm to my life that I cannot imagine who I would be without it.

So as you start on your college experience, remember that during these four years you should be building a foundation for a meaningful life, not just a successful career. I hope that over the next four years you discover something that excites and interests you, something that changes your life forever.

Thank you, and welcome to Pitt!