President Alison Byerly welcomed the Class of 2022 with the following remarks at the Convocation ceremony this afternoon.
It is a great pleasure to gather together as a community to welcome the Class of 2022. We are so pleased that your families can join us for this special occasion.
I would like to begin my remarks by acknowledging some of the many people who make this afternoon’s ceremony possible. In addition to the speakers participating in the program, they include Dean of Advising and Co-Curricular Programs Erica D’Agostino; Director of Student Leadership and Involvement Kristin Cothran; Project Director Billie Weiss; Provost Abu Rizvi; Faculty Mace Bearer/Professor of Art Ed Kerns; College Archivist Diane Shaw; Associate Professor of Music Jennifer Kelly; Chaplain Alex Hendrickson; and the facilities operations staff who prepared Kirby for this event. Please join me in thanking all of these colleagues.
I’d also like to offer a special thanks to student orientation and Welcome Week directors Kara Rosenthal ’19, Bryce Currie ’20, Katie Gonick ’20; Assistant Directors of Student Leadership and Involvement Joe DeMarco and Melissa Dalrymple, and the orientation leaders who, with the help of RA’s and Pardners, have worked so hard to make these last few days a great introduction to Lafayette for you.
You take your place today as part of a special community, one that is more than 180 years old. I’d like to talk for a few minutes about the role of traditions in strengthening community and the important role of community in your education here at Lafayette.
During the procession, we witnessed the first of many Lafayette traditions which the members of this class will enjoy as student representatives from each of the five Commons—Jessica Whitman, William Huffenus, Michael Anekwe, Milena Berestko, and Yordanos Mengistu—led their classmates with the flag of the Class of 2022. This flag will be part of their Lafayette experience throughout their lifetime. For example, when you return to Lafayette as alumni to celebrate Reunion, you will carry this flag during the Reunion parade.
A number of our traditions reflect the prominence of the figure of the Marquis de Lafayette as a guiding symbol for the College. When you first learned about Lafayette College, you may have wondered how the College got its name. At the time of the College’s founding, Lafayette was one of the most famous and revered names in America. Lafayette’s dedication and heroism in traveling from France as a young man to support the American revolution, as well as his status as a close friend of General Washington, had made him a legendary figure. In 1824, he returned to America as a beloved elder statesman and was greeted with extraordinary adulation as he toured every state in the union.
When a group of prominent citizens of Easton met in 1824 to talk about founding a college, several of them had recently traveled to Philadelphia to hear Lafayette speak. The founders decided, as the minutes of their meeting noted, “That as a testimony of respect for the talents, virtues, and signal services of General La Fayette in the great cause of freedom, the said institution be named, La Fayette.” In choosing to name the fledgling college Lafayette, these citizens were consciously aligning the college with the associations that name evoked: heroism, freedom, and youthful valor.
Over the years, this self-chosen identity for the College has been reinforced through the adoption of many statements, mottos, and values associated with the Marquis de Lafayette.
Here on the stage today you see one of the most treasured artifacts found in the College’s Special Collections is a sword that belonged to the Marquis de Lafayette during the French Revolution. Associated with his service as commander of the Parisian National Guard, the sword has the Liberty Cap symbol of the revolution for its pommel. As the revolution became more radical and Lafayette’s life was threatened, he tried to escape to America but was captured at the Belgian border by France’s enemies, the coalition of Prussia and Habsburg Austria, and imprisoned for five years. At the time of his arrest, this sword was taken from him.
The sword eventually became a family heirloom of a family of German barons descended from Lafayette’s captors until it was presented to Lafayette College by the Baroness Monica von Militz in 1932.
This sword will play a role at your Commencement, which will take place four years—or as your parents think of it, eight tuition checks—from now. On that day, the member of this class who is selected as the winner of the College’s George Wharton Pepper Prize, the most distinguished award presented to a Lafayette student, will be given the honor of presenting this sword to your classmates during the Commencement ceremony.
I encourage you to read the brief history of the sword in your program, which was prepared by Diane Shaw, director of special collections and college archives. You will also find a poem, titled The Sword of Lafayette, written by Lafayette Class of 1916 alumnus H. MacKnight Black for the dedication of the statue of the Marquis by Daniel Chester French in front of Colton Chapel in 1921.
Over this last three years, it has been fun to see how the figure of Lafayette has achieved renewed national prominence as a result of the musical Hamilton. The Lafayette of the musical has energy, ambition, and swagger. Like Alexander Hamilton, Lafayette is an immigrant who has adopted American values and made them his own. Last spring, we were fortunate in having the actor who played Lafayette in the show, Daveed Diggs, visit campus—and he was amazed to find himself in a place where the Marquis de Lafayette was a well-known figure.
As entering students, you play an important role in maintaining this historic legacy through your membership in the residential Commons to which you belong, each of which bears the names of five ships on which Lafayette traveled to and from America. These Commons will provide the foundation for your first-year communities and will help to launch you on your Lafayette journey. Please stand and be recognized when your Commons is named. You are allowed to cheer for your own Commons!
Not all of the College’s traditions derive from our connection with Lafayette. Many are associated with our historic rivalry with Lehigh. Of course, some of the pranks and traditions associated with the rivalry in past years—such as bonfires, vandalism, kidnappings, and the tearing down of goalposts—have changed with the times. But there are still many songs, jokes, and traditions associated with the rivalry that continue, and what has not changed is the way in which the rivalry provides a unique focus for displays of school spirit that very few colleges like Lafayette can muster.
In 1935, a list of informal rules and traditions for incoming freshmen noted that “the oldest and most beautiful of Lafayette traditions” is that of gathering in front of Pardee to sing the alma mater and other College songs. When we close today’s ceremony by singing the alma mater, you can picture to yourself the many generations of students going back more than a century who have done the exact same thing.
These kinds of traditions help bind the community together, both within each successive class and across generations of alumni. And Lafayette’s powerful sense of community is, I would argue, one of its greatest strengths, and an integral part of the education we offer here.
Education in this setting is not simply a matter of solitary mastery of information or skills. It involves dialogue, questioning, testing, experimentation. This process of active engagement begins in the classroom, with dedicated and creative faculty who will challenge you with new areas of study and new ways of looking at topics you may have thought were familiar. It also involves a broader intellectual community beyond the classroom that is created through ongoing conversations with faculty, staff and with other students.
Education at Lafayette will also include the learning and growth that comes through leadership and participation in other areas, including athletics, artistic performance, community service, and other activities. Your education will be shaped by faculty mentors, advisers, and coaches, but also by the students around you, and their experience will in turn be shaped and changed by your presence.
In that sense, the diverse community of fellow students we have assembled here is a critical resource in your own education. As Dean [Matt] Hyde noted, your class includes a wonderful variety of students from a range of geographic locations and backgrounds, who have a tremendous variety of talents and interests. It is a natural tendency to gravitate towards people who are similar to ourselves, and technology has made it easier for all of us to find and listen to the voices with which we are most comfortable. But you will learn more, and be better prepared for the world you will enter when you leave here, if you look for opportunities to extend yourself beyond the circles that seem most familiar. More importantly, you will be in a better position to change that world, and make it a less polarized and divisive place, if you bring with you the habits of outreach and curiosity that we try to foster here.
Best of luck to all of you with the start of classes and the start of your Lafayette journey. We are so pleased you have chosen to take that journey with us and look forward to seeing all that you will accomplish, both as students and as alumni. Thank you.