• RIT Convocation Address, 8-31-09


    Joseph R. Fornieri

    Associate Professor of Political Science



                On behalf of our dedicated administration, faculty, and staff, I am both pleased and honored to welcome you (our new students and your families) to R.I.T. You of the Freshman class are about to enter an extraordinary institution of higher learning, a place that attracts talent from the right and left sides of the brain, where artists and engineers meet, where excellence is cultivated, where intellectual and cultural diversity thrive, and where the innovators of tomorrow are made.

              In my brief talk today, I hope to provide you with some guidance for taking full advantage of the unique opportunities here at RIT. It is my earnest desire (and I know I speak for my colleagues throughout the Institute) that you will flourish here; that you will realize your full potential, and that your experience at RIT will prepare you for future success as tomorrow’s innovators and leaders.

              Whether you realize it or not, today’s occasion marks turning point in your life’s journey: a movement from the shelter of adolescence to the responsibilities of adulthood.  While change is always beset with new challenges and anxieties, it also presents new possibilities for growth and enrichment. Indeed, a life without change is static.

              Here you will start anew. Here you will establish a record that will influence your career possibilities. Though we are truly proud of the quality and caliber of our students, let me caution you that past performance in High School is not an always a guarantee of future success in College. Without hard work and discipline your potential to excel will not be realized.

    Keep in mind that you are both More and Less than a past standardized test score and Grade Point Average. You are LESS because you will face new and different intellectual challenges that will stretch you beyond what you have already achieved. You are More because the human spirit defies quantification—the human mind and character can’t be fully captured by a number. Some of the late bloomers among you will realize their full potential for the first time here in college.  Please consider this a friendly invitation to strive beyond what you have already achieved. Neither rest upon your laurels nor be discouraged by the past. Rather begin anew.

               Allow me to share with you an Italian proverb that may help prepare you for this journey: “Well begun is half done.”  In other words, get off to a good start. This means managing your time well, preparing in advance, introducing yourself to your professor, sitting in the front of class so you can pay better attention, and seizing, rather than squandering opportunities to better yourself.  

              You probably are familiar with these suggestions. Are there any more specific guidelines, you may ask, in getting off to a good start? In High School, educators emphasized the fundamentals of the 3 R’s as the key to successful learning: reading, writing, and arithmetic. (I never fully understood—and I still don’t understand despite my Ph.D., how they get three R’s when Arithmetic begins with the letter A).

              In any event, I recommend that you follow the 5 R’s as a key to a successful college experience. (You’ll note that there are two more R’s than High School. This is higher learning after all). In sum, the 5 R’s require you to do 5 things that will enhance your experience here at RIT: 1) To Risk; 2) To Respect; 3) To be Responsible;  4) To Reflect; and 5) To Relish. Let’s briefly consider each.


              The First “R” asks you to Risk: “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” Your college experience will be more fulfilling if you venture outside the private, self-contained electronic world of p.c., the internet, the i-pod and the i-phone. Step beyond this and engage the wider community around you. Cyberspace is no substitute for interpersonal space. Do not allow the safety and comfort of virtual reality to eclipse the unpredictable challenges and rewards of reality itself. Now is the ideal time, and this is the ideal place to risk: RIT is a supportive and safe environment. Seek a mentor who will take a personal interest in developing your talents to their fullest. Do not be afraid to ask that question in class; chances are your fellows have the same question but are afraid of asking it.       


              I encourage you to engage both the domestic and the international community here at RIT.  Our foreign students and study abroad programs in Croatia and Dubai provide a microcosm of globalized world we live in today. (The world is a smaller place today). Speaking of our international community, we wish our Muslim students and families a blessed Ramadan this month. And I ask that you remember to share some of that delicious Lamb Biryani with me when you break your fast. Since Yom Kippur is just a few weeks later, I would also like to remind our Jewish students at Hillel House to share their Latke’s and Knishes with me. And I certainly do not forget the incredible cuisine from India and East Asia—Chole and dumplings are welcome at RIT. In other words, I encourage you to break bread with someone from a different culture and to study abroad. (All this food talk is making me hungry—when’s lunch?).

              Speaking from personal experience, my own teaching has just been substantially enriched by a Fulbright in Prague, Czech Republic where, in particular, I gained a differing, foreign perspective on free speech and expression that was quite different from American jurisprudence.  To risk means to overcome the fear of failure. Rather persevere, learn and grow from your mistakes. Embrace challenges. When you are discouraged, just think of what Edison said, “I have not failed, I have just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”


              The Second “R” asks you to Respect:  While I encourage you to risk, I also urge you to avoid destructive behavior that may harm yourself and others—and I do not simply mean physical harm, I also mean harm to your soul and character. Respect for yourself and for others means following that oldest of educational maxims—the Golden Rule—“do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Dialogue and friendship, so essential to human flourishing, can only occur in atmosphere of mutual respect. You will benefit much more from your college experience if you engage other members of this community, including your professors and fellow students, in a spirit of humility and openness, rather than arrogance and prejudice. By entering into a dialogue of mutual respect with others, you will realize that our common dignity as human beings transcends ideological and physical differences, whether we are deaf or hearing, are black or white, conservative or liberal.


              The Third “R” asks you to take Responsibility. This is perhaps the most important of the 5 R’s.  A persistent attitude of entitlement and victimization will impede your growth. Beware of constantly blaming others for your own shortcomings, and of shifting responsibility from yourself to them. This habit will prevent you from honestly confronting your own limitations. In taking responsibility for your success or failure in college, I urge you to follow the timeless advice that my hero, Abraham Lincoln gave to young person who began the study of law: “Always bear in mind,” Lincoln said, “that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any one thing.” Indeed, this sage advice came from a man who had only one year of formal schooling, who knew poverty, whose mother died when he was nine, whose father discouraged his learning, who suffered a breakdown after the death of his fiance, and who experienced great hardship, disappointment, and adversity throughout his adult life, including political defeat, a mentally ill wife, and the death of a son in the White House. Indeed, Lincoln’s greatness as a statesman was measured in part by how well he bore the awful weight of responsibility during a war that claimed the life of more than 620,000 Americans—a responsibility far greater and far graver than anything you may encounter as a new student. Let me assure you that RIT will provide you with all the resources and tools for success; but it is up to you to use them well and to make the most of your time here.


              The Fourth R. asks you to Reflect. It may seem trite and obvious to include reflection on the list of things to do in college. However, it is not as obvious as it seems. The frantic busyness of everyday life often leaves little room for reflection. Ironically, we may learn without ever seriously reflecting about the big things in life—about the meaning and purpose of our existence, about how to live rightly, about success, love, fulfillment, and happiness. Yet what could be more important? While your time here will involve the best vocational training that can be provided, and the mastery of different skill sets, I also hope that it will entail something else—namely, I hope that it will involve a quest for the self-knowledge that defines our human condition. Such knowledge is essential to becoming an educated, well-rounded, and thoughtful person. My own educational philosophy is based on the belief that each student has a unique gift and that they are here to discover this gift in order to fulfill a nobler purpose or calling to serve others.

    Some students may already have a clear vocation or calling, others may have only a vague idea, still others may have no idea of what they want to do at this stage. I congratulate those of you who have found your calling so early in life, but I also want to reassure those of you who not have a clear direction that it is quite all right. You are here at RIT precisely to reflect upon your strengths and weaknesses and to explore different career paths and interests.  Facing different academic challenges and taking different classes in different fields will help you to discover your gifts and your calling.     


              The Fifth “R” asks you to Relish. By relish, I certainly do not mean the stuff you put on hot dogs, though hot dogs are a great part of Rochester’s culture. As a native, I invite you to sample that unique, indigenous Rochester culinary treasure—the garbage plate with our famous White Hots of course.

    By relish then I really mean the enjoyment of leisure, from whose Greek roots we get the word school.  It is a mistake, however, to confuse leisure with laziness or even idleness as we often do. On the contrary, leisure involves the pursuit of activities that are done for their own sake, that are intrinsically satisfying and rewarding. Indeed, the greatest flashes of inspiration often occur in moments of leisured activity. The muses will not visit those who are too busy and unreceptive.

    Allow yourself to play then, to dream and to wonder. If you are receptive, life changing experiences may occur through a leisurely conversation over a cup of coffee with friends or faculty.  Art, poetry, music, the marvels of engineering and physics, the universe, nature, the human genome, the personality, politics, philosophy, language, mathematics—all of these may stir wonder in our souls if we listen carefully and relish what they have to offer. My father, who began and ended his career as a Math teacher used to say that Math was beautiful. As a child, I was both intrigued and troubled by this? Was Dad torturing me because I was mathematically challenged? I only appreciated what he meant later in life, when I went to college where I began to love learning for its own sake. Dad loved the rigor, order and precision of Math not simply for its usefulness and practical power, but like the Greeks, for its own sake. Be open to wonder and inspiration. Allow the leisured love of learning for its own sake to animate your time and study here at RIT.


    Conclusion. In conclusion, the key to a rewarding college experience is to work hard, and to play hard in the sense of leisure I have just described.  Let the 5R’s be your guidelines in making the most of your time here: 1) risk; 2) respect; 3) responsibility; 4) reflect; 5) relish. And always remember that Italian proverb, “Well begun is half done.” We look forward to accompanying you on this adventure. Make the most of it. 

    Thank you.

Last Modified on September 7, 2009