Published October 25, 2021 by Bowdoin News

President Rose Welcomes the Class of 2024 (October 24, 2021)

Good morning, Class of 2024! 

It is so great to be here with you, to have you back on campus and things in full swing.

Last year, in our virtual welcome, I talked about the challenge you have to become intellectually fearless here, and that helping you to do so is a central, critical part of our mission. I want to focus on this in the first part of my remarks.

Intellectual fearlessness—the knowledge, skills, and emotional fortitude to engage thoughtfully and respectfully with ideas that unsettle you, make you uncomfortable, and can even offend you. To be open to having your minds changed, and to engage in thoughtful, respectful discourse and debate on the hardest issues. To a very large degree we lack all of this in our society today, we suffer from a cable TV news world where we yell and shut down others and don’t listen, and as society we imperil our democracy and aspirations as a result.

I want to share with you an example of someone I think is intellectually fearless, someone among our graduates.  Someone whose actions are worthy of our respect and consideration.

Shaun Leonardo is Class of 2001, the son of immigrant parents from Central America.  Shaun is a rising and celebrated artist, with works that have been on display at The Guggenheim, LACMA, Brooklyn Museum, among many other places.  His works are here at our museum, and one of his paintings hangs behind my desk. Not only does he paint and draw, but he is also a performance artist. 

Shaun was here last Monday and gave a fantastic talk in Kresge. I know some of you were there.

Those who know Shaun’s work or who listened to him on Monday know that he is a fierce warrior for social and racial justice, and that his art addresses these issues, among them the killings of young men of color by the police.

He talked last Monday about performance art that he created that dealt with these issues of justice, and I was struck by a theme that, in some of these pieces, he brings together individuals as part of performances who represent very different points of view, very different. Gun enthusiasts, those in the military or police, victims of gun crime, formerly incarcerated individuals.  He is able to do this, he explained, because he has spent time—years—cultivating relationships with them. Building trust with them. They may not agree—almost certainly they do not agree—on issues, but they trust one another. He is only able to do this, in my view, because he has the skills and emotional strength to lean into engaging with folks with whom he disagrees, strongly, in service of making the statements he seeks to make in his art and the change he seeks to make in the world.

I left the talk really struck by what an example of intellectual fearlessness he represents.  

Something for all of us to think about.

Let’s turn to you now, and to your experience so far at Bowdoin, and I want to make a couple of observations for your consideration.

Because of COVID, the beginning of your college experience was not what you expected, and it has been incredibly hard. And in the face of these challenges you have shown amazing resilience, character, determination, grace, and a strong sense of community. This is who you are; this is why you are here. 

The academic experience last year was, with limited expectations, remote. The ability to come to know this place and one another was limited, and the opportunity to do all the things that college students want to do was not essentially available.

It was not fair, and I wish it had not been so.

But, as you well know, it was the hand you were dealt. 

There are ways we are helping to create cohesion, provide access to key traditions, and settle into Bowdoin and college life. But it is a truth that we will not, and you will not be able to create a first year or college experience that looks like it did before COVID. 

But the reality also is that your Bowdoin College experience can be as great as that of any class that has passed through the College, and any of the over 30,000 alumni who have graduated from here. And the other good news is that this is very much in your hands. 

And yours is not the first Bowdon class to confront historic moments and to have to reimagine the experience here—war, pandemics, economic disaster, and social unrest all altered the experiences of some here. They, too, created great college experiences, and they went on to change the world, as you will.

To make this happen, don’t spend much time looking back and trying to create something that cannot be grasped.

Instead, find ways to celebrate what will come, what you want to do together, and the connections and community you want to build, and who you want to be. Do this deliberately.  

Consider how you will take the experiences of the last twenty months, what you have learned about yourself, what you know you are capable of doing, and consider how they can help to make your Bowdoin experience over the next three years special, powerful, and meaningful, to each of you individually and as a class. 

Look forward.

Let me end by saying again how thrilled I am, we all are, to have you on campus and to have this academic year well underway.