Convocation Ceremony

2016 Speeches & Highlights

Casey Silvestri - Convocation Speech 2016

Thank you, President Christian, and hello to the faculty, staff, and alumni here today. But most of all, welcome my fellow students to SUNY New Paltz! Whether you just conquered high school, or transferred from another college, or decided to go back to school, I congratulate you all. I am so excited for all 1,900 new students because you’re about to embark on your own individual adventure here at New Paltz.

The story I’m sharing today begins with the time I almost didn’t go to New Paltz...I know what you’re thinking: “She almost didn’t go here?! Then why is she up there speaking?” But the truth is, I didn’t discover New Paltz until later in my college career.

Back in high school, I was convinced I needed to attend Emerson College to study media production. It is a top ten film school and I thought my success in the industry would depend on the connections it offered. So through years of AP classes, extra-curriculars, and crying into my SAT-prep book, I knew it would eventually be worth it if I got into Emerson. And I did. I concluded that my hard work paid off and I was finally locked into my academic destiny.

What my naive, 17 year-old self did not realize was despite having “it all figured out,” not everything goes as planned. Like many other families, we received no financial aid and we just did not have the savings to send me to a school like that. After four years at Emerson, I would be graduating with a $200,000 loan with my name stamped on it.

Naturally, this “little” dose of reality did not dawn on me until the very last minute. So exactly one month before my move-in date at Emerson, I picked up the phone and told them to drop my enrollment. I was devastated to say goodbye to what I thought was my dream school.

I didn’t want to put my academic career on hold, so fortunately I was able to enroll in my local community college. However, the two years that followed were challenging.

Though I received good grades, my community college experience ironically lacked something I needed: community. People drove to campus, went to class, and immediately drove home. Although that worked for some people, I found it more difficult to make friends, find school spirit, participate in clubs, or go above and beyond on school projects when many students expressed they had no desire to be there. My classmates ranged from students who always got their work done, to people who showed up to class once or twice a semester. Many classes were not challenging and some professors were not invested in their students. Although I believe in the value of community college and I am grateful for the opportunities it did provide, my experience resulted in me leaving that school many nights feeling like no one supported my dreams. Two years passed since I said “no” to Emerson, and I was still a very lost student.

Fortunately, three selfless people helped me get to where I am now. The first person was Jason Latorre from the New Paltz class of 2011, who was an adjunct professor but now is a successful videographer at Marvel. To my surprise, he told me he himself left Emerson to transfer to New Paltz, which offered him the opportunities he needed at the time. At that moment, it was the first time I recognized the power of public higher education. And it was the first time I really heard about New Paltz.

Not long after, I applied and luckily found myself with an acceptance letter in hand.

The second selfless person was Miriam Ward from the New Paltz class of 2015, who I met shortly after my acceptance. We were introduced through our scholarship organization, New York Women in Communications. Even though she was graduating and preparing for her dream job at MSNBC, she took the time to give me some key advice: Apply to the New Paltz Honors Program.

Miriam then introduced me to the third person, Honors Director Patricia Sullivan, who you will hear from shortly. Between her warmth, sincerity, and dedication to helping her students, I knew she was someone who genuinely wanted to foster my dreams. I’m thankful to say she is now my mentor.

Thankfully, I was accepted into the Honors Program the summer before my first semester. But once it was time to transfer, I was warned of how lonely I was going to feel: “You won’t know anyone. It’s going to take a long time to make friends.” These comments made me fear I was merely going to be labeled as “the transfer girl.”

However, my story couldn’t be further from those misconceptions. Because on my very first day at New Paltz, I already had a community of ambitious, diverse students waiting for me in College Hall.

Not only are SUNY New Paltz and Honors students dedicated to their studies, but they’re equally dedicated to helping those around them -- regardless of major or year. Everyone welcomed me with open arms, excited to get to know me and what I was studying. I was accepted into the community I was endlessly searching for since high school.

It’s only been a year and this school has transformed me into a critical thinker, a stronger writer, and a more well-rounded student. And unlike my other school, professors like Patricia Sullivan have taken the time to recognize my potential and help me grow my skills inside and outside of the classroom. Between outside trips, engaging seminar discussions, and fascinating Honors panels and events, I’ve met countless students who I already consider good friends. And I’ve met countless professors, alumni, faculty, and students who have all gone out of their way to help me seek opportunities in the media industry. Even New Paltz’s campus has played a role -- its close proximity to New York City has allowed me to accept my dream internship at NBC this fall, within an industry I originally thought was unattainable. Without New Paltz and its people, I would not be talking to you here today.

Before school starts in just a few short days, I must thank New Paltz and the Honors Program for helping me find my on-campus family before I even set foot on these grounds. I’m no longer “that transfer girl,” but a proud hawk. New Paltz is my new home with the Honors Program as my family within that home.

So as you begin your first year here, I encourage everyone to find your own families within the New Paltz community -- which you’ll see extends far beyond the Shawangunk Mountains. And when things don’t go as you planned, or when you face the unexpected, know that New Paltz is here to support you and see you grow. Remember you’re sitting here today because you worked hard to get into this amazing school. So seize the opportunities that come your way, own your success, be confident, and dedicate yourself to your dreams -- we are all here rooting for you!

Thank you, and welcome again to SUNY New Paltz!


Aaron Hines Convocation Speech 2016

Thank you, President Christian.

It is truly a privilege to welcome the new class of incoming first-year and transfer students to SUNY New Paltz. In such a short time, I’m sure you have begun to acclimate to the campus community and there is plenty more to come. I still have great memories of my student experiences, from orientation to move-in day to graduation. Fortunately, I still get to meet and assist new students such as yourself as a professional staff member of this institution.

Now let me be honest. Working at SUNY New Paltz, earning multiple degrees here, and even standing before you today never crossed my mind when I was an undergraduate student. However, it’s been a rewarding journey and I thank God for the numerous opportunities that have come my way since my first year at this College.

You are all in a position to pursue many endeavors that lead to many possibilities. Are there any future lawyers in the building? Graphic designers? Accountants? Teachers? Those who are undecided? Whether you have a specific profession in mind or are clueless at the moment, you’ll find a shoulder of support to lean on at SUNY New Paltz. Everywhere you turn there’s an orientation leader, resident assistant, resident director, peer mentor, professor, advisor, and so on. This is a campus full of supportive faculty, staff, and peers - some of whom become lifelong friends.

You’ll grow up a lot over the next few years, but it will be difficult to do on your own. I thought college would be easy after breezing through my senior year of high school. I thought it would be easy to wake up for an early morning class. I thought it would be easy to study the night before tests and still get A’s. I also thought I didn’t really need the help of a tutor, a mentor, or my friends. I was wrong. The further along I went in college, the more I valued and embraced the advice of my professors and upperclassmen peers.

When it’s all said and done, the support that you receive today may lead to tomorrow’s success. Many of you are on the road to become leaders on this campus. Soon after, leaders in organizations and in society. It’s very likely that you’ll look back and recognize that you couldn’t have done it on your own. While family support remains very important, many of you will meet people here that you may consider “like family.”

This is an exciting time to be at SUNY New Paltz. How many had New Paltz toward the top of their college list? I recently gave a presentation to some visiting international students where I rattled off a few of the College’s accolades and rankings. I was astounded at the recognition this school has received over time. In fact, the next time someone asks, “why didn’t you go to such and such college or university,” you might consider saying to them, “because New Paltz is better.” And when they ask “why?” tell them with a straight face and strong tone, “because it is.” Then, you can give them a confident smile after that.

Before you are newly built and renovated residence halls and facilities. You have a wide variety of majors and minors to choose from. There are clubs, sports teams, and student government positions galore. And if you get bored after that, you can make some money and work on campus. As a business major and resident assistant, Scholars Mentorship Program mentor, member of ReJOYce in Jesus campus fellowship, intramural sports participant, and student temp service worker in food services and student activities, I don’t ever recall a dull moment. Get involved. But don’t forget that we have a library on campus too- it was also renovated recently.

I am very grateful for the time that I’ve been a part of the SUNY New Paltz community. I’ve met a host of great people here. Many of my closest friends and relatives, including my wife, are alumni of New Paltz. Many of you may know people who either attend or attended New Paltz and I wouldn’t be surprised if their influence is what brought you here today. Show of hands?

So to conclude, I hope that you find that the community of fellow students, staff, and faculty at SUNY New Paltz are here to help you develop your talents and character so that you can reach your full potential. In the words of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

“The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character- that is the goal of true education.”

Thank you. Let’s go Hawks!

Dr. Patricia Sullivan, 2016 Convocation Speech

Congratulations to first-year and transfer students! I am honored to welcome you on behalf of the full faculty and staff. When I was invited to offer this welcome, I reflected on my memories of beginning college as a first-year student. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to go away to college and to begin a journey that led to a job that I love as director of the SUNY New Paltz Honors Program and a Professor who studies political communication and teaches a range of interdisciplinary courses. You are highly accomplished and beginning a journey at New Paltz that will offer all kinds of opportunities.

You are members of the Millennial Generation (born between 1981 and 2000). As a Pew Research Report notes, “Generations, like people, have personalities, and Millennials—the American teens and twenty-somethings currently making their passage into adulthood—have begun to forge theirs—confident, self-expressive, liberal, upbeat and receptive to new ideas and ways of living.” A report from Pew also says as Millennials you are on track to be the most educated generation to date.
I loved my experiences as an undergraduate—weaving together interests in literature, journalism, political science, law, and philosophy. I am so impressed, however, with the ways that undergraduate education has evolved to place more emphasis on experiences outside the classroom. You are being educated to be global citizens. Many of you will engage in undergraduate student research projects, internships, study abroad experiences, and campus leadership positions. This summer I spent one week in Beijing, China with students from the Honors Program who were interning at Huiling, a center for people with cognitive disabilities. I keep thinking about the human connections students made as they negotiated cultural differences during this month-long experience. One student described her experience this way: “Working with Beijing Huiling on a day-to-day basis has given me an opportunity to experience what living in a Chinese city truly felt like. After four weeks of getting to connect with individuals from an overlooked part of Chinese society, it is difficult now to imagine leaving this lifestyle and going back to what I know in the states.”

This is the type of experience that builds confidence and self-awareness and transcends the knowledge base of any major. Such an experience would have been unlikely when I was a student.

As you immerse yourself in the culture of New Paltz you are also part of the larger world. We wake up virtually every day to media messages suggesting that the U.S. is ideologically polarized (and of course in an election year we hear this claim on an ongoing basis). Students often comment on New Paltz as a welcoming environment.  What does this mean when we have disagreements? How do we negotiate these disagreements?  How can we have meaningful and respectful exchanges when we disagree? Some possibilities:

  • Establish common ground with your audiences in Aristotle’s words or points of identification in the words of a contemporary scholar Kenneth Burke.   
  • Cultivate capacities for empathy.   
  • Think critically and ask questions.       
  • Speak up and support points.  
  • Communicate with a spirit of humility.  

Because I teach rhetoric and communication, I know it is easier to identify strategies for improving communication than it is to enact those strategies!
All the suggestions on my list call for recognizing the importance of listening. We sometimes forget listening when we discuss the importance of communication skills. And I do know from personal experience how challenging it is to listen. Because I have engaged in debate and taught argumentation, I often catch myself thinking about what I am going to say next rather than listening the way that I should. When we are in the presence of someone who listens it stands out to us. That means being in the presence of a good listener is a fairly rare experience for many of us.

When we invite others to tell their stories and we listen, we can establish common ground. This does not mean we will agree but it does mean we can gain some understanding of the basis for disagreements and treat each other with respect.  At last month’s Democratic Convention Michelle Obama shared a message offered to her children. With the President, she advises her children, “that when someone is cruel, or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level—no our motto is, when they go low, we go high.”

If our motto is “when they go low, we go high,” we can, in the words of legal scholar James Boyd White approach communication situations with “humility, “speak faithfully,” and attend to “diversity and difference” and not only tolerate diversity and difference but embrace it.

How do we “go high” and embrace diversity and difference? Aristotle’s ethos, pathos, and logos may guide us as we listen to others and engage in dialogue about issues.  When we are engaging in communication or reflecting on how others have communicated with us we can think about appeals to character or credibility (ethos), emotion or feelings (pathos), and evidence or proof (logos). Thinking and responding with an eye to ethos, pathos, and logos can provide us with the opportunity to step back, reflect, and move beyond appeals that are based strictly on emotion.

I want to tell a story to illustrate how this might work. One of my students came to me and said she had had a troubling exchange with another student. A student had accused my student of not standing up for change on campus. My student was flabbergasted and did not know how to respond. Both students responded emotionally and fell silent. The exchange ended. We have all been in this situation! It is an unsettling experience when this happens to us. I suggested to my student that if such a situation occurs in the future she could follow up with questions (e.g., Why would you say this about me?) This could prompt an exchange of stories or a dialogue grounded in logos or good reasons (e.g., this is my evidence and why I would say this).

You will hear and tell many stories and engage in many dialogues during your time on campus.   As you begin the great adventure here. . . Some suggestions to consider:

  • Cultivate mentors (faculty and peer).
  • Listen to your mentors and learn from them. You will learn from each other.
  • Engage in work that is your signature. Signature works, as defined by the American Association of Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) are “sustained projects that draw on interdisciplinary knowledge and skills to address real-world problems that matter to the student and society.”
  • View life, in the words of psychologist Angela Duckworth as a “marathon and not a sprint.” In a recent article in the New York Times she said that “interests are not just discovered, they’re developed.”
  • Pay it forward. You stand on the shoulders of others, welcome others to stand on your shoulders. As Toni Morrison said, “if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.”  

You have joined a collaborative community at New Paltz. Make the most of your time here. You will make connections that will last a life time. Have fun. A new book, Practice for Life: Making Decisions in College, suggests that college offers opportunities for “starts” and “restarts” and “reinvention.” And of course this means college offers practice for life because that is what we do in life.  I hope our paths cross during your time here as you practice for life. And remember, as poet William Butler Yeats said, “We are happy when we are growing.”