President Ryan’s Welcome Address to Parents of Class of 2025 Students

(Photo by Kristen Finn)

August 21, 2021

President Jim Ryan delivered the following remarks to parents of first-year students during welcoming events on Aug. 18 and 19, 2021.

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ood afternoon, everyone.  I am delighted to welcome all of you and to congratulate you on your child’s enrollment at one of the finest universities in the world.  Not that I’m biased or anything, but I think you and your children have made an extremely wise choice.

I would like to thank the teams from Housing and Residence Life, Parking and Transportation, members of the University Police Department, and Facilities Management for helping make move in as smooth as possible.  And I’d like to thank everyone from the Orientation and New Student Programs team in the Office of the Dean of Students for organizing this event.

I would like start by noting that we have something important in common.  Like all of you who are parents, I know what it’s like to drop a child off for the first time at college.  My wife Katie and I have four children.  One has graduated college and two others are still enrolled.  Which means we have been through the first-time drop off three times with our sons, Will, Sam, and Ben.  I wish I could claim this makes me a seasoned and stoic expert, but I still get misty eyed remembering each drop off, and I confess to experiencing heart palpitations when I contemplate dropping off our high-school age daughter, Phebe, in a few years from now. 

Recalling my emotional state when we dropped off the boys, my guess is that you are feeling the same mixture of excitement, sadness, hope, anxiety, pride, and perhaps even bewilderment.  As in: is my son or daughter really that old? Or, more to the point, am I?   

Given that we share this experience, I’d like to spend a little bit of time this afternoon speaking with you as a parent and as president.  Or put differently, as someone who is both paying and spending tuition. 

I’d like to begin by sharing some of my hopes for my own kids and for myself as a parent as they started college.  I do this not to be self-indulgent but to make a point that I hope will resonate with at least some of you. 

I hoped, first and foremost, that my kids would be safe and make smart decisions.  College is a time of experimentation and of discovery.  It’s a time to take risks, to fail, and to learn from failure as much as from success.  I hoped my kids would take reasonable and responsible risks and would make good decisions about their health and safety, about alcohol, about how to spend their time, and about their relationships.

I hoped they would engage.  A recent survey of 100,000 American college graduates tried to find links between how students spent their time in college and how fulfilled they were after graduation.  The strongest links turned out to be whether students were able to connect with a mentor, take on a sustained academic project, or play a significant role in an organization on campus.  This suggests to me that engagement and meaningful connections with faculty and peers are key to a rewarding time in college and beyond, and my hope is that my own kids would take the initiative to dive into opportunities, to get to know faculty, and to get involved in life inside and outside of the classroom.

I hoped my kids would have the curiosity and courage to build bridges. College campuses today, including the Grounds at the University of Virginia, are remarkably diverse places, among the most diverse places in the country.  But sometimes it seems that students remain in their comfort zones and don’t reach out and strike up friendships with those who come from different backgrounds.  My hope is that my kids would take advantage of the diversity around them and develop relationships and friendships with fellow students whose lives and experiences have been very different from their own.

I hoped my kids would be uncomfortable at times, and that they would wrestle with ideas they disagreed with, because I believe this is one of the best ways to learn and to grow.  Clark Kerr, who was the legendary president of the University of California in the 1950s and 1960s, once said that a university doesn’t exist to make ideas safe for students – it exists to make students safe for ideas.  I believe that to be true, and I also believe that college is the perfect opportunity to confront ideas that are different, perhaps radically so, from your own. 

In doing so, in confronting ideas with which they disagreed, I hoped my own kids would learn to be generous listeners.  Public conversations today are too often strident and lack either empathy or understanding.  They often seem like a game of gotcha, or a quick exercise in picking sides.  I hoped that in encountering ideas and worldviews that were different from their own they would try to understand first and to argue second, or – to quote both Walt Whitman and Ted Lasso – that they would be curious, not judgmental.  And that they would recognize that it’s possible to disagree with someone, even strongly, with both civility and respect.

Lastly, I hoped they would find their passion and sense of purpose.  Some students arrive at college knowing exactly what they want to do.  Others, perhaps most, show up with little to no idea.  Regardless, I think college is a time to explore, even to wander a little.  To be sure, along the way, students will gain knowledge and acquire important skills, and I certainly hope that’s true of my kids.  But I also hoped that, along the way, my kids would discover something they were really passionate about and that they would find a real sense of purpose.  And I hoped as well that this sense of purpose would include a desire and a commitment to make the world a better place by serving others, regardless of what they decided to do as a career.

As a parent, I hoped that I could help my kids do all of these things – not by hovering over them like the cliché helicopter parent, but by offering support and encouragement when and where they needed it.  Encouragement for them to engage.  Encouragement for them to go beyond their comfort zones.  Support and understanding when they failed, and encouragement for them to pick themselves up and start over.

I share these hopes with you, as I said, not to be self-indulgent, but because my guess is that some of you share these same hopes for your own children.  Even more importantly, I share them with you because the same hopes I have for my kids I have for all of your children. 

As president of UVA, when I see your children, our students, I can’t help but see my own kids.  And I want nothing less for them than I want for my own children.  My hope and expectation, as president is that we at UVA will do all we can to enable your children to have the most rewarding and life-shaping experience possible.  Your sons and daughters are joining a remarkable community filled with talented, dedicated, and compassionate faculty and staff.  Indeed, I’m honored to be a part of this community.  I think it’s fair to say that all of us here view it as our duty and our privilege to create the conditions that will allow your hopes and the hopes of your children to be realized.

To be specific, we will do our best to keep your children safe and healthy, and to help them make smart decisions.  Leonard Sandridge, who served in different leadership positions at UVA for 44 years, observed correctly that a university is like a small city.  Teaching and research are at its core, but we also have a health system where people go for medical care, and we host sporting events, concerts, theater, and dance.  There are places to live, eat, study, and exercise.  We have libraries, research labs, heating and cooling plants, groundskeepers, and a police force.  And our city is home to thousands of 18-22 year-olds living alongside one another.  This probably sounds exciting or terrifying or maybe a little bit of both.

Our first priority is to make sure our small city is a safe and healthy environment in which to learn and grow.  This is always a challenge, but especially so during a pandemic.  I’m pleased to report that we navigated this well last year, and no students became seriously ill or were hospitalized.  And we are starting this year in a strong position, given the exceptionally high vaccination rates among students, faculty, and staff.  That said, we are taking the Delta variant seriously, which is why we are asking everyone to wear masks while inside, except in limited circumstances.  We will continue to do what we did last year:  follow the science as closely as we can, as well as the advice of the world-class experts we are fortunate to have at UVA.  Sometimes, we have to make judgment calls, and when we do, we will do our best to balance both the physical and mental health of our students, as well our desire to be as open as possible and have as normal a year as possible.

While we are on the topic of safety and security, you should also feel assured that University police are here to watch out for our students, as are UVA ambassadors that you’ll see on the Corner and in other areas where students live and gather.  We have a late night bus service and a SafeRide program to help students travel safely at night.  We have the UVA alert system for email and text notifications during emergencies – students can sign up for this and they can sign parents up as well.  And we have a “Just report it” online system for students and members of the community to tell us about incidents that happen on Grounds.  I say all of this not to alarm you, but hopefully to give you some comfort that we take your child’s safety seriously, and have a good deal of precautions in place. 

Beyond safety and security, my hope and expectation as president is that we will also provide an irresistibly engaging experience inside of the classroom and out – an environment that is not only safe but vibrant, not only exciting but challenging, and an environment that will allow students to create connections with faculty and with peers and define meaningful activities outside of class.

My hope and expectation is that we will provide your children, our students, with the opportunity to build bridges and to take advantage of the incredible diversity on Grounds.  This year’s class comes from all over Virginia and all across the country, as well as from over 90 other countries and territories.  We have more programs than ever before that are designed to bring students together, and we will continue to dedicate our strongest efforts to enable and encourage students to reach out beyond the familiar and to strike up friendships with students who come from very different backgrounds.  I believe students learn as much outside of the class as inside, and that they learn from each other, and a great way to learn is to spend time with those whose life experiences and perspectives are different from our own.

I hope and expect we’ll offer opportunities for our students to confront ideas with which they disagree.  Universities are about the unending search for truth, part of which requires a constant testing of conventional wisdom and accepted truths.  This is why free expression and academic freedom are the foundations of universities.  But they’re also critical for students learning and growth.  One great way to sharpen your own thinking is to wrestle with ideas and views with which you disagree.

I hope and expect we’ll offer our students the opportunity to find their passion and a sense of purpose.  We do this by offering a remarkable variety of courses and extracurricular activities and by offering our students an incomparable array of opportunities for self-governance.  We think it’s important to give our students the responsibilities of self-governance – and for that experience to be real, and therefore hard – because it’s part of our goal to prepare students for a life of leadership.  We recognize that students are young adults, but adults nonetheless, and we treat them that way by allowing them meaningful opportunities to govern themselves – and by insisting that they follow an honor code that prohibits, quite simply, lying, cheating or stealing. 

For parents in the audience who are alums, I believe they would tell you that the honor code and community of trust were defining and lasting features of their time here.

And last, I hope and expect that in discovering their sense of purpose, our students will develop or strengthen a commitment to serve others, and to advance the common good.  The original mission of the University of Virginia was to create citizen leaders who would help strengthen what was then a young democracy.  Our mission has expanded to include generating new knowledge and discoveries and to providing outstanding medical care, but the thread of preparing citizen leaders and serving others continues to weave through all of what we do.  My hope for your children, for our students, is that they come to appreciate that whatever else they do, regardless of their chosen profession, whether in the public or private sphere, whether in medicine, government, business, architecture, the military, law, you name it – whatever else they do – they realize that spending at least some time advancing the common good by serving others is a recipe for a meaningful and rewarding life.

To do all of this, we are going to need your help.  Please help your children make smart decisions – and to give a concrete example, I’d ask you to encourage your children to avoid the large, off-Grounds block party on Saturday and instead to attend the on-Grounds concert in the Amphitheater and the follow-up Hoos Home celebration at the Aquatics and Fitness Center.  RAs will be available to escort their residents to the concert and to Hoos Home, which will include student performers, free food trucks, and games.  Attending these two events, I think, would be a very smart decision, and a very fun evening.

I also hope you will assure your children that college will be fun but it will not always be easy, especially at the beginning.  I’ve begun to think starting collge is a little like early parenting.  When my wife, Katie and I were expecting our first child, everyone told us how magical parenting is and how we would love every minute of it.  Then along came our first child, and the first few months, to me, were not exactly magical.  They felt a bit grueling, and I carried around this dark secret that I was a parent who didn’t find it magical.  Of course, the magic kicked in – when our kids were somewhere around 20 or 22 years old (kidding).  And when it did, I forgot about the early months, which were hard.  So it is with college.  Those of us who loved college tell those that are about to begin that they will love it, and we forget that we all had some struggles at the beginning.  It’s a lot to get used to.  For most students, it is their first time living away from home.  I was speaking with my son just the other day, who said it was hard getting used to having to leave one building, where he sleeps, and go to a different building to eat.  He didn’t grow up with his bedroom in one building and the kitchen in another.  All of which is to say lend an ear if your children are having a rough patch or two, and assure them that is completely normal – and that, if they leave themselves open to it, they will eventually see and feel the magic of this place. 

Finally, I hope you will try, as I have as a parent and as a president, to encourage your students to explore their interests, to take chances and risk failure, and to continually search for their passion and sense of purpose.  And it’s here where my hopes as a parent and as a president converge, and it’s here where I will end my remarks.

There’s an old folk saying, the origins of which are obscure, but it says, “Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child.”  As a parent, I’ve tried to live by that maxim, though it’s not always easy.  As a president, I view our ultimate task as helping to prepare your child, your young adult child, for the road ahead – for the exciting, challenging, uncertain, and rewarding road ahead – and I look forward to beginning that journey with all of you today.  Thanks for being here and congratulations again.

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