By Ruth Steinhardt
Thousands of first-year students packed the Charles E. Smith Center Saturday morning for Convocation, their formal welcome to the George Washington University. University President Thomas LeBlanc and Provost Forrest Maltzman passed on words of advice and encouragement, as did rising senior Swetha Ramesh, before sending students on to Welcome Day of Service.
Dr. LeBlanc urged students to take full advantage of the “engaged, inclusive and intellectual community” of which they are now part.
One of those advantages is the opportunity to challenge preconceived notions, he said. “Here, we expect you to experiment with the ideas of the world and sometimes fail spectacularly,” Dr. LeBlanc said. “We celebrate that and view it as an opportunity to learn and grow.”
He also encouraged students to cultivate empathy and respect as they encounter unfamiliar points of view.
“You should be challenged in and out of the classroom, by your professors and by your classmates, in civil and respectful debate,” he said. “Let’s show our nation and the world what respectful debate looks like.”
Dr. LeBlanc cautioned students about the permanence of opinions expressed on social media: “What you say there will be stuck to you forever.”
“Just take some of the energy with which you might curate your social media accounts and pour that into the curation of your mind,” he said.
Dr. Maltzman, speaking before Dr. LeBlanc, stressed GW’s core values of collaboration, courage, respect, diversity, openness, integrity and excellence.
“This country and this institution are stronger as a result of their diversity,” he said. “You will be better, make better decisions and be more creative by being informed by those who have different perspectives and experiences than you.”
Like Dr. LeBlanc, Dr. Maltzman urged students to be careful and compassionate when confronting perspectives opposed to their own.
“Resist the urge to engage in knee-jerk, reactionary ‘cancel culture’ and immediately write off a classmate who makes a genuine error in the pursuit of learning,” he said. “You must listen to each other and give each other the benefit of the doubt so everyone has the chance to learn and grow in our community.”
Student speaker Swetha Ramesh, a rising senior in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, discussed the transformative effect that service has had on her GW experience—though in high school, she joked, she thought community service was just “for do-gooders and sometimes for the kids who got in trouble.”
Ms. Ramesh’s experiences as a member of a service fraternity and a student in a service-oriented biology class helped her clarify and direct her passions, she said. Whether through a cleanup trip to the Anacostia River or by serving individuals in the community who had lost their homes to gentrification, Ms. Ramesh came to recognize how public policy shaped individual lives—and how she wanted to be involved in making those policies more humane.
“Getting involved with the service community at GW was the best choice I made in my college experience,” she said. “Giving back alongside the people who would soon become my closest friends was a truly eye-opening experience.”
Before the ceremony’s end, deans of each individual school welcomed their particular students to bleacher-rattling cheers. Then students joined in a fist-pumping singalong to GW’s fight song before dispersing to give back at more than 40 service sites around the D.C. area.