Traditions do not have the same importance in our society as they once did. Cultures are bound together not just by a core set of beliefs, but also by shared ceremonies and experiences. Unfortunately in these modern times we have abandoned many of our community building events. We no longer find the local church or town hall at the center of communities. Rather, the forces that create what little sense of belonging to a group we still possess seem to be exclusively wrapped up in professional or collegiate sports. Our world may be growing smaller when we can communicate with people in Zimbabwe at the speed of light, but old-fashioned, non-global communities provide everyone with a sense of identity and place in this shrinking, more disenfranchised world.
Here at the U, aside from Gophers basketball or football, the only event that helps us identify ourselves as part of the campus is spring commencement. But, by graduation, the only value of the community feeling is measured in alumni donation dollars. Our often commuter, part-time University has become a place where individuals spend a few hours each week in lectures with strangers, not one where they live and work together with friends. Not surprising, since they were never made to feel welcome. For years, no event has offered a simple “hello” to incoming students. Until 1969, we were introduced to our new peers and they to us during the fall convocation. Yet, sadly, in an era of Vietnam War protests and rampant campus unrest, this large gathering was eliminated.
Congratulations to University President Mark Yudof and his staff for bringing back this community-building ceremony. Wednesday’s convocation at Northrop Mall and auditorium was a spectacular first step toward a University where each student will pass someone they know when walking between classes and away from a University where we simply pass strangers on the Washington Avenue Bridge. Education is a cooperative effort, not just between faculty members and students, but also between individual students. The exchange of ideas will be augmented when we stop to chat for a minute with our friends on campus, even if just about the weather or the Gophers. Our campus will start to feel like home instead of just that place where we go to school.
But the administration cannot make this community a reality without some help. Students must build on the foundation Yudof has laid. This year’s freshmen will share a common experience that has, in recent years, been reserved for departing seniors. Make the most of it. Call someone you met at convocation. Ask him or her out to coffee or on a date. You are all new here and, believe it or not, each one of you is a little nervous. You might be slightly embarrassed at first, but the dividends of friendship are priceless. With a little risk-taking and the continuing efforts of the administration, 37,615 students will soon seem like a lot less and you will look forward to coming back after break instead of dreading leaving that place where you go to visit your parents.