UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN River Falls

dean academic day high five

Here Begins a New Life

Wednesday, September 6, 2017 | by Dean Van Galen

The late summer ritual happens every year. At over 3,000 colleges and universities across the United States, college freshmen and new transfer students arrive on campus, bringing with them a mixture of hope, excitement and anxiety.  

On Tuesday, at UW-River Falls, it was “Academic Day,” an annual tradition to mark the beginning of the academic year and welcome new students to the UWRF community. It’s an old tradition, but in its way, it’s also brand new each fall.

This year, new students, including our largest freshman class in eight years, began their day at the Melvin Wall Amphitheatre for some words of inspiration, and then went on to meet with advisers and learn more about their classes and programs. Each year, I am allotted five minutes to speak to these new students at the amphitheatre.

It’s always an emotional moment to look out at about 1,600 faces, imagining their diverse personal stories and perspectives, knowing all the wonderful opportunities that lie before them, and reflecting on the importance of the decisions, both academic and personal, that each one will make in the days and months ahead. I also wonder a bit if there is anything a guy in his mid-50s wearing a necktie can say to them that will positively impact them as students and as individuals.

As I waited to be introduced, I recalled my own first day of college in 1979 at UW-Whitewater. On one hand, things were different then. I recall my high school chemistry teacher, Frank Kittel, telling us that college faculty often wrote on the chalkboard with one hand and, within a second or two, erased what they had written with the other hand (that was Mr. Kittel’s way to scare us into paying attention, I guess). Then, there was the speech from a well-meaning administrator at UW-Whitewater, which contained an admonition that went something like, “…look at the person on your left, and now look at the person on your right. It is likely that one of you three will not survive to your second year.”

Thankfully, college freshmen these days typically receive more positive, affirming messages, in the vein of:  yes, we actually want you to succeed and we are here to support you! They’ll receive that message from me and so many others at UWRF. Nonetheless, the transition to college can still be a difficult one for many students, just like it was for me as a first-generation college student in 1979.

The advice I gave our new students on Tuesday was simple:

  • Devote time and energy to coursework and learning. Your commitment will make the difference. Few students leave college because of a lack of intellectual ability.
  • Once you get transitioned, plan to participate in study abroad, undergraduate research, and/or internships. These are often life-changing and career-shaping, and if you get involved in these or other positive activities, you are more likely to graduate.
  • Reach out and connect. You are surrounded by faculty, staff and others who want you to succeed. This is one of the great advantages of your being here at UW-River Falls.

None of this advice is particularly profound, but all of it is supported by research on what helps students do well in college.  We know that, in school as in life, positive outcomes are impacted by past circumstance and personal responsibility—commitment, resilience and good choices.  They’re also impacted by the support of others—faculty and staff, parents, and peers.  I am truly blessed to lead an institution whose faculty and staff have such a strong commitment to our students.

I doubt that many of the 1,600 new students sitting at the Wall Amphitheatre fully reflected on the impact that their UW-River Falls experience will have on their lives. It’s understandably difficult, since that experience still lies before them. However, we encourage our students to realize that each day is a first step toward the life that student wants to create. In the words of the poet Dante, “Here begins a new life.”

It is an honor and a joy to be present at the beginning of this UW-River Falls journey, knowing all that our students have ahead of them to discover, and feeling the excitement for the potential that we at UWRF have to shape and enrich their lives.