I am delighted to be with you here today as the University officially welcomes Princeton’s Great Class of 2026 and celebrates the beginning of a new academic year. I have always enjoyed the energy of Opening Exercises and the feelings of renewal and promise that accompany them.
Our gradual recovery from the long pandemic has heightened that sense of joy. I savor the chance to participate again in this ritual and others where we forge and reinforce the bonds that tie the members of this University to one another, to this remarkable place, and to our shared mission of teaching and research.
For me, at least, our extended experience with “social distancing” and remoteness has highlighted the value of presence and place in our lives. As we begin a new year, and all of you in the Class of 2026 begin your undergraduate careers at Princeton, I want to urge you to be fully present in this special and marvelous place, now and throughout your time here.
Presence and place are fundamental to this year’s Princeton Pre-read, Every Day the River Changes, which we will discuss with Jordan Salama—a member of the Great Class of 2019—at this evening’s assembly.
You will undoubtedly have noticed how carefully Jordan observes the changing phases of the Magdalena River and how sympathetically he listens to the people whom he meets.
He learns from his travels because he engages energetically and imaginatively with the places that he visits. He is fully present to the people he meets, and he lets them be fully present to him.
You may also have noticed how fully Jordan engaged with Princeton throughout his career as a student. His multiple trips to South America were supported by Princeton programs, and Jordan wove them back into his academic work.
Being fully present at Princeton means, among other things, taking advantage of the co-curricular and extra-curricular opportunities that are essential to a liberal arts education. Those programs will include a wide variety of international experiences that will take you far beyond the physical boundaries of our campus. They can be among the most rewarding and valuable parts of your Princeton education.
One of Jordan’s Princeton-funded trips to Latin America was an internship with the Wildlife Conservation Society, and another was a post-graduation ReachOut Fellowship supported by the Princeton Classes of 1956, 1981, and 2006.
These service projects reflect a foundational value of this University, expressed in our informal motto, which is inscribed in the center of this lawn, “Princeton in the nation’s service and the service of humanity.”
I encourage all of you to make service a substantial part of your lives both here at Princeton and after you graduate.
I am optimistic that you will, for two reasons. First, your generation has a strong commitment to service, a commitment that I admire. Many of you have exemplified that ethic beautifully even before arriving here.
Second, thanks to the support of this University’s alumni and friends, we have a wide variety of grants, internships, and other opportunities available that make service projects affordable and add to their educational value. You can find information about many of these programs by visiting the Pace Center for Civic Engagement, the Office of International Internships, or the Center for Career Development, or by perusing their websites.
I expect that we will have some additional good news about service opportunities at Princeton later this year. I hope that you’ll keep an eye out for an announcement that will appear after the fall break.
I hope that you will be fully present in this place in many other ways, too. For example, I hope that you will get to know your professors personally. Faculty members at Princeton are extraordinary scholars, and they are also, if I may say so, interesting people. The opportunity to meet and interact with them sets this place apart from most other research universities.
Find time early in the semester to go to office hours or ask a few questions after class: doing so will almost certainly make your academic life at Princeton more rewarding.
And, although this may at first sound like an odd way to be fully present at Princeton, I strongly recommend that you find time, too, to be a spectator occasionally. One of the magnificent opportunities, and the great pleasures, of this place is the chance to enjoy and appreciate the talents of others.
So go to a concert, to an athletic event, to the theater, to an art exhibition. Do all of these things: go to the kinds of events that you have been to before and ones that you haven’t. It will lift your spirits and expand your horizons, and it might make you some new friends or generate new interests.
Permit yourself moments of solitude and tranquility. Cross Lake Carnegie and walk along the tow path by the canal, a place that some students never discover but that others regard as one of their favorite locales on the campus.
Or simply stroll the pathways and courtyards of the campus, observing details of landscape and architecture, and how they look different as the light changes.
Leave your phone behind occasionally. Give yourself a chance to get lost in thought. That is, after all, part of what college is about. It is easy to do in this place, if you let it happen, but very hard to do on Zoom.
And, of course, I hope that you will get to know one another. The opening of Yeh College and New College West means that the Great Class of 2026 is the largest undergraduate class in the history of this University. I am excited about that, because every single one of you brings special talent, valuable perspective, and distinctive excellence to this University.
Rarely if ever in your lives will you be surrounded by such an extraordinary and dynamic group of people as during your time on this campus. You will benefit tremendously if you can approach your classmates in the way that Jordan Salama got to know the people he met on his travels: with respect, kindness, curiosity, warmth, and a real desire to learn and communicate across differences.
I am, for my own part, looking forward to getting to know the Great Class of 2026 in the days, months, and years ahead. I am so glad that you are here, present in this place, full members of this community.
To Princeton’s Great Class of 2026, and to everyone who joins or returns to this beautiful campus as we begin a new year, I say:
Welcome to Princeton, and best wishes for the year ahead!