"Opening Exercises 2023: Think Critically, Embrace Generously" first appeared in the October 2023 edition of the Princeton Alumni Weekly.
For Opening Exercises on September 3, we gathered on the front lawn of Nassau Hall to welcome the Class of 2027 to our community. During the ceremony, I encouraged students to reflect on the transformative Princeton experiences and life lessons of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa ’86, who was in attendance.— C.L.E.
I am delighted to greet you today as the University welcomes Princeton’s Great Class of 2027 and celebrates the beginning of a new academic year.
One of the marvels of University life is the excitement that comes each fall when our classrooms, athletic fields, dining halls, and myriad other spaces across campus blossom with vibrant life and we welcome new members of our community. I am so glad that you are here!
I realize that, if the year’s beginning can feel exhilarating and uplifting, so too can it feel bewildering or disconcerting. It is often all of these things at once, and that combination will likely persist during your time here.
Indeed, when I speak to Princeton alumni about their education, the word they use most often is “transformative.” I would say that about my own undergraduate career at Princeton, and Anthony Romero said that about his time here. I want it to be true of yours.
Transformation is a wonderful thing. It’s also very demanding. It brings worry along with joy, frustration along with happiness. That’s okay; indeed, that is part of what it means to get a great education.
Professor Toni Morrison, one of the world’s greatest novelists, wrote that at Princeton “Every doorway, every tree and turn is haunted by peals of laughter, murmurs of loyalty and love, tears of pleasure and sorrow and triumph.”1
I like this passage very much, partly because it recognizes that learning and growth are not easy, not for anyone. There will inevitably be not just triumphs but also sorrows, not just laughter but also tears, when we challenge ourselves, when we develop and change, and when we care deeply — as we should, as we must — about our academic and co-curricular endeavors and our community.
As you think about your own Princeton careers, you have an extraordinary example in Maria Ressa — a member of the Great Class of 1986, not to mention the winner of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize — who, in this year’s Princeton Pre-read, writes candidly about the transformations that she experienced at Princeton and after her graduation.
Princeton’s newest Tigers show their Great Class of 2027 spirit in the Pre-rade following this year’s Opening Exercises.Nicole Guglielmo For example, she recounts first-year conversations with her classmate Leslie Tucker, whose blunt, direct criticism taught Maria that “to have a clear view of the world, you have to ask yourself the toughest questions.” 2 Maria describes how her relationship with Leslie began with an uncomfortable classroom conversation that became the foundation for a lifelong friendship and “transformed [Maria’s] way of being in the world.” 3
Maria writes that for two weeks during her junior year, she could not control her anger, “which kept erupting in strange flashes” after her acting teacher encouraged her to express emotions she had previously suppressed. 4
And she tells us that her senior thesis involved writing a play that was her “own private exorcism,” leading up to an opening night performance that left both Maria and her parents in tears. 5
These experiences were life-changing for Maria. They were transformative. But they were not easy.
Your Princeton experience, of course, will differ from Maria Ressa’s. It will be uniquely yours. I expect, though, that your path through Princeton, like Maria’s, will include inspiration but also anger, discoveries that may elicit both enlightenment and tears, and lasting friendships along with vexing challenges.
All of that is necessary to an undergraduate education that, in Maria’s words, inspires students to “think for [themselves],” “nurtur[es] [their] tendency to inquiry,” and encourages them to “prob[e] why we [are] on this planet and what [each of us is] here to do.” 6
Maria offers advice about how she navigated the challenges she confronted at Princeton and beyond. She says that she had to “lear[n] to trust: to drop [her] shields and be vulnerable.” 7
Admitting that we need help is hard, and doing so can be especially difficult for students who attend Princeton — you are all extraordinarily talented and you are accustomed to succeeding.
I experienced this personally. When I came to Princeton as a student (long, long, long ago!), I took a physics class that was too advanced for me, and I struggled throughout my first year. I was too proud, though, to ask anyone for help. I wanted to prove that I could get through it myself.
That was a mistake, and it made that year much tougher than it needed to be.
I hope you’ll follow Maria’s example, not mine! If Maria Ressa, a courageous journalist whom Amal Clooney describes as a “superhero,” 8 can admit her vulnerability and trust in the goodness of others, then so should the rest of us.
You will find yourself surrounded by supportive people at Princeton — classmates, professors, deans, chaplains, counselors, and coaches, to name just a few. But you need to be strong enough to ask for help when you need it, which, at some point, you will, because that is part of what it means to get a really good education.
If you do, I suspect that you’ll not only find people ready to assist, but that you might also form relationships that last long beyond your time on this campus. As Maria says, “when you’re vulnerable, you create the strongest bonds and the most inspiring possibilities.” 9
I hope, too, that you will look for opportunities to support those around you and to help them thrive on this campus. We are fortunate to be together on a campus and in a community with strong commitments to diversity and inclusivity, but we live in a time of intense social conflict, when hateful speech is too common and when some people prefer to stoke division rather than build a shared common good.
I thought about those schisms while reading another part of Maria Ressa’s story, when she recounts her recognition, some years after graduating from Princeton, that she is gay.
Maria writes about how it felt to “throw away gender signals ingrained since birth,” and about the rejection she experienced from friends and relatives. She also describes what it was like to be “working in several countries where it was illegal to be gay.” 10
Until recently, many of us dared to hope that such experiences would become a thing of the past. We believed that this country was on a path toward full inclusion and respect for LGBTQ and non-binary identities. I hope that it still is.
In the last few years, however, we have seen increasing numbers of vitriolic and unjust attacks directed at gay and trans people in the United States.11 These attacks are cruel, they are heartbreaking, and they are wrong.
Always, and especially now, this campus must stand firmly for equality, inclusion, and respect. Our community must be a place where students, faculty, and staff of all identities feel fully welcome, free to express themselves, and able to participate fully in the transformational educational experiences that Princeton offers.
Of course, that does not mean that we will all agree with one another. On the contrary, I expect that you will disagree with one another, with your professors, and, for that matter, with me. You are free to do that; indeed, you are encouraged to do that.
Engaged discussion and passionate argument are essential to a college education. So too are mutual respect and collegial support that allow us to learn and grow together.
We can, and should, aspire both to think critically and to embrace generously. I hope that is the path you choose while you are here at Princeton and throughout your lives.
Please let me close by saying that I am so looking forward to getting to know the Great Class of 2027 in the days, months, and years ahead. I am so glad that you are here, full and welcome members of this community.
To Princeton’s Great Class of 2027, and to everyone who joins or returns to this beautiful campus as we begin a new academic year, I say:
Welcome to Princeton, and best wishes for the year ahead!
1 Toni Morrison. “The Place of the Idea; the Idea of the Place,” Oct. 25, 1996. Available at https://pr.princeton.edu/news/96/q4/1025spch.htm.
2 Maria Ressa. 2022. How to Stand Up to a Dictator: The Fight for Our Future,
p. 29. New York: HarperCollins.
3 p. 30
4 p. 30
5 p. 34
6 pp. 26, 29
7 p. 45
8 p. xi
9 p. 45
10 pp. 54, 56
11 See, e.g., Maggie Astor, “Report Cites More Than 350 Anti-L.G.B.T.Q. Incidents Over 11 Months,” New York Times (June 22, 2023); Maggie Astor, “Transgender Americans Feel Under Siege as Political Vitriol Rises,” New York Times (Dec. 10, 2022); Casey Parks, “LGBTQ+ Americans Have Stronger Support Than Ever—and Fiercer Backlash,” Washington Post (June 14, 2023).