Jill Dolan, Dean of the College, Princeton University
Welcome to Freshman Families
September 4, 2015
I’m Jill Dolan, Dean of the College. I met some of you in the check-in line at Baker Rink this morning. I hope by now, you’ve checked your students into their dorm room and left them to their residential college orientations. This meeting is expressly for you, so that we can use this beautiful Richardson Auditorium to welcome you again, and share a few words of information and good cheer.
As some of you know, I’ve just begun in my role this summer, so I’m a freshman of sorts myself, and you’re the first class of parents and families that I’ll speak to as dean. And your students will be the first class of Princetonians who graduate under my watch. I’m personally thrilled that you’ve brought us these members of, as we like to say, the “great” Princeton class of 2019. You should be very, very proud.
As the dean of the college, I oversee the undergraduate curriculum in which your student will soon enroll. But I thought it might be useful for you to hear the story of how I got here, before I offer you my thoughts about the transition on which you’re embarking. Many, many, many years ago, I went off to be a freshman at Boston University. I planned to be an actor, actually, and in the mid-70s, they had one of the best actor training programs in the country, and I was quite dedicated to my art. I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and I was the first in my family to leave home. Going away to school in Boston was huge for me and my parents.
But they drove me up to Massachusetts, and helped me settle in, and I still remember the night they said goodbye and left me outside my dorm. I distinctly remember feeling like the sidewalk was falling away underneath me, as I felt just rocked with terror and grief. But at the very same time, I felt my heart open with hope and expectation that I hadn’t anticipated.
When my parents left that night, I didn’t see them again until Thanksgiving. We only spoke—on a landline phone, mind you—once a week, if we were lucky, and we watched every expensive minute tick by when we did. But because I was really left on my own, I had to make my way. I had to make friends, choose my classes and, eventually, change my major (twice, actually) on my own steam because that was the beginning of what it meant to be an adult, and to experiment, to trust my choices, and to succeed and fail on my own.
My parents couldn’t imagine where my life would take me, that 40 years after that good-bye, I’d be standing in Princeton’s Richardson Auditorium saying hello to all of you. And neither could I. When I think back to my undergraduate days, I’m grateful that although some of the choices I made over my four years in college were difficult for them, my parents gave me the space to make my decisions for myself.
And what about all of you? You already know how remarkable it is that your student has matriculated at Princeton. You know about the phenomenal faculty and staff we boast, about all the support systems for learning we have in place, and about all the terrific educational and recreational and co-curricular options in which the students will soon be reveling. I think you already know how carefully we mentor them, and how rigorously we teach them, and with what excitement we’ll try to inspire them. I hope you know, too, that as much as we give to them, we’ll encourage them to give back, to see themselves as citizens not just of the campus, but of the community, the nation, and the world. Here at Princeton, we train our students to participate in the project of democracy.
So I urge you, as those who love them most, as those who’ve brought them to this moment, to leave them here with good faith and trust. They’ve got this. And if they fear they don’t, we’re here for them every step of the way. But let them have their version of the terror and grief and excitement and hope that I had. Let them find their own path forward, in ways that might seem circuitous or capricious, but could turn out to be fortuitous and generative, and somehow, just right.
Let them take an acting class, if they want, or a creative writing workshop, or a course in the environmental humanities, as well as their chemistry and math and politics and economics and literature courses. Let them stretch themselves intellectually and creatively and spiritually for a while, before they have to worry about what they’ll be when they grow up or how they’ll need to support themselves. Give them the gift of letting them endure their failures and bask in their success. Give them space, and be curious about who they’ll become during their time here.
We’re so grateful that you’ve brought the Class of 2019 to us. We hope you’ll return whenever you’re able. And do know that the Princeton community welcomes your student with open hearts and minds, and that we’re eager to chart not just how they change, but how they change us. Thank you for being here and thank you for listening!