Why should you attend a “college of distinction”? “Well,” you might reasonably answer, “to get an education, of course.” But that is not the question I ask. My question is “Why should YOU attend such a college?” Why you and not someone else?
Consider that there are more than 15,000 four-year institutions of higher education in this world. Only 2,300 of these are in the United States. And you are now hoping to enroll at an institution, which is considered one of this country’s best colleges and universities. Consider that fewer than 1% of your age cohort enjoys this privilege. Finally, consider that your education will almost certainly be heavily subsidized by others. Even if your family is paying full tuition, the true cost of your education is likely to be substantially more than the amount you pay. Those who have gone before you believed that you are the best investment they can make in the future of our society and the world.
Perhaps now my question does not seem so obtuse. Why are YOU here? Did you really work harder; are you really smarter, than 99.9% of the 18 year olds on earth? Is it possible that an equally important factor has been pure dumb luck? Or, if you are like many young people I know, you may believe that divine providence has played a role. And if that is the case, why has providence given you this astounding gift? What path are you destined to follow – through these four years and the rest of your time on earth?
You have almost certainly heard the maxim: “Of everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.” You will find it quoted widely, and attributed variously. In fact, it is from the New Testament (Luke 12:48). Whatever your creed or faith tradition, these words are worth remembering. Much is being given to you. What will you do with that gift?
I am reminded of the words of Heraclitus of Ephesus, who wrote, some 2500 years ago: “Character determines destiny.” In other words, it is not what happens to us that matters, it is what we are able to make of our experiences. Good health and a fine education mean nothing if you are not capable of putting them to good use.
Character is the factor that enables you to treat an academic failure or a defeat on the athletic field as an opportunity to learn and grow rather than an occasion of humiliation. Character enables you to acknowledge when you have been on the wrong track and to thank those who have pointed out your mistakes. Character can drive you to push your intellectual limits instead of settling for less than your potential.
But if “character determines destiny,” what determines character? Goethe once wrote, “Talent develops in quiet places, character in the full current of human life.” In a clamorous world, a college campus provides a relatively quiet haven where your talent can be nurtured. Yet you will find ample opportunities to sample the full range of temptations and moral choices, both on and off the campus. I hope that you will seek out opportunities for volunteer service wherever you find yourself, and that you will find ways to make a difference in the lives of those who have been denied access to the rich possibilities that will lie before you.
Each of us determines our own character with every single decision we make. Whether you decide to help others or indulge yourself, whether you hone your analytical gifts through constant use or dull them with sloth, you are determining your character – and your destiny. Your choices over the next four years will set you on a path that either justifies the investment that others have made in your potential, or mocks it. For all our sakes, I wish you a future filled with good decisions and strong character