‘Be curious, not judgmental,’ Pollack tells new Cornellians

Whether you’re interested in beekeeping or the biopsychology of memory, solar boats or sustainable agriculture, Czech or Chinese or Quechua, there is no better place than Cornell to feed and grow a curious mind.

President Martha E. Pollack extolled that spirit of inquiry to the thousands of first-year and transfer students gathered Aug. 20 at Schoellkopf Field for New Student Convocation.

The new members of the Class of ’27 have “three years, nine months and at least 1,680 hours of class” until they hear from Pollack again at their Commencement in May 2027. To make the most of that time, she offered plenty of insights – and shared the advice of TV’s Coach Ted Lasso: “Be curious, not judgmental.”

New students sing the Cornell alma mater.

Credit: Sreang Hok/Cornell University

New students sing the Cornell alma mater.

“You will never find a better place than Cornell to open your minds and fill them, to sail away from the shore of the comfortable and known, and find what is different, what will challenge you,” Pollack said. “You are here to develop the courage and the competence to take on the world in all its complexity.”

However, she noted, students can only succeed in reaching the potential that Cornell holds for them if one “indispensable condition” is met, and that is freedom of expression.

“Freedom of expression is, indeed, an indispensable condition, both of a Cornell education and of our academic distinction more broadly,” she said. “And by freedom of expression, I don’t mean just our First Amendment rights to free speech, but the lived freedom to follow our curiosity wherever it takes us, inside and outside of the classroom, without external restrictions on what we may teach or learn or share.”

Pollack told students that this fall the university is introducing its first theme year, “The Indispensable Condition: Freedom of Expression at Cornell,” which will give the campus community opportunities to explore the complexities of free expression at a time when that concept is under attack from both ends of the political spectrum.

“In my experience, the most complex challenges arise when two deeply held values – in this case Cornell’s core value of free expression and our equally core value of being a community of belonging – come into tension,” Pollack said. “But we are a community of scholars. We are a community that can deal with these complex, messy and deeply felt ideas … openly and with respect for one another.”

The importance of belonging was also emphasized by speakers Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student and campus life, and Patrick Kuehl ’24, undergraduate president of the Student Assembly.

“We want you here. And you belong here,” Lombardi said. “Every student and alum that have been here before you, they started in the exact same place: new, uncertain of the future and surrounded by people they likely felt were more accomplished than them. But never forget that you’re not alone. You’re joined by every Cornell student in history, and that puts you in pretty good company.”

The Big Red Marching Band performs at Schoellkopf Field for New Student Convocation.

Credit: Noël Heaney/Cornell University

The Big Red Marching Band performs at Schoellkopf Field for New Student Convocation.

Lombardi said he would like to grant the students two powers to help them successfully navigate the coming year and help make the community stronger: the power to ask questions and the power to listen.

“When you ask something of someone, how you listen to their response is critical,” he said. “In my opinion, listening is the more important of these two powers.”

Kuehl encouraged students to make “the hard choice” and step into the unknown and explore, follow their own sparks, embrace opportunities and be compassionate, rather than competitive.

“It doesn’t matter who you are, or where you came from. You have a part to play and a place to be in this community,” said Kuehl – a transfer student who changed his major seven times. “I would urge you to engage your peers rather than push them away, to find belonging from purpose rather than exclusivity, and to extend an arm and an ear to those who are struggling.”

Marla Love, the Robert W. and Elizabeth C. Staley Dean of Students, emceed the event, which also featured performances from the Big Red Marching Band, the Big Red cheerleading squad and the Cornell Chorus and Glee Club, who sang the Cornell alma mater as the stadium full of new students – with Love’s encouragement – stood with their arms around each other’s shoulders, swaying and singing along.

“I am incredibly excited about everything that lies ahead, and about the ways that all of you will learn and explore and make Cornell your own,” Pollack said at the end of her remarks. “Welcome to all of you. Welcome to Cornell.”

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