2023 Convocation Address

President Minouche Shafik delivered the 2023 Convocation address to incoming Columbia College and Columbia Engineering students, their families, and loved ones. 

President Shafik delivers the Convocation address from a podium under a tent in front of Low Library.

August 27, 2023

As prepared for delivery

Good afternoon. It’s a remarkable privilege to welcome the students, families, and friends of the Class of 2027 to Columbia.

Like you, I am new to this campus, having started as Columbia’s 20th president in July. And I say as someone who has experienced change once or twice in my life, beginnings are exciting, and hard, and everything in between. They introduce us to new people and ideas, challenge us to adapt to new situations, and open our eyes to new ways of thinking about the world and our place within it.

To the parents, caregivers, and loved ones, I share your pain. I have two university-age children, and I know what it’s like to be proud, wistful, and a bit mournful all at once. To wonder why they aren’t calling home enough. Why you aren’t getting any insight into what they are learning. But your hunch right now is correct: everything has changed. They have packed up their rooms, unpacked their belongings in a new space, and moved into a new home. It can feel a bit bewildering.

My advice to you is, have faith in the process.

To all of you students, this is a rite of passage, a moment in your life that will be unique. You will be surrounded by many of the brightest and most inspiring faculty on the planet, whose mission it is to train you in the art of thinking. Take advantage of the breadth of opportunities offered here. Invest in friendships, build relationships with your professors, and delve deep into the world of ideas.

And by the way, it wouldn’t be the worst idea to call your parents and loved ones from time to time, to let them how you’re getting on, and to continue to ask for their advice when you need it—or even when you don’t. It will make them happy, trust me. 

Class of 2027, we made an identical decision over the past year. We considered the various paths our lives could take, and we chose the Columbia path.

Some of what makes Columbia special is obvious. This is a world-class research university. It is the oldest institution of higher education in New York and the fifth oldest in the United States. We have 17 schools spread out over four campuses and 11 global centers.

Nearly 90 Columbians have won Nobel Prizes. For centuries, our alumni have ranked among the most celebrated individuals in government, the arts, business, technology, media, academia, and most areas of human achievement. Their numbers include not only four American presidents but also five members of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Columbians are multi-talented, as of course we all know.

We also have the Core, a singular undergraduate experience that connects students across Columbia College, Columbia Engineering, and Columbia General Studies. The courses of the Core engage with the works of the Western canon and with the cultures of Africa, the Americas, Asia, and the Middle East. They will introduce you to influential books and ideas in literature, philosophy, science, history, art, and music.

They will demand that you think critically, consider new perspectives, and wrestle with profound questions about the human experience that have bedeviled the brightest minds throughout history. Importantly, you will engage with this material together. In so doing, you will prepare  for life as an engaged global citizen, someone who acquires knowledge and debates with others to inform the role you want to play in today’s ever evolving world.

You are here to experience an extraordinary intellectual awakening, to stand on the shoulders of giants, to learn from their mistakes, and to make your own contributions.

Look, to your right and to your left—you, our students from all 50 states and from over 100 countries are now part of the Columbia story. You are now partners, with all of us, in creating what comes next.

Universities and institutions of higher education have existed for millennia, stretching back to the schools of the ancients in places like China, Egypt, Greece, and India. There is something special, even magical, about the tradition of students and scholars coming together to create these unique environments of learning.

The challenge for universities has always been to stay rooted in these traditions while adapting and reinventing to fit the demands of new eras.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was the Humboldtian model, named for the Prussian philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt, that shaped the research universities of the United States. 

The central principle in that model was the “union of teaching and research” in the work of the individual scholar or scientist. The idea was that teaching should be based on the disinterested search for the truth. Students should participate, at however humble a level, in this endeavor. They should not be merely recipients of knowledge. They should join in its creation. We find in this classic view that the university was meant to be a “community of scholars and students” engaged in a common task.

As we stand here, in the 21st century, universities are reorienting themselves for yet another new era. It used to be that the primary mission of the university was to educate young people and create new knowledge, in the form of scholarship and research. The work was done when the student graduated, or when the professor’s research got published.

Today, the critical questions we ask include, “What are you going to do with the training you’ve acquired?” and “How are you going to use the research you’ve conducted for the betterment of society?” Look behind me at the inscription on Low Library which says we want to be an institution that is “cherished by generation after generation for the advancement of the public good.”

I don’t need to remind you about all the challenges the world is facing—challenges like climate change, poverty, conflict, and disease.

At Columbia, we do our work with these global problems very much on our minds. While you are here, you will have the chance to develop the skills to translate the life of the mind into real life.

This is also a place where you’ll have the chance to pursue your own diverse interests. You’ll be able to engage with the artists and writers who populate our faculty, to conduct independent research alongside our scholars, or to work in a lab alongside scientists on cures for diseases or to save our planet. You’ll have the opportunity to see that work up close, and once you do, it changes you. You begin to see things differently and imagine the role you could play in advancing knowledge.

So, as you begin your undergraduate journey, think expansively about the kinds of experiences you want to have here, about the interests you want to pursue and the scholars and researchers with whom you want to engage.

And along the way, think long and hard about what you’re going to do with those experiences when you graduate. How will you bring your skills and your knowledge to bear on the major problems facing our global society? Don’t be afraid to revise your thinking as your path evolves.

This is a lot to take in, and I want to stress that it’s ok to feel a little bit overwhelmed right now. Many of you are used to being at the top of your class. You are now surrounded by people who were also at the top of their classes. So, if you find that you’re struggling, that’s ok. That’s to be expected. Make sure that you reach out and ask for the support that you need from your friends, teachers, families, advisors, and staff who are here to support your wellbeing.

You are about to experience a lot of firsts. For me, as a girl who grew up in southern climates, college was the first time I saw snow. And it took me a long time to accept the necessity of a down jacket and proper boots. I had one roommate who introduced me to Joni Mitchell, and another who didn’t believe in owning a lot of clothes and strung a line for doing her daily laundry across our room. It’s mind opening, meeting people who are different from you, who think differently from the way you do, who have different backgrounds and views.

You should expect to be challenged to engage with new perspectives, to debate ideas with which you disagree, and to be willing to revise your beliefs in the face of new evidence.

At times, this may feel awkward or uncomfortable. It might feel difficult. That is as it should be. That is what it feels like to be part of a culture that values intellectual inquiry and the free exchange of ideas. That is what it feels like to be at the frontier. It is how humanity has made progress over millennia.

Over the past two months, I’ve been getting to know Columbia by meeting with people who work across our campuses, schools, and departments.

I thought I’d share a few of my favorite quotes to give you a sense of what awaits:

“I am better because I am at Columbia.”

“If you can imagine it, there's a high probability you can make it happen at Columbia.”

“What I love about Columbia is its independent spirit. Its lack of snobbery. It's warm. It's scrappy. It's New York City.”

“Columbia is located in the richest city in the world, in every sense.”

These quotes underscore the point on which I’d like to end. When we chose to come to this institution, we chose to come to Columbia University in the City of New York.

Like our campuses, New York is much more than a collection of buildings. It’s a rich and diverse community of people—the most extraordinary collection of people you will find anywhere.

We are all New Yorkers now.

To quote our neighbor Lin-Manuel Miranda—the creator of the musical about that famous Columbian Alexander Hamilton—“Look around. Look around. History is happening in Manhattan, and we just happen to be in the greatest city in the world.”

Welcome to New York. Welcome to Columbia. Thank you.