The following remarks were delivered by Donna Adair Breault, Ph.D., Interim Provost and Executive Vice President of Academic Affairs, at New Jersey City University's 42nd Annual Convocation on September 13, 2023.
A full photo gallery from the event can be viewed here:
Good afternoon and welcome to NJCU’s 2023 Convocation.This is a time to come together as a community to celebrate the year to come. It is a time to celebrate new beginnings.
From the time I was an elementary and middle school teacher and through all the years I taught at universities, I loved the beginning of the new year because it was an opportunity for a fresh start. In preparation for the first day of school, I would think about the previous year – the good and the bad – and I would consider what I learned from those experiences. I would imagine what success was going to look like for the current year as well. Through this process, I would set goals for myself that would include learning and applying something new that would help my students. I would challenge myself to be more creative in how I taught and assessed. After all, it was a new year, and, by design, that invited new ways of thinking.
So, I challenge each of you to consider a similar process. It’s a new year. Learn from the last one. Think about the choices you made that led to your success, to joy, to helping others. What new skills, strategies, or mindsets could you embrace that will make a difference this year? Imagine what success will look like this year. What can you learn and apply that will help you and others thrive? That is my challenge to each of you individually.
Now I want to pose a challenge to us as a collective.
Today marks the day we celebrate the new year as a community. And we are a community singularly focused on our mission. We are here today to honor our commitment to raising each member of this community so that she, he, they thrive. Every employee of this university is here to promote student success, but that can only be achieved when we recognize and act upon a shared commitment to help each member of this community – students, staff, faculty, administrators, alumni, and vital external stakeholders – to succeed as well.
In Democracy and Education, John Dewey spoke often of community. He argued the following:
"Wherever there is conjoint activity whose consequences are appreciated as good by all singular persons who take part in it, and where the realization of the good is such as to effect an energetic desire, and effort to sustain it in being just because it is a good shared by all, there is in so far a community." (p. 149)
As with many things, Dewey could have said that more directly and with fewer words. Let me translate.
Simply being on this campus, does not make us a community. Simply sitting in Margaret Williams Theatre for convocation, does not make us a community. Getting a grade on a transcript or a paycheck does not make us a community. We are a community in so far as we work together toward our mission – creating the conditions through which our community – individually and collectively, thrives.
What each of us does matters within the whole of the community. Anyone’s absence will change what we could collectively become. Notice the absence of others. Faculty, reach out when someone does not come to class. Students, take time to meet one-on-one with your professors. Everyone, take time to appreciate and honor those around you.
When I teach university courses, I always include participation points. These points are not just about attending or even how many times a student speaks up in class. In fact, I always have a rubric that outlines what I mean by participation. The highest quadrant of the rubric – the way to get full participation points – typically says something like the following:
The experience of each person in the class – including the instructor – is more educative, more meaningful, by virtue of your presence.
Let’s consider this criterion in the context of our university community – the expectations to which we should hold one another: The experience of each member of the NJCU community is more educative, more meaningful, more hopeful, more supportive, more impactful, more joyous by virtue of your presence. Take a minute. Let that sink in.
Dewey had more to say about community, and, in particular, the relationship between community and communication. Again, in Democracy and Education, he noted the following:
"Not only is social life identical with communication, but all communication (and hence all social life) is educative. To be a recipient of a communication is to have an enlarged and changed experience." (p. 5)
We cannot be a community without communication. This is how we connect. This is how we make a difference in the lives of others. Students, please communicate with those around you. Ask questions. Ask for help. If you don’t understand something, ask. If you are upset or unhappy, engage that individual in a way that could lead to resolution. As activist and one of the founders of Gray Panthers, Maggie Kuhn told us, “Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind – even if your voice shakes.”
Tim Levine, a professor at the University of Alabama, conducted a study about communication following Covid. He concluded that we have experienced negative side effects of our social isolation. The less contact we have with other people, the more suspicious we become. This can make us more defensive. He warned that this can create a spiral: less contact can lead to suspicion that makes us more defensive and may result in even more isolation. Now, more than ever, it is important that we are present for one another. From the many wonderful student activities to the tea and cookies with the deans in the College of Arts and Sciences, we need to find ways to be physically present with and for one another.
I want to end with another quote from Dewey’s Democracy and Education. Again, when talking about community, he makes very important points. When describing the kind of community we should become, he notes the following:
"The desired transformation is not difficult to define in a formal way. It signifies a society in which every person shall be occupied in something which makes the lives of others better worth living, and which accordingly makes the ties which bind persons together more perceptible – which breaks down the barriers of distance between them." (p. 316)
As we celebrate the 2023/2024 academic year, may each of us be occupied with something that makes the lives of those around us better. May the experience of each member of the NJCU community be more educative, more meaningful, more hopeful, more supportive, more impactful, and more joyous by virtue of your presence. Thank you.