Open Your Mind and Find a Passion

Congratulations to every student who started college this fall, and also to every parent and friend who helped them along the way. As a university president, I see some students who have jumped in with both feet, while I know others are still finding their way. This is a time of major transition, questioning and discovery for students, no matter how together and impressive they may seem.

I was in this exact position, trying to figure out what life means when I began my collegiate experience at Vassar College. The year was 1968, a time of tremendous change on college campuses and around the country. Social and political forces were upending the established order of things. That June, I joined 50,000 others at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington for National Solidarity Day. It was part of a larger campaign organized by Martin Luther King, Jr., before his assassination, one that was intended to unite anti-poverty efforts with the civil rights movement. We listened to his widow, Coretta Scott King, declare with no hint of bitterness that "love is the only force that can destroy hate."

National Solidarity Day was one of those especially life-enriching events, and I drew on that experience during college. I had read numerous books about race -- Malcolm X, Black Like Me, The Wretched of the Earth -- and, with my new classmates, discussed what was happening in the world around us. I may have been socially committed already, but these discussions, in that environment, just as I started college, helped me uncover my true passion - to go to law school, to pursue a career in public policy - and to always try to approach complex issues with an open mind.

As students embark on their college experience, no matter the decade, the same task awaits: Opening their minds to find a true passion.

A college experience will require students to think through tough questions with imperfect answers. They will encounter conflicting arguments and understandings, demanding deep analytical thinking to uncover alternative explanations and interpretations. And they will be confronted by opinions and attitudes that run contrary to some beliefs. But all of these moments together will provide an opportunity to better understand themselves and the world around them.

How to start? Picking a major can create a real moment of stress for students. But as they navigate the many choices, they should think about what in their daily lives totally excites them, and then see how the courses and programs match up. Look for a course and a subject area that absolutely stimulates and then dive in completely. Identify a passion and make it applicable to the future.

I also advise students to practice their education outside of the classroom - it will enrich them. Internships, service-learning projects and volunteering will provide hands-on opportunities to expand their perspective. With each new experience, they'll see that discovering solutions to vexing questions is an opportunity and a responsibility. With an open and active mind, I believe they will come to embrace triple bottom line thinking: success, but always with people and our planet equally in mind. Today's world demands all three.

Every industry sector, every community and every country is hungry for smart, nimble, compassionate leadership. Students should be preparing to play a leading role in changing the way the world works -- and to live a fulfilling life while doing so.

Perhaps most importantly, they shouldn't be afraid to take risks. It's too easy, especially when faced with a new environment, to fall back into a comfort zone. Now is the time to push beyond usual limits, whether it's public speaking or just introducing themselves to someone new. Be brave. The confidence they build during college years will carry them far.

W.E.B. Du Bois, sociologist, historian, civil rights activist and co-founder of the NAACP, called college a "mighty reality, a glimpse of the higher life," a place to pause for four short years "to learn what living means." To learn what living means - that is the mission.

When students open their minds to pursue their passions, they will discover the very best version of themselves, and learn what living really means.