President Samhat

Convocation Address

Academic Magnet High School, Charleston, SC
January 24, 2017

Good afternoon.

Thank you for that warm welcome and for the invitation to speak with you today as you begin the last half of the academic year. It's always a treat for me to meet high school students. Right now your life is on the brink of so much. You're touring colleges, sending in applications, and some of you are probably even trying to decide where to spend the next four years of your life. The good news is: the possibilities are endless. And yes, that is good news, even if it seems overwhelming at times.

I'm particularly pleased to be here because this is the alma mater of some of our top Wofford students. Annie McDermott, Margaret Lang, Delaney Robinson, Jackson Carter and Alex Parler, for example, all came to us from Academic Magnet High School. Alex is currently studying coffee and chocolate: agritourism and ecotourism in Ecuador with a professor in the college's biology department. Alex spent the first week of Interim on campus learning about coffee and chocolate through selected readings, documentaries and discussions. Now in Quito, he is staying with a local family while seeing first hand how the beans are grown, processed, distributed and enjoyed.

Other Wofford students are spending the month studying around the globe and on campus. For instance, on campus we have students creating robots, making animated short films, learning to play the guitar, exploring virtual worlds, gaining financial life skills, studying American foreign policy, and honing their debate skills. Wofford students are interning throughout the country with healthcare professionals, attorneys, nonprofit organizations, government agencies and businesses. We have students studying in Washington, D.C., Rome, England, France, Argentina, Japan, New Zealand, Germany and Namibia, as well as Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia.

As I look out today, I see students ready for these same opportunities. Of course, we'd love for you to find these at Wofford. (That was my not-so-subtle attempt to get all of you to apply to become Terriers one day.) But colleges and universities across the country will be eager to welcome you because you've already chosen a rigorous path.

I understand that those of you who are seniors are finishing a thesis. This is the type of capstone experience that gives you opportunities to focus deeply on a topic, navigate the research process and learn how to organize and complete a project. You'll have an advantage when you start college because of such experiences.

Delaney Robinson said she came to Wofford because it felt like home, but she's found success as a Terrier because of the rigor at Academic Magnet. She said, and I quote, "Magnet definitely prepared me for my freshman year. After thesis, you really can take on just about anything. Magnet also taught me time management skills. I am really grateful for that because balancing two jobs and school work is no easy task, but it's possible."

Wofford and other top colleges and universities around the country seek out students like Delaney - students who have proven themselves in high school by excelling and leading in the classroom and beyond. We look for students who are inquisitive and persistent, students who have shown that they are serious about the business of education. Wofford College wants you to graduate in four years (note that I said 4 years), and we recruit students who we believe will do just that. That's one reason that I shamelessly put in a plug for Wofford earlier. You are the type of students we want because you have a proven record of success, and I know that success does not come without hard work, sacrifice and commitment.

Let me give you an example. Four years ago, four students came to Wofford to play football. As student-athletes for the Terriers, these young men studied along with their classmates. They lifted weights, practiced, traveled with their team, volunteered as mentors to students at a local elementary school, and held leadership positions on campus. This past summer - the summer before their senior year - they all decided to stay in Spartanburg because they wanted to put in extra time working out and practicing for their senior season. While they were together, they also helped each other study for their graduate school admissions tests and created a round-the-clock environment of support. Two were taking the MCAT to go to medical school. One was taking the DAT for dental school admission, and the final student was taking the LSAT with plans to attend law school. All four scored above the 92nd percentile on their respective tests. Because of their hard work, sacrifice and commitment to each other, these four young men now have their pick of medical, dental or law schools. Depending on where they choose to attend, they also will have scholarship support, which will mean they leave graduate school with little or no debt.

Whatever your plans, and even if you don't have plans yet, this same success can be yours. It does take hard work, determination and sacrifice, but if you ask these four Wofford student-athletes what the secret to their success is, they don't mention the time they spent practicing or studying. Instead, all four praise their teammates, coaches, parents, professors and friends. They give credit to the people who helped them achieve success. I understand that the senior class has been working with professional mentors in the community as part of their thesis project. I hope as part of that you are discovering that successful people recognize, seek out and learn from mentors. Once again, the opportunities you're getting at Academic Magnet are positioning you for success.

I'm a college president because of the support and mentorship of wonderful colleagues in my career. In the course of life, one's path crosses in most unexpected ways with others, individuals whose honest advice, encouragement and support can have the most profound impact on your imagination of life's possibilities. At Wofford we think a lot about mentoring and weave a culture of mentoring and support into the fabric of the college. Students find mentors in athletics, Greek life, diversity and inclusion, co-curricular programming, professional development, community-based learning, wellness initiatives, undergraduate research, entrepreneurship training, residence life, and, of course, the classroom. The best colleges and universities offer a ready supply of mentors, but you've got to be willing to take advantage of the opportunities. You've also got to know what to look for.

On the most basic level, I recommend looking for mentors with three characteristics in mind. While I'm talking, feel free to look around, think and connect the dots between you and different people in your life. Think of people from your past and present, and envision the types of people you want to look out for when you go to college or into the professional world.

First, look for someone who inspires trust. Ask yourself these questions: Who will be honest with you? Who can you be honest with in return? Who stops what they're doing when you walk in the door? Often trust takes time. Sometimes it takes a common background or shared experience. When you find someone you trust, regardless of age or circumstance, you're on your way to finding a mentor.

When biology majors leave Wofford, invariably they say the same things in their exit interviews. They say that the relationships that they form with faculty and the advising they receive are invaluable. Dr. Bob Moss, McCalla Professor of Biology at Wofford, is quick to say that building trust, advising and mentoring often mean challenging students to think critically about their future. For example, if a junior with a 2.8 GPA wants to go to medical school, he needs a mentor or adviser willing to have an honest conversation about expectations and about a possible back-up plan. Mentors ask tough questions. They reassure when reassurance is merited, but they also care enough to be truthful. Do you know some like that now - maybe a teacher who has encouraged you to consider safety, target and reach schools when applying for college - maybe a coach helping you come to terms with the commitment required to play major league baseball - maybe even a friend supporting your through a break up. Surround yourself with these trustworthy and honest people.

Second, find someone who's willing to learn with you. Mentoring is a relationship of mutual care and respect. Dr. Deno Trakas, Hoy Professor of Literature at Wofford, performed research this past summer with Katherine Howell, an English and government major who will graduate in May. Both Dr. Trakas and Katherine were skeptical about research in the humanities, but together they brainstormed, vented, rambled, researched, wrote and revised works of historical fiction. At the end of the summer, they were both inspired and energized. Dr. Trakas admits that he learned as much from Katherine as Katherine learned from him. Dr. Trakas modeled an openness and commitment to lifelong learning that is exactly what should happen in college, and because of that he became a mentor for Katherine. Surround yourself with lifelong learners - people who love an academic adventure and are smart enough to admit that they will never know it all.

Finally, find mentors who will give you opportunities to make mistakes. Often mentoring relationships manifest themselves in conversations over coffee or across a desk. The talking and listening and storytelling are immensely valuable, but I also think it's important to find mentors who will help you gain hands-on experience. Find people who will give you an assignment, but not tell you how to complete it - people who will let you figure out a creative solution and succeed... or fail. These mentors are good at giving you a sense of perspective. They understand their role as teacher and your role as learner. Failure isn't the goal, but neither is perfection. The goal is experience.

Student-athletes understand this because they learn how to serve a ball by serving. Does every serve clear the net? No, but correcting that error means the next serve could be an ace. Another example: Wofford students studying business have the opportunity to participate in the Robert D. Atkins Venture Capital Fund or the R. Michael James Student Managed Investment Fund. These funds give Wofford students real-world investment experience with real dollars. According to Dr. Phillip Swicegood, a finance professor who advises the funds, when students invest real money, they feel real pressure. Students learn from that pressure. They learn from making good investment decisions, and they learn to recover from less successful decisions. Surround yourself with people who will give you opportunities to get your hands dirty. Find mentors who will clap when you succeed and who give you a hand up and a listening ear when you fail. You learn from both.

Finally, I challenge each of you to reach back or beside you and take the time to care for the success of someone else. Be mentored, then mentor someone in return. Jodie McLean, CEO of a national real estate firm and a member of the Wofford Board of Trustees, talks about starting her career and actively seeking mentors in leadership positions at her company, even if that meant arriving at the office at 5:45 a.m. so she could have 15 minutes of the boss's time over the coffee pot. She realized early on that great opportunities for personal and career growth emerge from developing networks of trusted advisers. To this day she talks about the importance of mentors and the impact they have had on her success. She firmly believes, and I completely agree, that it is a responsibility of those who have benefited from a mentor to reach back and mentor those coming along with the same openness and confidence. If you can recall mentors from your past ... if you can look around and find mentors in this room ... if you're willing to take advantage of the mentors who will cross your path in the future, you're already ahead of the game.

Before me I see a room full of students, teachers, coaches, friends, classmates, and yes, mentors. You'll need them all. Appreciate them all, and pay the experience forward. Thank you all for inviting me to speak with you today. I appreciate this opportunity, and I hope to see some of you as you visit college campuses. You're always welcome at Wofford.