Sept. 21, 2014
WELCOME to the University of Washington.
I remember what seems not so many years ago sitting in seats very much like those in which you are sitting when I was being oriented as a freshman.
I remember days full of new experiences, new friends, new challenges, new opportunities. Most clearly, I remember being overwhelmed and a more than a little daunted by almost everything.
But, over time, I came to understand that these full, demanding, overwhelming days were just a series of moments.
Moments of fun, boring moments, trivial moments, some were difficult and more than a few were happy and exciting. There were forgettable and memorable moments.
I came to understand most acutely that within the series of moments, some were important.
I learned that WHAT I DID with those important moments was itself important, it mattered.
Now, I know you better than you might think. I’ve read many of your applications. I’ve met many of you. You are among the most amazing, talented students who have ever walked onto this campus. You are brilliant, powerful, curious, ambitious.
More than any other group of students I know, you have the capacity to seize important moments when they present.
I remember clearly, a moment in my sophomore year, one of those important moments that mattered, though I can’t say I understood that at the time.
I was sitting in the back of one of my classes (where I always sat in all my classes), devoutly hoping to avoid the attention of the professor (as I always did). The course was designed to introduce us to research methodologies in the field of political science and prepare us to do some actual research of our own. We prepared short research proposals of various kinds every week and the professor evaluated them (or, perhaps more correctly, he ripped them apart).
One day, the professor asked whether Michael Young was present in the class. Crossing my fingers that there was another Michael Young, I put my head down and refrained from raising my hand. He repeated his inquiry and I had no choice but to acknowledge my attendance.
He then ordered me to come talk to him immediately after class. You have no idea how long 50 minutes is when that Damocles sword is hanging over your head. I don’t remember anything else he said during that class, but I well remember wondering whether my father might be willing to reemploy me in his grocery store as a bag boy after I was kicked out of college.
To my utter amazement, after class the professor told me that he had seen some promise in some of the papers I had submitted and wondered whether I would like to be a research assistant on a large-scale research project he was about to begin.
I accepted with alacrity and it changed my life.
Do you know, I can draw a direct line from that moment to the moment I was sitting in my first law school class. The list of things I learned while working with that professor is long. I learned how to research, how to prepare an analysis, how to write a coherent argument, how to analyze data. It helped me realize my ambition to go to law school.
I was fortunate. That generous professor played a major role in the formation of my career.
This is a university of limitless opportunities—and generous professors. Seek out those opportunities, make your own moments, and especially, be willing to accept help from others.
And whether the moment is expected or unexpected, seize it.
I had done well in college, in part because I had a good short-term memory. I could master most of the material in the textbook in relatively short order and repeat it back on the test with some efficiency. That isn’t to say I really learned the material in any useful sense, but I didn’t view that as my highest priority. I was skiing five days a week and that seemed to take precedence.
So when I got to law school, I thought the same skill set would suffice. The professor would assign cases to read, I would memorize and repeat them back on the exam and the professor would dutifully give me a good grade. I’d go skiing five days a week and all would be in its proper order.
Things proceeded well right up until that first class.
The professor assigned the cases, which I memorized, fully prepared to dutifully repeat them back.
Then the professor asked the class, “Why is this relevant?”
“Because it’s written in the book,” I thought to myself.
A classmate responded with that exact answer and was promptly eviscerated by the professor.
Then it got worse.
The professor went on to ask why the judge’s reasoning in the case was wrong.
Again, I rehearsed my father’s phone number and pondered whether that bag boy job in his supermarket might still be available.
But I had wanted to be a lawyer my entire life and I decided that I wouldn’t let a little thing like being entirely clueless deter me. So I started to study non-stop every single day. I remember starting early in the morning and ending long after any sensible person should have been in bed.
I refined my approach to the information. Every time I read a line or reflected on an argument, I questioned its relevance, its coherence, its correctness. What was the purpose and result of every decision? What impact might that decision have on other areas of law or on human behavior? I took nothing for granted and questioned everything.
I answered every question and then I questioned every answer.
Is the expert wrong? What does this really mean? Is it right? Is it possible? Is it plausible or probable? Is it moral or ethical? Is it true?
I was, for the first time in my life, THINKING FOR MYSELF!!!!
And, just as I can draw a straight line from my experience in that sophomore political science class to my first day of law school, I can draw a straight line from that first day of law school to where I stand today, presiding over this wonderful university.
From studying fervently out of sheer terror, to developing a PASSION for law that has taken me all over the world, I have learned to engage in deep and meaningful exploration.
You will have many moments while you’re here to do the same.
For instance, you may read The Iliad and The Odyssey. And when you do, ask:
What does it tell you about the human instinct and quest for power, for glory, for riches, for peace, and how does that help you better understand what is going on in the Middle East, or Asia, or even Washington, D.C.?
What does it tell you about leadership and persuading people to do something? What does that say about how to run a corporation or a non-profit organization?
What does it teach about loyalty and rivalry? How does our understanding the genesis of the animosity between Agamemnon and Achilles help us better understand what is happening in Iraq or Syria and how could we use that understanding to promote a more just, peaceful world?
What does the relationship between Odysseus and Penelope teach about love? About commitment? About how to deal with annoying boyfriends?
Maybe while you’re here, you might learn how to develop and program a computer game.
And when you do, ask whether it can be used to teach math or science to young children, just as Professor Popovich and his colleagues do in the Center for Game Learning.
Or ask whether it can be used to cure a disease, just as Professor David Baker and Biochemistry student Brian Koepnick and their colleagues do in the Institute for Protein Design, where they team up with gamers who play FOLDIT, the game they developed to learn how to design proteins that might cure AIDS or Ebola.
You might learn how to speak Japanese or Chinese or Arabic, and when you do, ask:
How do the grammatical constructions of these languages affect the way people think, the way they interact, the way they make decisions, the way they learn…?
You might study the oceans, and when you do, ask how we might harness its great energy to produce power and reduce greenhouse gasses, or how we can predict earthquakes that produce devastating Tsunamis or how we might preserve the coral reefs and their essential functions.
You might study global health, and, when you do, ask how we develop – and, equally importantly, implement – policies across the globe that genuinely and effectively improve health outcomes, like Professor Chris Murray and his colleagues in the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
FRIENDS, THERE ARE ANSWERS LOCKED INSIDE YOUR QUESTIONS, so you CAN and SHOULD ask them.
The process of asking questions AND QUESTIONING THE ANSWERS is the very purpose of this great university and it is YOUR purpose while you are here.
Asking the questions and questioning the answer will lead you to places you can hardly imagine.
It certainly did for me. I was born in a small lumber town in northern California. My high school graduating class had 50 students. Before college, I had never been out of the United States; I had never visited more than 4 states; I spoke no foreign languages. Indeed, I don’t remember ever meeting anyone from another country before I went to college. I hadn’t read virtually any of the cannon of great literature. I’d dissected a frog and had blown up one chemistry lab, but that was my entire exposure to science.
By seizing my moments, I was able to do things of which I am very proud.
And I know you will too.
LOOK UNDER YOUR SEATS.
You will find a tee shirt that bears one of many messages. The size may not fit you, and you can exchange it on the way out. But the messages on the tee shirts will fit you, no matter which one you get. These are the messages:
Dare to do.
Be the first.
Question the answer.
Together we will.
Passion never rests.
Be a world of good.
Driven to discover.
And, my personal favorite, Undaunted.
These themes reflect the amazing potential in each of you to recognize your moments.
You will seize opportunities.
You will be boundless.
You will question the answer.
You will change this world for good.
Great universities, like this one, are designed to help you believe in yourself.
This University is a network of extraordinary professors, exceptionally dedicated staff and remarkable alumni spread all over the world – all united in a shared belief in the future.
And you are that future.
Welcome to your moments. Welcome to the University of Washington.