The following remarks were delivered as part of the Incoming Student Convocation in January of 2017 in Zellerbach Auditorium.

Good afternoon.

My name is Carol Christ, and I serve as Executive Vice Chancellor & Provost here at UC Berkeley. As the campus’ senior academic officer, I have the great privilege of welcoming you into our community.  You are our newest bears.

Today you join several thousands of your peers as members of Berkeley’s newest class of students.  You are some of the most capable, energetic, and engaged people on the planet.

You are a remarkable group of students.  You play the clarinet and the koto and the gamelan and the guitar. You’ve won poetry slams and math competitions and state soccer championships. You’ve built solar-powered cars and games with tens of thousands of downloads.   You’ve organized protests in the name of social justice; you’ve served in the Army.

The youngest person in your class is 15, the oldest is 74.   Youcome from 47 counties in California, 45 US states, and 60 different countries. Growing up, more than half of you were either bilingual or did not speak English as your first language. A fifth of you come from families whose parents did not go to college.

In sum, you are an extraordinary, as well as an extraordinarily diverse, group.   We are thrilled to have you here; we are thrilled that you chose us. 

No doubt this is an exhilarating, if complicated and emotional, moment for all of you. A long drama is coming to a close: years spent finishing high school or completing an Associate’s Degree, the protracted process of applying to colleges, finally getting that magic letter from Berkeley…and now – though you may have thought that this day would never come – packing up and transporting your life in boxes to a new place, alongside new people in a new environment, eager to embark on a personal and intellectual adventure unlike anything you have known before. 

You have probably experienced – and may still be experiencing – a special kind of excitement, and perhaps too a bit of foreboding, about what it will be like to transition to this new place and a new set of challenges. And that is exactly how it should be, as you stand now on the cusp of what will surely be one of the most formative periods in your life.  We believe in your success; we’re committed to your success.  Although this place is big—and can be intimidating as a result--, many people are eager to guide and help you on your way.  And remember, the Berkeley admissions office never makes a mistake. 

Though I’ve been immersed in the seasonal rhythms of higher education for a long time, I, too, find the start of a semester thrilling – bristling, as it always is, with the excitement, enthusiasm, potential, and promise that accompany a new group of students.

It is my sincere hope that our institution can help to focus and to guide such energy. Just as the great jurist, Oliver Wendell Holmes, wrote that he “had been set on fire in his freshman year by reading the essays of Emerson," we want you to be similarly ignited by some set of fundamental questions, some seemingly intractable issues, some areas of human understanding that you wish to discover, unpack, and advance for the greater good.

Berkeley is as good as any place in the world to ignite and fan such passions into flame. Our faculty – filled with dedicated teachers, thinkers, innovators, and explorers – is second to none. An exemplary team of staff members, committed to excellence in every facet of the university’s operations, works hard to support our academic mission. Our graduate students, with whom you will come into contact as mentors, researchers, and teachers, are among the best. And your classmates will be by your side to partner with you and challenge you throughout your intellectual journey.

At Berkeley, we believe in the transformative power of a liberal arts education, and while the area of study you are most passionate about will likely become your academic major, I hope you’ll take this piece of advice to heart: Learn widely, not just deeply. I believe that the education you acquire outside of your major is just as important to your personal and professional development, and I encourage you to take advantage of the richness of our university by exploring different disciplines, building an array of skills, mastering many modes of thinking, and cultivating your whole self.

In a world in which new knowledge is increasing exponentially, in which disciplinary boundaries are shifting and dissolving, and in which you can expect to have not just multiple jobs but multiple careers – many of which may not even exist yet – this broad liberal arts education is truly the best preparation for life. The mastery of a single set of tools will not adequately prepare you for a rapidly changing world, and so you must cultivate a nimble mind that can quickly readjust, that can apply different skills to all manner of situations.   The great chemist Thomas Cech calls this intellectual cross training.  Just as cross training makes you a better athlete in your chosen sport, intellectual cross training makes you better in whatever profession or area you choose to enter.

In line with this, I encourage you to think of the classes you take at Berkeley less in terms of their specific content and more in terms of the capacities of mind they instill in you. Let me share some of these capacities that I believe are essential.

To begin, focus on honing your writing abilities. Throughout your life and in any career, you’ll need to write well. Look for classes that give you many opportunities to write, and those that expose you to good writing.

Secondly, sharpen your critical thinking. Learn how to read and analyze texts, arguments, situations, images, and more. Learn to distill the essential from the irrelevant, to reconcile seemingly contradictory positions, to uncover biases and agendas, to see through demagoguery in pursuit of truth. This is more important now than ever.

Third, develop your skills of quantitative reasoning and of understanding and assessing data. You’ll need to work fluently with numbers and data, in almost every kind of career.  You can develop this capacity not just in math classes but in statistics classes, in science classes, and in the social sciences.

Fourth, endeavor to understand a culture different from your own. I once heard PepsiCo president Indra Nooyi describe what she looks for when she hires. The most important qualification, she said, was living in a culture different from the one in which you grew up.  Start planning now to participate in education abroad.

Fifth, gain an understanding of what it means to think historically. No matter what problem we seek to solve, history is an important lens upon it. All manner of thinkers, from 18th century historian Edmund Burke to Lemony Snicket, have said that those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.

Sixth, study the arts and design. These disciplines encourage creativity and imagination, expose people to new ideas, bring different cultures and viewpoints into dialogue, provide opportunities for performance and self-expression, and much more. You may have heard that at Reed College in the early 1970s, Steve Jobs dropped in on a class in calligraphy that he later said was the most important academic experience he ever had. The course enabled him to see the value of clarity, elegance and simplicity in design — principles that he put into practice as he built his company, Apple, into a technology powerhouse.

Finally, make efforts to understand the natural world. It’s the home we all share, and it’s increasingly under threat.

W.E.B. Du Bois wrote that higher education should be “devoted specifically and peculiarly into bringing a man into the fullest and roundest development of his powers as a human being.”  These are years when you have the opportunity to make your mind and imagination a wonderful place to live for the rest of your life.  Strengthen your intellectual and creative capacities alongside the deep understanding you will achieve in your major, and you will be very well prepared to venture out into the world, into a rewarding career, and into a rich and fulfilling life.

For many of you here today, coming to Berkeley may still seem like a dream, and if not to you, certainly to the families who have stood by you and helped you succeed. Let there be no mistake. This is a dream. It is dream that led to the creation of this exceptional institution – a public institution second to none – all the way back in 1868. And it is a dream still for all of us here, now.

Congratulations on all of the hard work that has led you to this point, and let me offer my hope that your time here will be as important, productive, and transformational as it has been for the many generations of Cal students who have come before you. Welcome to Berkeley. Go Bears.  Fiat Lux.  Let there be Light.