Welcome Remarks for Yale College International Students Class of 2021

Speech by Pericles Lewis, Vice President for Global Strategy and Deputy Provost for International Affairs
August 21, 2017 at Yale University

International Students of the Class of 2021,

Welcome to Yale College!

We are delighted that you’ve chosen to come to Yale. There are over 140 of you here from more than 60 countries. You are part of the largest class ever to matriculate in Yale College and also the largest group of international students ever to do so.

The history of international students at Yale goes back to the nineteenth century, when students came to New Haven from Colombia, China, Japan, Sierra Leone, and many other countries around the world. In the 21st century, we have significantly increased Yale’s international profile and enhanced the experience for international students at Yale, partly through the creation of the Office of International Students and Scholars, which is hosting this orientation session.

In coming to Yale College, you have chosen to pursue a broad, liberal education in the arts and sciences. The idea of a liberal education comes down to us from ancient times, when it described the kind of education appropriate for a free citizen. So, a liberal education closely aligned with freedom—the freedom to pursue intellectual questions, the freedom to debate issues of common concern, freedoms that prepare a young person for full citizenship. The ancient world contrasted the “liberal arts” with the “servile arts,” that is, what we would call vocational education, or education for a particular job. While the skills you develop at Yale will be valuable to you in your future careers, they are broader than any one job and they will help you develop not only as a contributor to the economy but also more broadly as a citizen and a human being. Indeed, in a broader sense, liberal education should help you to find your “vocation” or calling, not only the career that you want to pursue but also your broader sense of purpose in life.

In Latin, the word “arts” refers to both the arts and sciences, and the middle ages recognized seven liberal arts: grammar, rhetoric, logic, geometry, arithmetic, music, and astronomy. Today a liberal arts education spans the arts, humanities, and social and natural sciences. When people speak of a “liberal arts education,” they are generally referring to undergraduate education that stresses broad study of the arts and sciences rather than pre-professional training in such subjects as business, law, or medicine. In practice, at Yale, we have a variety of requirements that you will review tomorrow that encourage you to explore a range of subjects before deciding on a specialization. I would urge you, in selecting your courses, to expand your intellectual horizons and to challenge yourself by taking intellectually demanding courses that will introduce you to fields you have not already mastered in high school or your earlier education. Don’t choose the easiest path.

When we speak of a liberal education, then, we are not referring to any particular political viewpoint, but rather to an education that helps you to develop your broad capacities and to see how these fit into your role in a broader society. And a good part of this education takes place outside the classroom, in your informal interactions with classmates and in clubs, societies, and the residential colleges. One advantage of a Yale education is that we pay close attention to this broader learning environment beyond the classroom, and I hope you will take advantage of these extracurricular possibilities.

Today is a remarkable day here in the United States as we are experiencing a total solar eclipse. The sight of the sky darkening has historically brought a sense of foreboding, but today we can also see our understanding of the astronomical event, and our ability to predict it, as a triumph of science and human curiosity. What caused fear to our ancestors can rightly cause wonder and even a sort of pride for us.

It is also a remarkable time in the history of the United States, and I realize that some of you may experience some trepidation as you have undoubtedly heard about the broad divisions in U. S. politics and in particular the harshly negative attitudes to immigrants and to non-whites that have been expressed even in the highest office in the land. I would like to reassure you on this point. The vast majority of Americans are proud of our leadership in higher education and eager to welcome high-achieving students like yourselves to the United States. I think you will find New Haven and Yale to be very welcoming places in this regard. At the same time, it is likely you will encounter people with very differing experiences and sometimes very different views on social and political matters, and I hope you will take those encounters as an opportunity to learn and to test your own beliefs and perhaps broaden your horizons. The result of such encounters need not be total agreement. Sometimes we learn as much from a reasoned discussion that results in an agreement to disagree as we do from pursuing what may be a false consensus.

If you do have any experiences of discrimination or misconduct while you are here, I hope you will share them with us in the Office of International Students and Scholars and with your freshman counsellors, faculty advisers, or deans in your residential colleges. We are eager to make Yale a fully welcoming community in which all students have an opportunity to learn and grow and to contribute their views and efforts to the broader mission of the College, which, according to our mission statement, is:

“to seek exceptionally promising students of all backgrounds from across the nation and around the world and to educate them, through mental discipline and social experience, to develop their intellectual, moral, civic, and creative capacities to the fullest. The aim of this education is the cultivation of citizens with a rich awareness of our heritage to lead and serve in every sphere of human activity.”

In a sense, by coming to Yale, you have already indicated that you intend to become citizens of the world. I hope that your four years here in New Haven help you to achieve that goal; when you graduate four years from now, I hope that you will make great contributions to your home nations, or here in the United States, or to other communities that you may eventually join; and I hope that you will consider yourselves part of the Yale community not only for four years but for the rest of your lives. Thank you, and welcome.