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Behind the Bow Tie: A Student Conversation

March 3, 2020
Prepared Remarks

Dean of Students Corey Farris introduces President Gee.

Thank you, Dean Farris. And it is a pleasure to be with you this evening at our first — and I hope the first of many — Behind the Bow Tie: A Student Conversation. 

I spend a lot of time mingling with students. I love coming to your events, your programs, your classes … and sometimes even to your bars. 

I like to talk with you because I believe it is important to understand what you are thinking, what you are feeling, what is important to you and how we can get better. 

So, that is what tonight is all about. I want to share some of the initiatives the University has undertaken to improve student life, and later, I want you to share with me the issues that are on your mind. 

So, let me begin with a quote that I love: “Like what you do, and then you will do your best.” 

This simple but profound advice came to us from Katherine Johnson, a Mountaineer who kept trekking toward the stars, no matter how many obstacles blocked her path and obscured her view.

Mrs. Johnson, who died last week at 101, was born in White Sulphur Springs, where segregated schooling available for African Americans ended in eighth grade. Her father moved the family to Institute, West Virginia, so his math-whiz daughter could attend high school. By age 15, she was ready to enter West Virginia State College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and French.  In 1938, she entered West Virginia University as one of our first black graduate students — and among the first in any southern public university. 

Family issues kept her from completing her master’s degree, but she later joined NASA. In the 1960s, she became the first woman pulled from the computing pool to work on another project— landing a man on the moon before the end of the decade. 

Johnson scaled mountains of oppression by letting curiosity inspire learning — and letting learning fuel her unique purpose. 

At West Virginia University, purpose is in our DNA. 

We are part of America’s land-grant tradition— born in in the turmoil of civil war, to extend opportunity beyond the wealthy and well connected. 

Since our creation, we have been helping students scale the mountains that loom between them and their unique callings. 

For many of our students, the greatest obstacle has been the absence of a well-worn trail to success. Dylan Vest, an Honors College political science and French major from Princeton, West Virginia, was not only the first person in his family to attend college, but also the first to travel abroad— and even the first to board a plane. 

Dylan moved closer to his dream of becoming a Foreign Service Officer by becoming our first recipient to receive the highly competitive Thomas R. Pickering Graduate Fellowship from the U.S. State Department. 

Amina Kunovac always knew her purpose lay in the medical field. But the path to her goal seemed daunting at age seven, when she was living in Croatia as a refugee from the Bosnian War. 

Amina’s father worked as a bus driver, and her mother struggled to find a job and find childcare. School became Amina’s refuge. When the family relocated to the United States, she learned English quickly and within a few months was excelling in her New Jersey public school. 

Later, as an undergraduate at the University of New Haven, she found her true passion in research — a way to explore the “why” behind so many bio-medical questions. 

That passion led her to the WVU Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program. As a doctoral student in exercise physiology, she is studying how pregnant women’s exposure to engineered nanomaterials found in cosmetics, food and other products affect the cardiovascular health of their children. 

Making lives better is the purpose that drives West Virginia University, and I hope that it drives each of you to make the most of your educational opportunities. 

One of the biggest temptations you will face as a college student is allowing others to define who you are. If you take away one thing from this conversation, I hope it is this: When people tell you who you are, do not believe them. 

You know who you are. You know where your dreams are calling you. 

The minute you allow others to define you, you embark on a destructive path leading you away from where you belong. 

For years, we let outsiders define our University as a “party school,” and some students lived down to that reputation. 

Bad behavior from a small number of students had the power to damage our University’s reputation and diminish its stature. 

Because bad behavior hurts students the most, I believe that students themselves do the best job creating a positive campus environment. 

And students like you have done just that, changing the overall student culture to emphasize working smart and playing smart, in true Mountaineer fashion. Our rank among the top 1.5 percent of universities worldwide, according to the Center for World University Rankings, attests to our growing reputation. 

By encouraging balance and putting academics first, we have seen the credentials of incoming students increase and watched our Honors College enrollment boom. 

Students like you have also helped us move from a high-profile example of fraternity failings to a national model for incorporating Fraternity and Sorority Life into a positive learning environment. 

This fall, the average GPA among fraternity and sorority members exceeded the overall undergraduate average. 

Students are also stepping up to protect each other. In light of recent events that resulted in the loss of one of our own, as well as injury to another, this campaign could not have come at a more critical time. 

Through our “Would You?” campaign, we are asking: Would you help someone in need? Would you accept the responsibility for saving a life? 

Students like you are saying yes. Like curiosity, accountability is one of our core Mountaineer values. If you see someone is in trouble, do the right thing.  Make the call. 

Our University learned that lesson in 2014 in the most tragic of ways, when we lost freshman Nolan Burch to an alcohol overdose at an unsanctioned fraternity event. 

The documentary, “Breathe, Nolan, Breathe,” was developed so that we can learn from our past and do better in the future. 

The Would You? materials will help not only West Virginia University, but also other universities to do the right thing. 

I also strongly urge you to visit safety.wvu.edu

The site contains important resources on hazing prevention, medical amnesty, what to do in case of an active shooter and more to help you be accountable for your safety. 

And please remember to call your family. They worry about you. 

Taking care of each other also means knowing that promoting mental health and well-being is among the greatest challenges facing universities today. 

Family issues, pressures from social media and a certain instability dominating our lives, nationally and globally, all contribute to this challenge. 

According to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, higher education counselors today are treating more students than ever before for mental health challenges, primarily anxiety, stress and depression. 

According to a major survey by Cigna, Generation Z — the current college-going population — reports higher levels of loneliness than any other age group. 

Most tragically, the suicide rate for young adults has risen by 51 percent over the past decade. 

Our University cares about each of you — and giving you the tools to thrive has never been more important. 

Because mental health is so critical, the University has provided budget enhancements for: 

Our Carruth Center for Psychological and Psychiatric Services is the hub for the mental health initiative. 

One of the positions the Carruth Center is hiring is a behavioral health clinician primarily dedicated to drop-in and emergency interventions. 

The crisis text line, which can be accessed by texting “WVU” to 7-4-1-7-4-1, is part of our increased support for psychological emergencies.

The “stepped care” model enables students to access clinical interventions that meet their need for specialized long-term and short-term care. 

It involves a more robust partnership with WVU Medicine to develop collaborative care in Student Health, the Emergency Department and Behavioral Medicine. 

This will enable us to provide longer, more specialized mental health care for students and will enable clinical staff to more efficiently coordinate emergency and ongoing care. 

The Carruth Center is also partnering with Behavioral Medicine to develop a Healthy Minds University: a mental health clinic that offers longer-term and more specialized counseling billed to insurance. 

We will continue to provide short-term counseling at no cost to students at the Carruth Center. 

And we are developing interventions that foster resilience, including adding resiliency-based content for University 101 courses.

Other initiatives include “Let’s Talk”, a nationally recognized model for walk-in consultation hours at various on-campus locations that was originally developed by Cornell University, and new programs that teach higher-level coping skills and increase students’ connections and support within the University community. 

I want you to remember: On this campus, you are never truly alone. 

We have students from all 55 counties of West Virginia, all 50 states and more than 115 countries – and each of you arrives with a unique viewpoint, honed from your own experiences. 

You have probably never heard of Scottish minister Ian MacLaren, but you have probably heard his words quoted: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” 

Kindness and empathy are especially important as we enter what is sure to be a contentious presidential election campaign. 

Unfortunately, universities reflect the splintered state of America today. Tragically, some campuses have become settings for disruptive behavior. 

How did this happen? How have we come to a point that we cannot celebrate our individualism for fear that we may tread on someone else’s thinking? 

I encourage you all to read, or re-read, Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” He celebrated individuality and freedom and would abhor groupthink. 

We need a collision of ideas rather than a narrowing of conversations. Let’s make West Virginia University a place where hard thought — and therefore strong disagreement, independent judgment, and the questioning of stubborn assumptions — can flourish in the environment of the greatest freedom. 

I certainly to do not mean that we should accept truly rude, disrespectful or intolerant behavior. But we must find ways to agree and disagree with respect. To let people explain themselves. To defend our own principles calmly and thoughtfully. And, occasionally, to give ourselves the uncomfortable luxury of changing our minds. 

If we are to improve our university, our state, our culture and our world, we must live with sincerity and bend always toward growth and betterment. 

In closing, I am reminded of our campus read this year, the memoir, “Educated,” written by Tara Westover. 

She received only occasional homeschooling from her survivalist parents but taught herself enough to enter college and eventually earn a Ph.D. from Cambridge University. 

“An education,” she wrote, “is not so much about making a living as making a person.” 

Stories like Tara Westover’s, Katherine Johnson’s, Dylan Vest’s and Amina Kunovac’s remind us what an education is worth. 

My hope is that you are always able to recognize the value of the education you have received at West Virginia University. 

I want you to take pride in being a Mountaineer and in our University’s many successes, as I take pride in your achievements and our shared work to create a vibrant learning culture. 

As you move forward in your academic journey, define yourself not by your major, but by your mission. 

When facing obstacles, hold fast to your purpose. 

When doubt threatens to pull you down, spread your wings and take flight. 

And know that West Virginia University will always help you soar to your polar star. 

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