William & Mary

Nicco Mele '99 to W&M students: Curiosity, hope will help heal broken world

  • Convocation:
    Convocation:  Nicco Mele '99 addresses the university's new students during Wednesday's Opening Convocation ceremony.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Convocation:
    Convocation:  The sophomore and junior class presidents, Laini Boyd '18 (right) and Jonah Yesowitz '19, reveal the Class of 2020 banner from the Wren balcony.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Convocation:
    Convocation:  Students hold fans with the ceremony program printed on them during Opening Convocation.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Convocation:
    Convocation:  President Taylor Reveley addresses the Opening Convocation crowd.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Convocation:
    Convocation:  New students walk through the Wren at the end of the ceremony.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Convocation:
    Convocation:  A member of the pep band performs as the new students walk through the Wren.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Convocation:
    Convocation:  New students are greeted by the campus community in a line stretching down into the Sunken Garden.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Convocation:
    Convocation:  Returning students high-five a new student.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Convocation:
    Convocation:  President Taylor Reveley (left) and Student Assembly President Eboni Brown '17 watch as the new students make their way through the welcoming line.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Convocation:
    Convocation:  President Taylor Reveley stands among the new students as they are welcomed to campus.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Curiosity and hope are essential to navigating today’s increasingly complex world, Nicco Mele ’99 told new William & Mary students Wednesday.

“William & Mary fed my curiosity, and that’s one of the best things that’s ever happened to me in my entire life,” he said.

The acclaimed entrepreneur and investor, known for popularizing the use of social media as a political fundraising tool, spoke to the Class of 2020 along with new transfer and graduate students during the university’s Opening Convocation, held in the Wren Yard. The annual event serves to mark the beginning of the academic year and welcome new members of the student body to campus.

{{youtube:medium:left|3ZLi88j720E, Welcoming W&M's new students}}

“Enjoy your time here — it will be filled with exploration, discovery and learning, both in and outside the classroom, with your professors and with your classmates,” said Provost Michael R. Halleran in opening the ceremony. “What you learn here, the friends you make here, the person you become here, will last a lifetime. As we wrote in accepting you into the College, ‘One Tribe, and now it's yours.’  Welcome to the William & Mary family.”

The courage to hope

A grant from the Charles Center allowed Mele, who majored in government, to pursue his interest in glassblowing while he was a student at William & Mary. Although he did not pursue the art as a career, being allowed to follow his curiosity was an important step in his development.

“Everything is complicated, and your curiosity will help you figure things out in small and big ways,” he said.

{{youtube:medium:left|0MRc-bJZfr8, Nicco Mele's address}}

Much of today’s complexity in the world is due to “nerds on a quest,” who brought advanced computing technology to the masses, Mele said.

“That’s a tremendous transfer of power out of big institutions to individuals, and it’s disrupted all kinds of things,” he said. “We see the disruption from Uber to ISIS. And it’s in navigating that disruption that curiosity will serve you well.”

But hope is also key, Mele added, recounting an anecdote about Robert Desnos, a surrealist poet and member of the French Resistance during World War II. [W&M Dean of Arts & Sciences Kate Conly is considered the English language expert on Desnos' work and wrote the most recent critical biography on him, Robert Desnos, Surrealism, and the Marvelous in Everyday Life.]

Desnos was captured and sent to a concentration camp, Mele said. One day, the poet was loaded into a truck with several other men, and they all knew they would not be coming back. During the somber transit, Desnos took the hand of the man next to him and, feigning a palm reading, told him of the long, happy future he had. Desnos continued spreading hope to each of the men until their boisterous reaction caused the truck driver to stop and take them back to camp. A few days later, it was liberated.

“We’re living in a moment of great brokenness,” Mele said, pointing to the country’s political process, economic challenges, natural disasters and terrorism.

“In the midst of all this, you must have the courage to hope,” he said. “You must have the courage to imagine a better and brighter day and you must take the curiosity that this institution will feed and use it to discover the innovative, incredible solutions that will heal this brokenness.”

New class, new banner

After W&M President Taylor Reveley officially declared the beginning of William & Mary’s 2016-17 academic year, Emily Thomas, senior class president, presented the Class of 2020 with a banner. Unfurled on the Wren balcony by sophomore and junior class presidents Laini Boyd ’18 and Jonah Yesowitz ’19, the banner will be hung in the Center Court dining area of the Sadler Center.

Additionally during the ceremony, two members of the campus community were honored. Jiajia Chen ’18 and Debbie Ramer, an instructor in special education at the William & Mary School of Education, received the 2016 President’s Awards for Service to the Community.

Ramer was honored for her work with such community organizations as the One Child Center for Autism, the Peninsula School for Autism and Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Greater Virginia Peninsula as well as WMSURE and the 1693 Scholars Program. Chen was honored for her work with the Food Recovery Network, Branch Out Alternative Breaks, Commonwealth Catholic Charities and the Sharpe Community Scholars Program.

As Reveley closed the ceremony, he encouraged the new students to allow themselves time to adjust as well as the occasional break and reminded them that they are now — and always will be — part of William & Mary.

“When you emerge from the Wren in a few minutes into riotous acclaim, keep in mind that you now have a place in the long line of William & Mary people reaching back to 1693,” he said. “William & Mary is now yours for all time coming.”

Walk through the Wren

Just a few minutes later, the students were able to experience that “riotous acclaim” in full force. As the new students walked through the Wren Building, they were greeted on the other side by a rowdy group of current students, faculty, staff, alumni and community members. The crowd stretched down into the Sunken Garden and offered new students an unending supply of high-fives and shouts of encouragement.

Sonali Gobin ’20 said that the experience “kind of felt like now we are part of the family.”

“It was very overwhelming, but in a really good way,” said Mackenzie Phalan ’20. “It was like coming home. I just felt really welcomed and just very happy.”

Sam Iden ’19, who was among those to welcome the new students, said that participating in the event is important because “it just kind of puts a face to the student body.”

Brett Walker '19 greets new students in his Colonial Williamsburg costume. (Photo by Suzanne Seurattan)“Coming to the school, you may know a couple of people, but you know it’s just a sea of people,” Iden said. “Until you come out of the doors and all of a sudden there’s just a thousand people screaming and welcoming you. It’s just motivation for a good year, I guess.”

Emmel El-Fiky ’19 echoed that sentiment.

“It’s gives you a chance to interact with the whole school at once,” El-Fiky said. “It’s like you’re walking into a community. You’re not just at freshman orientation.”

“And it’s actually a visual confirmation of what the community is here,” added Kathleen Meell ’19.

Brett Walker '19, a shoemaker in Colonial Williamsburg, came straight from work — in costume — to join the festivities, saying that he wanted to do for the new students what was done for him last year.

People often talk about how welcoming William & Mary is, Silvana Smith ’19 noted.

“And this just proves it,” Smith said.

Hannah Strouth '19 and Suzanne Seurattan contributed to this report.