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Opening Convocation: Embarking on a quest of discovery

  • Beth Comstock at a podium
    Convocation:  Beth Comstock '82 encourages the new students to embrace discovery.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • A crowd of students sitting in chairs facing the Wren Building
    Convocation:  Hundreds of new undergraduate and graduate gather in the Wren Yard for the ceremony.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Peggy Agouris at a podium
    Convocation:  Provost Peggy Agouris, who started at W&M in July, speaks at the event.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Students unfurl a Class of 2023 banner
    Convocation:  Aria Austin '21, president of the junior class, and Suhas Suddala '22, president of the sophomore class, unfurl the Class of 2023 banner.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Ginia Anderson, Katherine Rowe and Sonia Kinkhabwala
    Convocation:  Assistant Director of Student Financial Aid Ginia Anderson (left) and Sonia Kinkhabwala ’21 (right) received the 2019 President’s Awards for Service to the Community from W&M President Katherine A. Rowe (center).  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • President Rowe walks through a hallway in the Wren Building
    Convocation:  President Katherine A. Rowe walks through the Wren Building after the ceremony.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Students offer their hands in greeting to new students
    Convocation:  Members of the campus community line the sidewalk from the Wren to the Sunken Garden to greet new students.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • A new student smiles while walking through the greeting line
    Convocation:  A new student smiles while walking through the receiving line.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Student high-fives another student
    Convocation:  A student offers a high-five to a new member of the campus community.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Make room for discovery and give yourself permission to act while writing your own story, Beth Comstock ’82 told William & Mary’s new students Aug. 28 in the Wren Yard.

“I really hope one of your motives in being here is to wonder, to discover,” she said. “I’m really big on discovery, and to me discovery is about infusing yourself with a spirit of inquiry and curiosity. It’s about turning the world into a classroom; it’s about learning and unearthing ideas that lead to something better. I’m talking about a learning that goes way beyond what happens here at William & Mary, it’s far beyond the campus.”

Comstock, former vice chair of General Electric, offered the advice as the keynote speaker for the university’s 2019 Opening Convocation ceremony. The annual tradition, held on the first day of undergraduate classes, marks the beginning of the academic year and serves to welcome new students to the university.

{{youtube:medium:left|OhuPtgSF2KE, The welcome walk}}

Provost Peggy Agouris, who started at W&M July 1, joined the new students in celebrating their first Convocation.

“Even though I was always aware of the reputation of William & Mary, I have been amazed by what I have been discovering every day since I have been here,” she said. “The breadth and depth of this institution, the quality of the people, the warmth that I’ve received are remarkable, and I will never forget that.”

President Katherine A. Rowe, who celebrated her first Convocation last year, declared the 327th academic year of William & Mary to be officially underway and received the Class of 2023 banner on behalf of the freshmen from the presidents of the sophomore, junior and senior classes.

“At Convocation, we celebrate everyone who is beginning their careers at William & Mary,” she said. “Walking through these doors for the first time last year was a powerful moment for me as a newcomer to William & Mary. This walk through the Wren signifies the start of a new chapter in our lives. The experience of being new, the instability it generates and the opportunity it creates for us and brings us together here as a community today, these are our themes today.”

'Start now'

When Comstock came to W&M as a freshman, she intended to become a physician or psychologist, she said. However, the biology major went on to become a science journalist, which led her to a career in media and business. She held numerous positions with General Electric, NBC, CBS and Turner Broadcasting/CNN. At GE, she was the company’s first chief marketing officer and first female vice chair, leading innovation efforts. At NBC, she was the president of integrated media.

“My career — biology to a corporate vice chair — was not a straight path. … My guess is that your path will unfold that way, too,” she said. “That’s a good thing. You need to be ready for the unexpected. You need to be open to it, to what’s next, what’s new, and unfortunately, once you leave here, that gets harder. And if you’re not careful, it may start to get harder while you’re here.”

Although many organizations “have a really hard time with the unexpected,” Comstock used her natural curiosity and appetite for discovery to find success. With the world growing increasingly complex and change occurring at an accelerated rate, people with imagination and creativity are needed to solve problems in new ways, she said.

“The calling starts right now for you to wander and wonder, to build what I think is really important — a lifetime practice of discovery,” Comstock said. “It’s not going to come from a line of code or a spreadsheet. It’s not going to come from feeling accomplished because you’ve done everything on the checklist. It’s not going to come because you followed the prescribed order of the way things are. The challenge now — right now — is to open yourself up to new ideas, to new people, to new places.”

{{youtube:medium:left|weEWexYBI_0, The conclusion of the keynote speech delivered by Beth Comstock during Opening Convocation exercises at William & Mary. Watch the full speech on YouTube.}}

Comstock’s experience at William & Mary helped her shape her own story, which deviated from the one she had about herself as a “small town Virginia good girl.” She challenged W&M’s students to craft their own stories, too, owning their past but also leaving room for discovery, ambition, trial and error.

“Story is about vision, and every organization, every team, every person has to have a vision,” she said. “It’s about what you value. It’s about taking action. I’m convinced story is the glue that binds us. It makes the future.”

Comstock also advised students to give themselves permission to take risks as they embark on a quest for discovery and begin to write their stories.

“You really just don’t live this prescribed life where everything is perfect,” she said. “You blunder your way toward creating one you love. With enough discovery, experimentation and time, the future comes out of your imagination. It’s very powerful, and I say, why not start now?”

Warm welcome

Two members of the campus community were honored for their community service work during the ceremony. Sonia Kinkhabwala ’21 and Assistant Director of Student Financial Aid Ginia Anderson received the 2019 President’s Awards for Service before Rowe encouraged the attendees to “bring it in.” As she closed the ceremony, Rowe offered a few tips for what was about to happen next.

“This is a big moment,” she said. “Savor it.”

A few minutes later, the students began a procession through the Wren Building and were greeted on the other side by a sea of cheering students who formed a raucous reception line, stretching well into the sunken Garden.Students walk through a crowd of people lined up to greet them. (Photo by Stephen Salpukas)

Hope Fuller ’21 and Olivia Wilson ’21 were among the throng of the people welcoming the new students with high-fives, signs, pep band music and cheers. They attended the ceremony — with about half of their former freshman hallmates — to watch Wilson’s roommate, Kinkhabwala, receive her president’s award before they hurried to the other side of the Wren to greet new students.

“It’s just so comforting to know that a huge majority of the population of the school is there to greet you coming in, and they’re here to support you whatever you need,” said Wilson. “I feel like that’s such a comfort coming to school where everybody wants you to be here and you will find your place.”

Fuller agreed, saying that the experience meant a lot to her as a freshman and she wanted to give that to new students.

“It’s so exciting for me because after two years, it’s still my dream school, so I just want to share that excitement with everybody else,” said Fuller.

Lauren Fanning ’23 from Boston and Katherine Hunter ’23 from Huntsville, Alabama were the first students through the receiving line.

“It was better than I expected,” said Hunter. “It was nice to see everyone’s smiling faces and being so warm to us, especially as freshmen. I was a little nervous about coming into the college and being new, but it’ a great way to get integrated into the school.”