Remarks by the President to the Class of 2024 at the Penn State President’s New Student Convocation

August 22nd, 2020

To the class of 2024, to those watching at home, and to those watching in future time, good evening, and welcome to Penn State. My name is Zachary McKay, and as the University Park Undergraduate Student Body President, I am honored to congratulate you on beginning this next chapter of your lives. While I wish that we could all be in-person today, I am grateful to those who are dedicated to keeping our community safe by wearing a mask, by practicing physical distancing, and by following all university, state, and local health guidelines. 

I want to first begin by acknowledging the distress, the pain, and the difficulty of the past few months. It’s been a lonely and draining time. Our circumstances, due to COVID-19 and remote learning, seem to be in contrast with ‘community,’ which is one of Penn State’s core values. And, now that you’ve started a new journey here, I can‘t imagine how uncertain things must feel to some of you. To those students, know that at Penn State, you have a family ready to help you. I, and your fellow Penn State students, are here to welcome you with open arms. You are family.

And, as we are now family, I want to tell you that while this time is difficult, it’s full of opportunities, too. The abhorrent murder of George Floyd and national conversations about racial injustice have elevated my, and our University’s, awareness of the need to be kind. And, by ‘kind,’ I don’t mean ‘nice.’ That’s a very important distinction. To be ‘nice’ is to be pleasing and to be agreeable; or, by saying “please” and “thank you,” you’re ‘nice.’ And, of course, those words are important — don’t get me wrong. But being kind takes on an entirely deeper meaning. Being kind means you stand up for others and for your values, even and especially when it may be difficult or daunting. Being kind means engaging in anti-racism and in actively fighting against systems of oppression. 

Kindness, too, means caring about and fighting for the mental, the emotional, and the physical well-being of others. It means wearing a mask and practicing social distancing to help keep others around you safe — not just yourself — and reminding those who aren’t to do so, too. It means that you treat your fellow students like the family that they truly are — with love, dignity, and respect, which all deserve, no matter who they are; and, challenge them to live their values and act with kindness, too. Being kind means thinking critically about the ways we can acknowledge the pain of others and work, every day, to be a better friend, partner, peer, and family member. 

Your years at Penn State will test you in ways unimaginable. College is difficult! Remember to be kind to yourself, too. This, of course, means standing up for yourself by starting difficult conversations with friends, by asking professors for an extension (or two, or three), and by calling home to ask for help when it’s needed. It also means standing up for your values, by challenging those who aren’t treating you appropriately. And, please, please know that we, as your family, are here to help you be kind, too. Get to know each other, us, and Penn State from a safe distance! 

This evening, I urge you to make a lifelong commitment to kindness. Wear a mask and help keep others safe, and challenge others to do the same. Stand up to what you know to be harassment. Challenge racism and sexism, challenge anti-semitism and islamaphobia, challenge homophobia and transphobia, and challenge xenophobia, even when it might be difficult. Register to vote, and exercise that right to vote which so many have fought to acquire. Show love, even when it’d be easier to get upset. The character and conscience which you develop because of this commitment will surely remain with you the rest of your lives. And this commitment will enable us to develop that “community,” even if it looks different than how it has in the past. 

On behalf of the University Park Undergraduate Association — welcome to Penn State. We are excited to have you. 

And now, I have the honor of announcing a special tribute to the Class of 2024, played by the Old Main bell chimes. First, you’ll hear the alma mater, and then, the bell will ring twenty times to officially ring in the 2020 school year. Open your windows, have a listen, and enjoy.