August 28, 2021

The "twisties"

Good morning. Class of 2025, transfer students, Eli Whitney students, and Visiting International Students, welcome to Yale!

I am Marvin Chun, dean of Yale College. Joining me on this platform before you are the officers of the university, the heads and deans of the residential colleges, and the deans and staff members of the Yale College Dean’s Office. We are all so pleased to be with you today.

Family members and friends who are joining us remotely, we extend our warm welcome to you, and we thank you for everything you have done in guiding these young adults. Congratulations on this proud and happy moment.  

Class of 2025, in the entire 320 year history of Yale College, you are the greatest entering class ever – in number, with 1,815 of you joining as new students this year. And for the first time in at least half a century, we are hosting Opening Assembly on Cross Campus. This is a place you will come to know well because you will be spending so much time here, in Sterling Memorial Library behind me, and in Bass Library below us. Surrounding us are 3 of the 14 best residential colleges in the world: behind you on your left, Grace Hopper College, at your front left, Trumbull College, and flanking the platform, Berkeley College, where my wife, Professor Woo-kyoung Ahn, and I raised our two children when I served as the head for nine years. To my right, there is the Women’s Table, designed by alumna Maya Lin, celebrating what is now 152 years of co-education at Yale and 52 years of co-education in Yale College. To the far right, a short block away, is the magnificent Schwarzman Center, a newly expanded hub for student life. 

Our campus, more grand than ever, is embedded within the city of New Haven, also more vibrant than ever. And within what is now the state of Connecticut, Yale acknowledges that indigenous peoples and nations, including Mohegan, Mashantucket Pequot, Eastern Pequot, Schaghticoke, Golden Hill Paugussett, Niantic, and the Quinnipiac and other Algonquian speaking peoples, have stewarded through generations these lands and waterways. We honor and respect the enduring relationship that exists between these peoples and nations and this land.

In my role as dean, I have the privilege of supporting President Salovey’s mission for Yale to be the research university most committed to teaching and learning. What that means is that I am here to make sure that you get the best liberal arts education and extracurricular life that Yale has to offer, in the classroom and outside of it. A good part of what you will learn here will come from the faculty who will teach you in the classes you take, while much will come from your peers and colleagues. Taken together, these teachers of yours will give you the liberal education that is Yale's hallmark. By the time you graduate, you will have furnished your mind in the broadest possible sense, not by pursuing narrow, specialized study but instead by searching for new knowledge, new perspectives, new ways of looking at the world, and by adding your own. If you make good use of this place, you will discover fields of knowledge that are completely new to you, that you haven't even heard of, and you will open yourselves to them and learn from them.

To help you get as much as you can out of your four years here, you will get plenty of advice along the way. But here is some of my own to get you started: Before you even start thinking about academics, start with the basics: take care of yourselves, not just your own self but the people in your lives. Start by listening to what your parents and guardians have been telling you all along: get enough rest and sleep, eat healthy, exercise, and spend time with your friends. In the excitement of the discovery awaiting you, it’s easy to forget this good advice, so remember it in the months and years ahead. And there’s more beyond these basics, and it’s just as important if you want to flourish here.

This past summer, the Olympic Games were held in Japan, and one of the biggest international stars was American gymnast Simone Biles. She is arguably the greatest gymnast of all time – she has won 32 Olympic and World Championship medals, including four gold medals in the 2016 Olympics. She can perform routines of unprecedented difficulty. Basically, she can fly.

With her performance at its peak and expectations higher than ever, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that she would take home every gold medal in women’s gymnastics. But she started off poorly, then withdrew from most of her events because of the “twisties,” a disability that caused her to lose her awareness of her balance and body position, both critical to performing complex gymnastic routines. Pushing forward risked serious injury. So, to front page headlines, Simone abruptly withdrew from most of the competition.

Her choice did prevent her from being injured, but it did more than that: it also gave her teammates the chance to compete and to gain both individual and team medals. Simply put, she showed how caring for yourself can also be a way of helping others.

Some people say that winners should never quit, that they should always grind forward, sacrificing everything, even their health and safety. According to this philosophy, withdrawing is a sign of weakness. I disagree. I am a neuroscientist; I don’t distinguish between the mind and the body. I see physical performance, brain fitness, and mental health, as interdependent. I applauded Simone’s choice.

So did many professionals, who saw her withdrawal as form of strength. She had the maturity and confidence to step back to avoid injury to herself and to avoid putting her teammates at a disadvantage. Simone did not succumb to outside pressures to gain more medals. She didn’t need them to be valued and respected. And whether she knew it or not, performance research shows that people achieve their best when they are not trying too hard, but instead striking the right balance of exerting themselves and relaxing. You need both.

And so I ask that you learn from Simone’s champion mindset. Every single one of you has earned your spot to be at Yale, the Olympics of higher education. You do not have to count on any test, assignment, or grade to prove your worth. What’s important now is to enjoy the process of learning and being in community with each other. You will feel stressed at times – Yale will surely challenge you – but it’s important to pace your efforts, and sometime that means stepping back, taking a deep breath, accepting help. You will find people everywhere who can provide it: faculty members, heads, deans and directors, advisers, counselors, coaches, chaplains, Yale Health, Yale College Community Care clinicians and wellness specialists, and your friends and family members. But also remember this: most of the time, others cannot remove the pressures you may feel – you need to do it for yourself. 

Caring for yourself and caring for others will help you learn from each other, and that is a lesson that will enrich your time here. Yale brings together the most interesting students from around world, so that you all can teach each other new ways of understanding. You have all earned a place in this community because of the promise you have shown in what you will contribute to it. When you get to know your friends joining you this year, you will find that you come from every possible walk of life, bringing with you every imaginable talent, every experience, every worldview. Learn how to draw on your different backgrounds, views, talents, and interests, and how to see the world through each other’s eyes. This takes effort and attention -- balancing effort and rest.

Quick demonstration: It’s one that shows a fundamental principle of psychology: we all experience the world differently.  Your program has an insert inside; take a look at it now.

Visual exercise 3

On the top, there is an ambiguous figure that can be seen in at least two different ways. Name out loud what you see.  Did you see a duck? Did you see a rabbit? Can you see it both ways?  The duck’s bill forms the rabbit’s ears. The rabbit’s nose is the back of the duck’s head.

Now look at the cartoon on the bottom of the page. Two armies face each other, each one brandishing a flag that has the same, ambiguous duck/rabbit figure on it.

Cartoon, two armies face each other in a standoff, both bearing banners of an image that can be interpreted as a rabbit or a duck depending on perspective, text underneath reads "There can be no peace until they renounce their Rabbit God and accept our Duck God."

A general stands in front of the army on the bottom, and he is urging his troops, “There can be no peace until they renounce their Rabbit God and accept our Duck God.” How can we help everyone understand that they are serving the same flag?

Our perceptual interpretations, our memories, and our thoughts, are all constructs of the mind, and they differ across people even when considering the same object, event, or evidence. Yale will expose you to views different from your own, and when it does, you can start by finding common ground with people when you don't agree with them. As Yalies, as our newest members of Bulldog Nation, you are all under one flag. With the sophomores, juniors, and seniors -- the alumni, faculty, and staff -- and with each other, you have common ground, an immediate shared bond that goes deep, to the intellectual curiosity and the commitment to community that have brought you all here.

You have just arrived at a place that values difference and actively seeks it out. It is how professors and students find and test knowledge, and it is how the university equips its students -- that's you -- to become leaders and citizens of the world. But here, the value of seeking difference is even more than that: here it is taken as an article of faith, it is the coin of the realm, it is one of the bedrock principles that governs us -- in and out of the classroom.

Let me assume that you have come here not only to find knowledge but also to learn how to live lives of consequence. If that is true, you have come to the right place. As you take your first steps, then, you will need to become comfortable with difference, not just to accept it or tolerate it but to insist on it. You will find guides everywhere, in the classes you will take, the activities you join, and most of all from the people joining you right now -- your peers and classmates. All of them are part of the liberal arts education that awaits you.

Your life at Yale has started, and as it does, here's what I hope you will do. Keep an open mind, defer judgment, and cultivate your patience. If you are a duck person, go find those rabbit people, and find common ground with them. If you are studying all duck courses, go find the rabbit courses, and see what they can teach you. And when you find yourself rallying around a duck flag, take a good, hard look at that rabbit flag across the field and the people rallying around it, and remember that you are all Yalies.

Members of the Class of 2025, transfer students, Eli Whitney students, Visiting International Students, you belong to Yale, and Yale belongs to you. Welcome!