UF's 6,400 freshmen convene at O'Dome


University of Florida students recite the school's honor code during the UF Class of 2017 New Student Convocation at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center Monday.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Monday, August 19, 2013 at 3:06 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, August 19, 2013 at 3:06 p.m.

About 10,000 people - University of Florida freshmen and their families and friends - filled the O'Connell Center to be officially welcomed by President Bernie Machen, Provost Joe Glover and other officials.

If there was a common theme, it was to make the most of the next four years, broaden horizons, make new friends and have new experiences. They were also given advice to go to class, complete their assignments and meet with their professors during office hours.

Monday also marked the official beginning of the academic year, with classes scheduled to start on Wednesday. After the convocation, the students, who were grouped by their colleges and schools in the auditorium, left the O'Connell Center for orientation sessions.

“This is the beginning of your intellectual journey,” Jen Day Shaw, associate vice president and dean of students, told the class of 2017.

Vasudha Narayanan, distinguished professor of religion, told the students to embrace their independence and define their futures.

“You get to be the scriptwriters of your own life,” she said, telling them to write high goals, be flexible and find time to enjoy themselves.

She capped her speech with a loose sanskrit translation of “Go Gators!”

The incoming class was in first grade during the 9/11 attacks, and started high school after President Barack Obama, America's first black president, was elected. They have seen vast changes in technology, ongoing wars in the Middle East, and their country stumble back from a major recession.

“You've taken the toughest classes, worked hard to get good grades and finally made it here to the University of Florida,” President Machen told the group. “I am so proud of you.”

The average admitted freshmen this year has a GPA of 4.3, an average SAT score of 1967 and an average ACT score of 30. They come from more than 40 states and more than 30 countries.

“We hope to challenge you academically,” Machen said.

Reading a Facebook post from a 2008 graduate of UF, Machen said these next four years will define who the students become and how the world will perceive them to be. Make new friends, try out for new sports and new cultural experiences, he said.

“We believe in the power of the written and spoken word,” said Provost Joe Glover. “Your ability to communicate will define your future to a great extent.”

He told them UF valued rational thought and scientific inquiry and that they would be called upon to solve the world's many complex problems: climate change, sustainability, disease.

The mandatory convocation was the first and probably the only time all 6,400 incoming freshmen would be gathered together under one roof, as several speakers observed. They all were assigned the same book to read, ”A School for My Village,” written by the guest speaker, Twesigye Jackson Kaguri, founder of the Nyaka AIDS Orphan Project.

Introduced in 2007, the Common Reading Program was designed to encourage a sense of community among each incoming class, said Dave Kratzer, vice president for student affairs. Each book is designed to expose students to global issues and a sense of giving back.

Kaguri's memoir tells about his experience growing up on a small farm in a village in Uganda, going to university in Kampala and becoming a visiting professor at Columbia University in New York. After the death of his brother and sister to AIDS left their children parentless, Kaguri returned to his village to build a school for orphans in his hometown who had lost their parents to HIV and AIDS.

He told the UF freshmen the story of an older man who taught children outside his house each morning, who broke a pencil into five pieces to share among the students.

“In Uganda, a pencil costs two cents. Parents can't even afford one pencil,” Kaguri said. “Imagine your life hanging on one pencil.”

He told students to keep that in mind whenever they get discouraged about passing a test or completing a work assignment, to thank their parents for their good fortune, and consider how they can be agents of change.

Edward Voor, 18, a mechanical engineering major from Fort Lauderdale, said he connected personally with what Kaguri said. In the eighth grade, Voor said, he raised money to buy personal electric fans for school children in the Philippines.

“It's really good what he does for his country,” Voor said.

Edward's mother, Ione Voor, said she was proud of her son's desire to contribute to society.

“We raised him to give back,” she said.

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