President’s Letter: “Borders Don’t Confine an Inquisitive Mind, a Compassionate Heart, and a Courageous Spirit!”

When I arrived as a student here in 1975, I had never ventured far from the United States. My mind-opening studies in European cultural history soon took me to France, where later I would live for some years. When I returned to Wesleyan as president, I had never been to Asia, but it wasn’t long before I was traveling to Japan, Korea and Vietnam with the Freeman family to help choose finalists for their scholarship program. In the last decade, I have traveled annually to China, often linking these trips with visits to Singapore, Hong Kong and India. Everywhere I go, there are Wesleyan contingents to welcome me. These can be alumni who graduated decades ago, or parents of current students eager to share how happy they are with the education their children are receiving in Middletown. And I’m always encouraged when I meet talented young high schoolers—whether in Mumbai, Seoul, Taipei or Shanghai—who have heard about what Wes has to offer and are so very eager to be accepted into its vibrant academic community. In the last year or so, Kari and I managed to sneak in a trip to Europe, and there too, I found excellent, well-prepared students imagining themselves as thriving participants in Wesleyan’s brave, creative endeavors.

Of course, Wes has been plugged into the wider world for a long time. More than once I’ve heard the story of Professor Dick Winslow going to see President Vic Butterfield to ask about expanding the music department beyond the canonical Western works. With a green light from South College, the beloved music professor went forth and returned with the seeds of what soon grew into one of the great ethnomusicology programs in the world. Today, the South Indian music and dance program is the envy of many in the field—even in South Asia!—and the gamelan orchestra continues to attract devotees from around the campus and around the world. I remember asking for African drumming on the day of my inauguration because for me those beats provided some of the most memorable rhythms of my undergraduate years. Today, Korean and Japanese drumming are popular among students, some of whom play to great fanfare for graduating classes at Commencement.

The danger of listing examples like this is that I’m bound to leave something out. The still-new Fries Center for Global Studies helps coordinate many of the myriad ways that Wesleyan is connected with the world—including, of course, the curriculum. I have met with a number of Wesleyans engaged with refugees, like Ahmed Badr ’20, featured in this issue of the magazine. Some have been doing the work for decades, and others are just beginning to engage through study abroad programs or internships. I like to say that my friends Jessica Posner ’09 and Kennedy Odede ’12 (on the cover of this issue) grew up together on this campus, and now they have inspired thousands around the globe. Sophie Zinser ’16, who was a student of Kari’s in the College of Letters, helped start the Wesleyan Refugee Project while an undergraduate and then found fellowships to continue her work in Amman; this year she is in Beijing as a Schwarzman Scholar. Borders don’t confine an inquisitive mind, a compassionate heart and a courageous spirit!

Over the last decade or so we have more or less doubled the percentage of international students on campus in Middletown. Many come from East and South Asia, but we also are welcoming more students from Africa, South America and the Middle East. The world is coming to us! 

And Wesleyan graduates go out into the world, taking with them what they have learned in studying and living together. In some places, they may find a resurgence of reactionary resentment and bitter nationalism, but I am confident that Wesleyan students are prepared to deal with that too. They have experienced the power of an education that refuses to be diminished by borders—be they those that isolate disciplines or those that block human connection.

How lucky we are to be at Wesleyan when we are so open to—and engaged with—the wider world!