UChicago welcomes new students with virtual Orientation events

Opening Convocation ceremony, Aims of Education address kick off O-Week

Committing to education in the middle of a pandemic “is the definition of education as self-love,” Prof. Melissa Gilliam told new University of Chicago undergraduates this weekend.

Gilliam spoke as part of this year’s Aims of Education address, a nearly six-decade tradition in which a faculty member welcomes students into UChicago’s intellectual community.

She delivered messages of hope and encouragement to incoming students in her virtual address, which was pre-recorded in an empty Rockefeller Memorial Chapel following health and safety guidelines.

“Start with loving yourself because the pain, fear and uncertainty of the task ahead of us is quite daunting,“ said Gilliam, Vice Provost and the Ellen H. Block Professor of Health Justice. “Don’t beat yourself up or speak to yourself with negative words, because you are here to learn.”

After moving into residence halls earlier this week, this year’s incoming students are taking part in the College’s first-ever virtual Orientation Weekend. Orientation introduces incoming first-year and transfer students to longstanding traditions, campus resources and academic life in the College, as well as the transformative experiences and community of scholars that make UChicago an intellectual destination.

On Friday morning, students virtually attended Opening Convocation, the College’s formal welcome to the University community. The webcast of the ceremony included remarks from President Robert J. Zimmer and Dean of the College John W. Boyer. Although Opening Convocation was not held in person for the Class of 2024, the pre-recorded ceremony still featured many of its hallmark traditions, including the bagpipe procession through Hull Gate.  

In a speech that touched on the legacy of Czech politician Tomáš Masaryk, whose statue stands on the Midway Plaisance on campus, Boyer emphasized the importance of the undergraduate Core curriculum.

“One cannot understand the history of the 19th century, or the troubled consequences of the 19th century's decisions for our own time, without understanding the historic worlds of faith and of reason that so inspired Masaryk’s time,” Boyer said. “You might want to keep that proposition in mind the next time you pass by the huge horse and medieval knight sitting at the east end of the Midway.”

On Friday night, students participated in the Aims of Education address, a UChicago O-Week tradition dating to 1962, in which students are asked to reflect on the purpose and definition of education as they embark upon their collegiate years.

Gilliam recounted the story of Georgiana Simpson, AB’1911, PhD’1921, who, as a Black woman, was not allowed stay in the same dormitory as white students. That Simpson persevered under such circumstances was a testament to her love of learning—and of herself.

“The point of education is to be different and to stand out,” Gilliam said. “So much of high school is conforming to structures imposed upon you by others: the same set of classes, the same set of achievement tests, and the same advanced placement exams. But in your college essays, we didn’t ask you about how similar you were to everyone else; we did not even make you take college entrance exams. We asked you to tell us what makes you unique.”

“Regardless of what the world may sometimes tell you, being you is your gift,” she added, “and that is why we are so pleased you chose to join the University of Chicago.”

Following the address, groups of students participated in live Zoom discussions with UChicago faculty members.

During Orientation Weekend and the first week of classes, students have the opportunity to connect and get to know each other through a variety of virtual events, including a presidential debate screening, yoga, tours of UChicago museums, and open mics and improv comedy shows.

“I definitely look forward to meeting other people, especially putting faces to a lot of people I’ve been talking to online through summer programs,” said Kenatu Habetaslassa, a first-year student from Cincinnati, Ohio, who was moving into the new Woodlawn Residential Commons on Tuesday. “It will be interesting to see what they’re like in real life.”

Prior to arriving on campus, undergraduate students participated in an online orientation, designed to help students develop foundational knowledge of the University's values, expectations, structures and resources. Incoming graduate students will be welcomed to UChicago with a virtual convocation Sept. 28 at 10 a.m., featuring comments from President Zimmer, Graduate Council co-presidents Kimberly Liu and Rohail Premjee, and several other speakers.

UChicago will continue to support students throughout Autumn Quarter and the rest of the 2020-21 academic year. Upcoming programs include the Academic Opportunities Fair and the Student Activities and Resource Fair, held Sept. 30 and Oct. 2 via the Brazen app.