University of Vermont

University Communications

Suskind's Convocation Address Inspires Class of 2012

Release Date: 09-02-2008

Author: Jon C. Reidel
Phone: 802/656-8206 Fax: (802) 656-3203

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ron Suskind told the most diverse class in UVM history why interacting with people from different backgrounds would make their college experience far richer than if they stayed within their own social circles. He used the experience of researching his best-selling novel about the journey of an African American teenager from a poverty stricken section of Washington D.C. to Brown University to prove his point.

Suskind's 1998 book, A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League, was required summer reading for the approximately 2,450 members of the class of 2012 who filled Patrick Gymnasium on Sept. 1 for convocation. Suskind, who spoke for about an hour and received a standing ovation, mixed moving observations about his relationship with Cedric Jennings, the main character in A Hope in the Unseen who went to one of the worst high schools in America, with humorous stories about growing up in Brooklyn with a domineering Jewish mother, and powerful quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. and other inspirational leaders.

"I wanted him to tell me what it was like to be in his shoes for a day, for just five minutes," said Suskind, whose book was based on a Wall Street Journal series that won Suskind a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. "What's it like to look through your eyes. So we became a team — a tall, young African American kid and a middle aged lumpy Jewish guy." Suskind added that every member of the incoming class, which hails from 38 states and 10 countries, came to UVM with their own dogmas. "Examine those dogmas in daylight and discard the ones that are no use," he said.

Suskind has spent the last few years traveling the globe to write some of his recent books including New York Times No. 1 bestseller, The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O'Neill; The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of its Enemies Since 9/11; and this year's The Way of the World. During those travels he said he's constantly reminded of how lucky we are in America to attend such incredible colleges and universities. "I've traveled all over the world and I've heard people say, 'If I could just send my kid to one of those places I'd do anything, anything.'"

In one of the more poignant moments, Suskind recalled driving from Washington D.C. to Brown with Cedric and his mother Barbara. None of the other parents spoke to her when they arrived in Providence except for one who asked if she was someone's maid. Suskind became enraged at the question and was saddened further when Barbara started becoming self-conscious about her diction. "It was a place she couldn't relate to," said Suskind. "When we were about to leave she told Cedric to trust in God and to let him guide you." The last thing she said to Cedric before she left was, "You be good."

Suskind said Cedric graduated from Brown, eventually earned a master's degree from Harvard, and is now a 31-year-old social worker in Washington D.C. The author closed with a quote from Theodore Parker made famous by Martin Luther King Jr. "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice," he told students. "Grab that arc and pull it with all your might."

In addition to Suskind's talk, welcoming words were offered by President Daniel Mark Foegl; John Hughes, senior vice president and provost; Gov. James H. Douglas; Robyn Warhol-Down, president of the Faculty Senate and University Marshall; and James M. Taylor, president of the Student Government Association.

Following convocation students made the traditional walk down Main Street to the University Green for a twilight induction ceremony. The largest class in UVM history, which has the highest percentage of ALANA (Asian-American, Latino, African-American, Native American, and multi-racial) students (eight percent) in school history, was officially welcomed on the green as candles lit the night and music played.

Read President Fogel's remarks here: