President Eisgruber shares personal lessons of resilience with the Class of 2025

Written by
Denise Valenti, Office of Communications
Aug. 30, 2021

At Opening Exercises on Sunday, Aug. 29, Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber welcomed the Class of 2025 and shared with them lessons from a personal health challenge for facing moments of difficulty.

Eisgruber disclosed he was diagnosed with an acoustic neuroma, a type of benign, non-cancerous brain tumor that can cause loss of hearing, balance or the ability to control facial muscles.

“I hope you will have many happy experiences along the way, but I know there will also be moments of challenge and difficulty as you travel the path that lies ahead,” Eisgruber said. “As you begin that journey today, I would like to share with you a challenge that I have confronted recently, and describe four lessons that I draw from it and that might be relevant to your time at Princeton.”

This year’s Opening Exercises marked the official start of the 2020-21 academic year and the first time since March 2020 that Princeton has resumed full, in-person teaching and operations.

Opening Exercises dates to at least 1802, and it has been held in the University Chapel since 1929. The interfaith ceremony features the president’s address as well as hymns, readings, prayers and the awarding of undergraduate academic prizes. Classes begin on Wednesday, Sept. 1.

After leaving the chapel, members of the incoming class participated in the traditional Pre-rade. They were joined by members of the Class of 2024 — who were unable to attend in-person Opening Exercises last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic — and cheered on by other students, alumni, faculty and staff as they symbolically entered the front campus through FitzRandolph Gate.

Opening Exercises was videotaped and will be archived online for later viewing. Watch Opening Exercises on the University's YouTube channel. Opening Exercises and the Pre-rade also can be viewed on the University’s Facebook page.

Eisgruber expressed his excitement at the return of students to Princeton’s campus. “It is so good to see you and so good to be together,” he said. “I have missed these moments of collective joy and excitement over the past year.”

He told the students that doctors made his neuroma diagnosis five years ago during an MRI exam for an unrelated issue, and that his journey since has invited reflection on life’s challenges.

The first lesson Eisgruber drew from his condition was about how we discuss difficult topics. His doctor, in delivering the diagnosis, described the neuroma as a “benign growth that had probably been there for a long time,” when he could have described it as “a potentially fatal brain tumor.”

The news was difficult to process even when framed more gently, Eisgruber said.

“The quality of your Princeton education will depend on your willingness and ability to participate in conversations about sensitive and difficult ideas,” he said. “You might not need to discuss anybody’s life-altering medical diagnosis, but you will certainly need to talk about profoundly important and emotionally charged topics such as race, sexuality and justice.”

Eisgruber said his second lesson was about the value of science, institutions and objectivity. He expressed wonder at the medical understanding and technology that preserved his life.

“I hope that your Princeton education will increase both your scientific literacy and your capacity to sustain and improve our civic institutions,” Eisgruber said. “Those institutions desperately need our attention.”

His third lesson involved understanding the unseen challenges in our lives.

“Everyone has vulnerabilities, pain and struggles they conceal from the world,” Eisgruber said. “That is true no matter how impressive, authoritative or composed someone may appear.”

He encouraged students to seek out support when they need it and to remember that others share similar struggles.

“As you interact with people around you — including not only other students, but also faculty, staff and, yes, even administrators — I hope you will keep in mind that they may be dealing with troubles that you cannot see or that they are not ready or able to share. That condition is part of what makes us human, and one of the many reasons why we need to treat each other humanely.”

Finally, Eisgruber spoke of his humility at the realization that his condition was out of his control.

“We are all fragile and flawed, yet we can reach for the stars and do tremendous good,” he said. “That astonishing combination of weakness and courage is part of what defines the human condition. We share it without regard to race, national origin, religion, sexual identity or political belief. We share it across all the wedges that too often divide us.”

A combination of our human frailty and highest aspirations is what animates the University’s mission, Eisgruber said.

“I am happy, indeed, I’m downright overjoyed and exhilarated that you join that quest today,” he said.

The full text of the speech can be read on the Office of the President’s website.

Since their arrival on campus, members of the Class of 2025 have participated in Princeton’s three signature Orientation experiences — Community Action, Dialogue and Difference in Action, and Outdoor Action.

The students bonded through a variety of small-group activities designed to help ease their transition to college while learning about and engaging with the larger world around them.

Community Action, coordinated by the John H. Pace ’39 Center for Civic Engagement, introduces first-year students to community at Princeton and beyond. Dialogue and Difference in Action provides first-year students the opportunity to engage in critical conversations around identity, power, privilege and difference — both in the context of the Princeton University community and society at large.

Outdoor Action allows incoming undergraduates to disconnect from their many responsibilities and distractions to establish new friendships through activities such as camping, canoeing, biking and hiking.

The Class of 2025 also attended a Pre-read Assembly at McCarter Theatre Center with Eisgruber and Jennifer Morton, Class of 2002, the author of this year’s Princeton Pre-read book, “Moving Up Without Losing Your Way: The Ethical Costs of Upward Mobility.”

Published by Princeton University Press in 2019, “Moving Up Without Losing Your Way” examines the ethical and emotional tolls paid by college students from disadvantaged backgrounds seeking upward mobility and discusses what educators can do to help these students flourish. The book draws on Morton’s own experiences as a Peruvian immigrant and first-generation college student.

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