The incoming freshman class on the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus is shaping up to be among the U’s largest and most academically accomplished.
Still, as faculty and campus leaders gathered to welcome its roughly 6,200 members during Friday’s New Student Convocation, the overarching message was consistent: It’s OK to struggle. It’s crucial to ask for help.
Speakers at the annual event in 3M Arena at Mariucci, including new U President Joan Gabel, took turns stressing the importance of reaching out for help with both academic and mental health challenges. Gabel, who has elevated student mental health to a signature issue since taking office in July, struck a different tone than former President Eric Kaler did when he first took the convocation stage eight years ago, in front of a class of 5,360. Kaler, who went on to oversee a marked increase in on-time graduation rates, focused on the importance of finishing in four years. Under Gabel, the event highlighted wellness and self-care.
“We want you to learn and achieve, but we want you to stay well,” Gabel told students.
The gentler vibe reflected a new national focus on campus with championing mental health and creating a more supportive environment for students. The new president, the first female leader at the helm of the 168-year-old university, received raucous applause and a standing ovation from the freshmen who packed the arena.
It’s another impressive group of new arrivals, as Gabel pointed out about the class, the largest in roughly half a century and with the largest Minnesota student representation in nearly three decades. Official statistics on the freshman class won’t be out until October, but members are poised to raise the bar on academic credentials. The group includes 262 valedictorians, and it arrives with the most college credits racked up during high school of any entering class at the U. In fact, almost three-quarters of the freshmen have earned some college credit before arriving on campus.
Fall freshman classes steadily grew in size during Kaler’s tenure. The number of incoming students dipped last fall as fewer out-of-state freshmen showed up following double-digit nonresident tuition increases. It’s slated to rebound this fall.
Gabel said this latest class — hailing from 48 states and 49 countries — is the most diverse in a generation. Almost 2,000 new transfer students are starting at the U this fall, as well.
“You will learn a lot from each other, and we will learn a lot from you,” Gabel said.
She encouraged the students to seek out faculty and staff when they need help. She touted a close-knit sense of community she discovered on campus when she interviewed for the job in December.
“Be healthy. Be bold. Be inspired,” she urged the freshmen.
Other speakers also emphasized the benefits of staying connected and asking for help.
Alexis Murillo, a recent U graduate, spoke about arriving on the Twin Cities campus from her native Chicago seized by self-doubt. A high school teacher had told Murillo, the first in her family to go to college, that she wasn’t ready for the rigor of a four-year university and tried to steer her toward community college instead. Murillo spoke about tapping a slew of campus resources in her bid to prove that educator wrong: academic counselors, writing tutors and counselors at the U’s Boynton Health services, who helped her work through her insecurity.
“Being underestimated is sometimes a gift,” said Murillo, who finished her freshman year with a 3.8 GPA. “All you can do is silence the naysayers.”
She urged the freshmen to seek help, sharing her e-mail address and vowing to respond even if every single class member wrote her.
Provost Karen Hanson told the students that those who arrive trailed by high expectations can find themselves struggling too.
“Thousands of faculty and staff are on your side,” she said. “Come talk to us.”
David Fox, a professor in the earth and environmental sciences department, told students he has not been immune to mental health struggles and urged them to make a trip to the campus health center if they find themselves anxious or depressed just as they would if they were sick with the flu.
Gabel has said she plans to launch a major student mental health initiative early in her tenure.
“I am a new face on campus too,” she told the students. “Just like you, I made a campus visit, and I liked what I saw.
“For me, it was a place to call home.”