As Hope College launched its 152nd academic year with the entire incoming Class of 2017 gathered for the college’s Opening Convocation on Sunday, Aug. 25, speaker President John C. Knapp found an apt and multi-layered analogy in the many trees that have enriched the campus since the college’s earliest days.

Knapp, who became the college’s 12th president in July, noted that Hope’s first president, Philip Phelps, had even had the idea of using an image of a tree as an expression of the mission of the college.  “The tree, as he conceived it, grew many branches of learning as its roots deepened in the soil of the Christian faith,” Knapp said.

A recent survey of the contemporary campus, he said, chronicled 200 different trees representing some 40 species, which he also noted was an appropriate symbol on other levels.

“I think anyone would agree that our wooded campus is much more attractive because of our diversity of trees with their natural beauty in so many sizes and shapes,” Knapp said.  “The same may be said of your freshman class.  God made each of you a unique individual.  Together you make our life on campus more beautiful.”

“Now there is a tree that we will not find on our campus.  The giant Sequoia is the tallest tree in the world and can grow to heights of well over 300 feet.  You will never see a lone Sequoia towering over a forest.  The surprising fact is that it has shallow roots that reach out to embrace and support the roots of other Sequoias.  Like us, it can stand tall only in the company of others who support its growth.”

Approximately 2,000, primarily new students and their families, attended the convocation, which was held in the college’s Richard and Helen DeVos Fieldhouse.  The new students arrived on campus and began orientation activities on Friday, and the college’s fall semester classes start on Tuesday.

Knapp titled his address “Life Together,” echoing the title of the book of the same name by German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which considers the nature of Christian community.  Knapp explored Hope as “a community of learners, a people who learn together, and often from each other, students and faculty alike.”

“We devote ourselves to creating new knowledge and sharing it, he said.  “We strive for excellence in all that we do, and we invite others to hold us accountable for doing our very best.  We value learning for the sake of learning, believing that the pursuit of greater knowledge brings us closer to truth and is essential to a life well lived.”

“We believe that good scholarship is always done with integrity, for it violates everything we stand for to cut corners or to claim credit for work that is not our own.  We welcome civil discourse about issues on which we may not all agree,” he said.  “And we at Hope College add another dimension to the ideal of a dedicated community of learners, as our mission calls us to ask serious questions continuously about how Christian faith informs our teaching, learning and scholarship.”

As they conduct their journey at Hope, Knapp said, the students could count on a faculty and staff committed to providing them the best.

“We dedicate ourselves to providing an environment and learning experiences that will allow you to flourish,” Knapp said.  “All of us are eager to accompany you on a journey that promises to transform you in so many ways—intellectually, spiritually, physically and socially.”

At the same time, he noted, what to make of the journey will be up to the students.

“You will find that you have more choices and more autonomy to make your own decisions,” he said.  “You will find that your learning depends more than ever before on your own ability to motivate yourself.  You will find that with more freedom comes more responsibility for deciding how, where and with whom to spend your time.”

Amid the many opportunities to interact and learn with others and engage in the life of the college, Knapp noted that the students would also do well to find time to reflect on their experience.  Referencing Bonhoeffer’s book, he noted, “He speaks of the importance of community, of shared work and worship.  He describes a close-knit, mutually supportive group of learners.  But he follows this with a very important lesson:  It is also good and necessary at times to be alone for personal reflection, contemplation, meditation and prayer.”

Even as they are shaped by Hope, the students, Knapp said, will also shape the experience themselves, through how they choose to learn in community together.

“Commit yourselves to building genuine friendships with everyone you meet, especially those whose places of birth, or race, or ethnicity or life experiences might be different from your own,” he said.  “In so doing, you will be better, Hope College will be better, and in the long run the world will be better.”

Text and Audio of 2013 Opening Convocation Address by President John C. Knapp