Arrivals and Departures

Message from the President

William L. Fox ’75

“Not snow…nor night keeps them from accomplishing their appointed courses with all speed.” 

The desire to leave home—is it natural or is it learned? Is it in the code of human evolution? Or is it the call of human curiosity? Leaving home for college was, for most of us at St. Lawrence, our most pivotal experience of independent travel, the gangway moment of first seeing the broad world, and the symbolic departure from Ithaca in the human story of eternal return.

Learning to travel remains vital in a residential liberal arts college. The initial distances are not consequential, but they are memorable. It does not matter if it is 50 or 500 miles from the family door latch. Once the life journey begins, once the desire to go is realized, the new lengths of travel will add up in subtle positive terms of becoming more confident and worldly about other places than the familiar home ground. 

Aiming at a horizon line was once proposed by a Chinese philosopher who said that to become a fully educated and wise person, one must read 10,000 books and travel 100,000 miles. Offhand, I can think of only one person who may have achieved both of those totals in a single lifetime. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. had a personal library of 12,000 volumes, and he likely read them all. He was also an avid traveler after he left home for college, often going away for months at a time, not counting his horrific battlefield experiences in the Civil War where he was seriously wounded three times. Holmes undoubtedly met the high standard of registering countless pages and indifferent roads. He would be the exception then, as he is now. After all, he lived a long life, two days short of his 94th birthday.

Any minimum requirements suggested by extensive reading or traveling as the means to become a complete person ought to vary from one individual to another. Otherwise, most of us would fall short. Set aside the self-evident benefit of learning and loving to read, the overall importance of learning to travel is its own life course. And the years in college need to give some attention to it both in concept and experience.

Let the argument begin with what is likely bred in the bone. Human beings have been traveling a long time, so why should we ever believe anyone gets to stay put forever? The probabilities, long and short, favor the idea that we are all in this world as strangers and pilgrims on our way somewhere. Travel is embedded in the core of the species. 

Research conducted at the Harvard Medical School on DNA has shown that people in northern Europe, such as families with long traceable lines of French heritage, are descended from a mixture of populations, which is no surprise. But one of these main strands shared more ancestry with present-day Native Americans than any other population. There are many reasons (and speculations) why people needed to travel thousands of years ago, such as insufficient food and threats against security and survival. For whatever reason, the evidence is clear that people have always been on the move, going and seeing new places.

The other question posed, one of traveling for intrinsic reasons, perhaps out of curiosity or the pursuit of better opportunity, enters the realm of our purpose at St. Lawrence. Earlier generations of students, including my own, mostly assumed it was enough just to “go away to college.” Travel elsewhere was set aside for the grand tour after college, if a family had the means to do so, but almost never while in college. For those fortunate travelers, there were letters of introduction taken to Europe, and their luggage comprised of steamer trunks containing a range of attire for all occasions. By the time my era came along, the grand tour had devolved into backpacking on five dollars a day.  

Some would think, and be wrong, that encouraging our students to explore the world and insisting they learn to travel while in college is merely accommodating the dodge of spending all four winters in the North Country. In reality, more students at St. Lawrence participate in travel courses in the summer and fall than the months we still call, with a wink, “spring semester.” In addition, the home of our campus is rural, but not isolated. The world is already here—over 50 different nations are represented among our students. The American-born students come from three dozen different states. 

They all arrive as travelers, not yet fully formed as such. And then, most pointedly during the North Country winter, along the river or beyond the last house in the village, beside fallow fields, they are shown, perhaps for the first time, the text of a measureless landscape. From it they must extract important meaning about the spaces of the Earth and the scale of moving upon it.

Here, the deep drifted woods of a vast North Country stillness seem to prepare their worldview, often better appreciated later in life as surely different from all other places understood as home. In a play of physics creating features simultaneously endless and finite, they learn from this particular cold light and clear shadow that travel in such a world must always be seriously intentional. Travel is not to be confused with wandering. There is no margin for aimless rambling in an icicled college context, nor in “their appointed courses” later in life. In the North Country, weather sharp, the open space of winter teaches a person that if you begin to set out, you dare not hesitate or look back. 

Going into the world with that distinctive determination is a lesson larger than simply planning a trip and paying the fare. It applies to all our worthwhile endeavors, careers, and partnerships. It means that we are best suited for distances and places that are reachable, if also far. And yet, once the goal is set upon, it must be traversed in a singular, steady effort. A winter place teaches that lesson as we pass through its land. Learning how to travel, how to move through the world “with all speed,” gives every Laurentian a beginning, a middle, and a point of return.