Prof. Travis Morris’s 2017 Norwich University Convocation Address

Office of CommunicationsNews, Z2

Photo: Prof. Travis Morris addresses NU's Class of 2021 at Convocation.
Norwich University Office of Communications

August 30, 2017

Associate Professor of Criminal Justice Travis Morris is a terrorism and policing scholar, who directs the Peace & War Center at Norwich University. He is the author of the recent book Dark Ideas, an exploration of how violent jihadists and neo-Nazis ideologues have shaped modern terrorism. On Tuesday, Morris addressed the Norwich community at Convocation. A copy of his prepared remarks follows.

President Schneider, Provost Afentio, deans, faculty, staff, guests, and most importantly the class of 2021: It is indeed an honor for me to be here today.

Incoming students, let me again welcome you to Norwich University. It’s a well-known fact that the audiences rarely remember what a speaker says. So with that in mind, I’ll be direct.

Each one of you is taking a risk by sitting there. Let me explain.

You face numerous challenges over the course of four years. And as you know, every challenge has two sides, success or failure.

As you think about your upcoming four years at Norwich, expect to be tested, intellectually, ethically, and some of you, physically. Expect to ask numerous questions. Expect to learn who you really are and make lifelong friends. Expect to emerge from Norwich more informed, service oriented, and a better person. I know that you have already thought about this and this is why you chose to come to Norwich. Norwich has been in the business of producing some of finest leaders, who have impacted countless lives around the globe and by sitting in those chairs, you aspire to join their ranks. You, however, are at the beginning of this journey, but you are not on this journey and risk taking alone.

The administration, faculty, and staff want you to succeed. We want you to excel and make us proud. But at the same time, we want you to be challenged, so that you leave here with the ability to make the world a better place. We know that some of you sitting here will reach the top positions in the military, government, corporations, academia, the arts, technology, engineering, medicine, law enforcement, and non-profits. We also know that some of you will face tremendous academic, personal, relational, and professional challenges during your four years. However, thousands have gone before you. But as General Sullivan states, “Hope is not a method.” You won’t make it back to these seats for graduation four years from now based on hope.

Taking risks is really a Norwich tradition. “I Will Try,” our motto, is really about taking a risk. That’s it. Norwich’s motto means that you take risks. You either make the shot or not. You either graduate or don’t. You pass the test or not. You either save the life or don’t. I also believe that “I will try” was never meant to be said in a comfortable chair or in a lackadaisical tone. Often the Norwich motto is uttered in stressful, uncertain situations with high stakes.

The first Norwich risk taker was our founder, Capt. Alden Partridge. You’ll pass his statue who knows how many times during your four years at Norwich. His ability to face challenges and take risks have impacted thousands. And you and everyone else sitting here today is part of his legacy. However, his actions took place a long time ago and have normalized over time. The courage required or the consequences of failure is often forgotten or taken for granted. It’s hard to picture Capt. Partridge sitting at his desk in 1866 after … the impact of the Civil War. He began the fall semester with only 19 students. Imagine the risks involved! Or Dr. Homer L. Dodge, former Norwich professor and president, was also a risk taker. Like Capt. Partridge, he challenged teaching conventions of the day.  He also visited a young man in Omaha, Nebraska, named Warren Buffet, before Buffet became one of the richest men in the world. Dr. Homer L. Dodge liked what he heard and invested thousands of dollars based on this young man’s advice, and guess what? That risk paid off. His thousands became millions. Taking risks can end in success sometimes.

If you allow me to offer you some points from my perspective that may be of benefit to you as you take risks and face the upcoming challenges during your time at Norwich. In some small way, I hope to share some lessons learned. These points are meant to assist you and come from serving as a Ranger-qualified infantry officer with the 10th Mountain Division, my years as a police officer, and as a criminologist at Norwich.

You cannot do it alone. You cannot do it alone. The United States Army Ranger School is one of the toughest training courses the Army has to offer. To me, a 22-year-old at the time, Army Ranger School was a lifetime of challenges, with the very real risk of failure crammed into a few months. Ranger students train to exhaustion, pushing the limits of their minds and bodies. Ranger School students learn whether they can lead or follow when tired, hungry, physically on the edge of exhaustion, and pushed to their often previously untested limits. Ranger School was more like getting into a car wreck. It was a collision, not a jostle. I learned that it is possible to actually sleep and walk at the same time.  At one point in the school I thought the sunset was a mountain rock ledge that I continually tried to step under but later realized that it really was a hallucination caused by carrying over a hundred pounds of gear, starvation, sleep deprivation, pushed physical limits, and the stress of being evaluated. To be sure, any soldier who attends Ranger School will be a better leader for it.

You see, no matter how prepared you are mentally or physically, you will break down at some point. You’ll have moments where you think you just can’t go any farther, and you need someone to tell you that there is only one mile left, someone to take 25 pounds of equipment off your back so you can make it up the mountain or through the swamp. You have a Ranger buddy, someone who you are paired with throughout the entire school if you both make it through. Your Ranger buddy not only helps, but becomes someone you don’t want to let down. You actually can do more than you imagine because someone is there to push and support you. Being a lone ranger is not the goal, and my Ranger buddy is a lifelong friend. There is a reason that some of you call each other Rook buddies—you need them.

You may not know this now but you soon will: You are surrounded by some of the finest faculty and staff in the United States. I’m honored to know them and call them colleagues. They are here to push you, challenge you. But also assist you to carry your academic load when you feel like you can’t go any further. Notice I said, “assist.” You still have to shoulder the weight. But they will both encourage you and hold you to a standard. They will see potential in you that some of you don’t currently. Some of them will spark an idea, offer a word of encouragement, challenge you in such a way that it will alter your life path. Some of you will stay in contact with them for the rest of your lives (or theirs), because they played a pivotal role in impacting you during your time here. So remember: You cannot do it alone. Depend on others. Find a mentor.

Own your mistakes. Some of you have been pulled over by a police officer. In another life, before academia, I used to be that guy who met you by the side of your vehicle. I have heard every excuse imaginable and those even unimaginable. These include, after finding drugs in a suspect’s pants pocket, being told with a straight face that these were not his pants. He just put them on at a party he just left. I never asked why he wasn’t wearing pants at the party in the first place. What I learned from those thousands of interactions with the public was that some people were honest, despite what they had done, and told the truth. They owned that they had broken the law. They had moral courage and recognized they had made a mistake when they, in fact, had.

You will make mistakes at Norwich. Some of you more than others. However, be honest and tell your professors, cadre, RA, parents, friends that you made a mistake. Corruption begins at the smallest levels at first, and then it will grow. Own your mistakes. Learn from them. Deal with the consequences and move on. Show yourself to be someone that others can trust.

Small tasks turn into large ones. Some of you in the distant future will write a dissertation for a PhD. While some of you this year will feel like you are working on a dissertation, you can be certain that the faculty will tell you that you are not. I look to my colleagues, who know how arduous, psychologically challenging, and difficult the dissertation process can be. Fifty percent of PhD students don’t finish and most of it has to do with not being able to finish the dissertation. During the dissertation process, you have a committee that reviews your work. When I was almost at the end of my dissertation, a committee member told me that I had to make certain changes. However, these changes would take over a year to complete. A year or more. The next day, as I sat looking at an empty computer screen trying to move the project forward and wondering how I was going to support my family, progress started with one small task. Putting words on a page. Words were soon typed on the screen, which then become sentences, which became pages, which become chapters and moved the project ahead one day at a time or really one word at a time.  The dissertation was successfully defended and that chapter closed.

Translation to you… . Don’t get overwhelmed by the challenge of your papers, projects, or labs. Pick one thing you can do, be consistent, and do it. These small things will eventually lead to completing a larger, much more complex project.

Put yourself in unfamiliar territory. In 2017, news about the nation of Yemen, which is located at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, involves war, al Qaeda, ISIS fighters, or the biggest cholera outbreak in decades. However, I was able to do some research there several years ago. Yes, those news headlines are unfortunately true. But they’re not the only Yemen. Just like there is never one side to a cube. One cannot simply paint a nation, region, or a people group with broad brush strokes. To me, Yemen reminds me of some of the most hospitable people I’ve ever met, amazing mountaineers, unsurpassed scenery, kindness, and a remarkable history. Being in unfamiliar territory can often challenge your own biases or assumptions. You leave seeing yourself and that territory with enlightenment.

You are in unfamiliar territory right now. NU is unfamiliar to you, the Corps is unfamiliar, university academics is unfamiliar, and Vermont may be unfamiliar. But, believe it or not, this will soon become your new normal. You and your environment will equalize. Don’t become stagnate when it does.

There are [many] nations represented at Norwich. Make it a goal of yours to welcome them, learn from them, and ask them questions. Going overseas does not have to involve physical travel. It can begin with the international student in your residence hall, classroom, or platoon. Study overseas if you can. And if you can’t, spend a semester overseas, participate with NU Visions Abroad or another overseas NU experience. Continue to find unfamiliar territory for you to explore.

Believe that you are talented. Every one of us is talented. Some talents are more visible and valued than others, but we all have them. I can remember a student in class a couple years ago who may represent, in some way, the way some of you may think right now. When I asked a question during class, he would almost always raise his hand and give a well-thought, articulate answer. One day after class, we had a conversation, and I was shocked to hear him describe himself as being “not that smart.” I disagreed and questioned why he thought this way and was told that he was not a good test-taker. He was told by a teacher in high school that he was not intelligent and should focus on athletics. Maybe he needed to learn how to take tests more effectively. Maybe others only saw his kinesthetic intelligence. Maybe he did not know the most effective way to process information. But somehow along the way, they missed that he was intelligent. Although this may not be the case for you, it’s important for you to find your true talents and be proud of them.

It is critically important for you to know that you are talented and to be confident in whatever it is you can do well, even to the point when others tell you the opposite. For some of you, you’ll discover your talents here at Norwich. You’ll find that you can write, translate, solve, interpret, mediate, create, make, and the list goes on. Believe in your talents.

Make the most of every situation. Like it or not you now live in Vermont. Make the most of your time here, enjoy it. This will become easier after your rook year. There are always positive rays of light no matter where you are. I agree, sometimes, depending on the circumstances, the rays can be very dim, but they are there. The challenge is to find them, but you can. But for you, you’re in one of the most beautiful parts of the country. Don’t become numb to the beauty around you, no matter what the season, and chose to make the most of this special place you now reside. Making the most of every situation is more about a philosophy than Vermont. Some of you, though you don’t know it now, will find yourself in very tough and unwelcoming places. Make the most of it, and try to see the best in others.

Class of 2021, you are beginning a journey that involves risk, but it will change you. Four years from now you will not be the same person. One of the rewards staff and faculty share is to see how you change from first year students to seniors. You will face challenges. You will fail and you will succeed. But in the end, when you are sitting here once again for graduation, you will be prepared to lead others through some of the most difficult circumstances this world can throw at you. Becoming that type of person does not happen by hoping it does or without thoughtful planning. For almost 200 years, Norwich University faculty and staff have helped students like you give the world hope and set an example of what it means to be a leader, work hard, make the right choice, and get the most out of life. When you walk past Capt. Alden Partridge’s statue remember that he was a risk taker. He worked with others. He was honest, talented. He made mistakes and made the best of situations. Your Norwich journey started a few days ago when you arrived on campus. Remember that you are not alone in this process. Use all of Norwich’s resources to prepare you to lead, serve, and impact the world. Four years will go by fast. So make the most of your time at Norwich. Make us proud now and in the future. We’ll see you in the classroom tomorrow.

Norwich Forever!