New students get warm welcome, pep talk at UI convocation

New students get warm welcome, pep talk at UI convocation

CHAMPAIGN — Ann Abbott came to the University of Illinois from the small southern Illinois town of Coal City, where she went to school with the same 36 kids from kindergarten through 12th grade.

She couldn't wait to get to the "big city" and attend the University of Illinois, the first in her family to go to college.

Worried about fitting in, she tried to hide her "country" accent, where the verb "was" sufficed for every past tense: "we was," "you was," etc. She wondered if she could handle the workload or compete with kids from much larger suburban Chicago high schools.

"You may wonder about that, too," Abbott, now a UI professor of Spanish and Portuguese, told freshmen at the New Student Convocation on Friday. "You're here because you earned a place here, and we believe in you. We saw the potential in you to make the most of the opportunity Illinois offers."

Abbott told students they may have different accents or backgrounds or beliefs, but they share many of the same attributes, and they will all spend the next few weeks figuring out how to navigate the campus. She urged them to use the opportunity to discover new perspectives.

Abbott confessed that she came to campus with preconceived notions of what students from Chicago would be like, with their "big-city shiftiness."

She recalled meeting a new friend in her residence hall who invited her to dinner with her father, and they were supposed to meet at the front desk. Abbott said she waited a long time, but her friend didn't show. Abbott figured they decided not to go, or "she was just rude because — Chicago," she said.

Later, the friend asked why Abbott didn't show, saying they waited for her until 7 p.m. Turns out they had different ideas of "dinner" — where Abbott came from, that meant lunch, not supper.

'Don't do college alone'

Over time, she said, her assumptions about Chicagoans "melted away."

She also added a double-major, Spanish, to her psychology degree after finding learning languages "was fun, and I was good at it," telling students, "that's a good indication you've found where you should be."

Abbott studied abroad in Spain, earned two advanced degrees in Spanish from the UI, married an Italian and traveled the world. Today, she is one of the few faculty members named a University Distinguished Teacher-Scholar.

She has a passion for service and believes the best way to learn a language is through immersion, using it among native speakers. She introduced the Department of Spanish and Portuguese's first service-learning course, "Spanish in the community," where students work with immigrants at a refugee center in Urbana and a dozen other community agencies.

She urged students to put the knowledge they learn to use and try something that might make them uncomfortable at first. She also encouraged them to make time for friends, join organizations, take advantage of advising and ask for help when needed.

"Don't do college alone," she said.

Friday's convocation is held at State Farm Center each year to bring the entire freshmen class together and kick off their academic careers, with deans, top administrators and about 100 faculty attending in full commencement regalia. It also featured musical performances by the Varsity Men's Glee Club and Marching Illini.

'We are in this together'

Chancellor Robert Jones told students they are now part of a 150-year-old history based on the accomplishments, sacrifice and hard work of people who came here before them.

"It is going to change your lives, and it is going to be a lot of fun," he said.

He noted some students have followed their parents and grandparents to campus, while others are establishing a new tradition as first-time college students.

"You will meet people who don't look like you or think like you, and that's good," he said, emphasizing the diversity of ideas, political views and ethnicities on campus.

Provost Andreas Cangellaris pointed out the strength of the UI faculty, saying "these are your teachers. Get to know them. It is our people who make this campus the great institution it is."

Afterward, freshman Alec Thompson of Munster, Ind., gave the ceremony high marks. "It was really cool to see all the freshmen together in one room, to see the class and to hear the administration talk to us," he said.

Freshmen Erica Roy, Lisa Mei and Celeste Mora said it was interesting but expected it to be more "exciting" or informative.

"It kind of reminded me of a graduation," Roy said. "I wish it was more interactive."

Rain forced the campus to cancel picnics for the students Friday outside Memorial Stadium, but individual colleges hosted events for them in the afternoon. Students will gather tonight for "Sights and Sounds" at the stadium, to take a class photo and watch a movie, and Quad Day is scheduled for Sunday.

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