John Legend gave the following candid interview to Wright State University staff before Freshman Convocation 2012.
Q: This is now the second time you’ve come to speak at Wright State. How do you feel about Wright State? What kind of connection do you have with the university?
A: “I’ve visited Wright State many times. I have family that has attended here. I grew up right down the road. Actually, it’s funny being here at the Nutter Center because when I was in high school that’s when the Nutter Center was built. Back in ’95, we came here on a field trip to visit the newly built Nutter Center. So it’s kind of wild to be here 17 years later to speak to the freshman class here at Wright State. It’s pretty exciting.”
Q: How would you describe how you feel about Wright State:
A: “I have a lot of affection for Wright State. I grew up right here in the vicinity. This is one of the biggest and most important universities and institutions in the local area. I definitely have a lot of affection for Wright State and for this area, this community.”
Q: Forty-three percent of students at Wright State are first generation students, according to a recent Student Diversity Report—that’s more than UC, Ohio State, Miami, Ohio U, Bowling Green and others. How do you feel about Wright State’s mission that says we are committed to transforming the lives of our students?
A: “I was a first-generation college student myself, so I’m always excited to see when kids are able to break the cycle, where maybe their parents weren’t able to get the kind of education that they are able to get. But somehow they persisted. They learned. They asked the right questions, did the right things to get admitted into college, and hopefully they’ll go on to graduate and go on to do great things. I do a lot of work in education, and part of my mission is to break that cycle, that even if your parents didn’t get a great education, even if you grew up in tough circumstances, you still have the opportunity to succeed if we put the right opportunities in front of you, put the right teachers in front of you, put you in the right schools. And so I’m glad that Wright State has a mission of accepting a lot of students who are first-generation college students.”
Q: In 2009-2012, a total of 8,655 Wright State students were involved in academic service-learning, resulting in 932,638 hours of service—almost 1 million in a year. It earned Wright State (for the second straight year) a spot on President Obama’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll. What are your thoughts about Wright State’s commitment to community service and the importance of community service?
A: “I think it’s such an important time in a young person’s life to be in college, to be learning, to be studying how the world works, to have conversations with your classmates. But another part of it is learning how you can serve, learning how you can be a contributor to your community, learning how you can use the knowledge that you gained to help someone else, tutoring, mentoring, doing whatever you can to pass along the good fortune, the blessings that you’ve had, the learning that you’ve had, and pass it along to other people.”
Q: Recently the National Survey for Student Engagement (NSSE) found Wright State to be a Top 10 school (out of 563 institutions) in student engagement. How important is it for universities like Wright State to foster active student engagement to effect change?
A: “Kids really have to understand that this time you are here, that you’re in college, and this time that you have access to all of these resources, you still have to go out and get them. You’re an independent person now. When you’re in high school, you’re a bit more spoon-fed, you’re a bit more directed and guided. When you get to college, it’s time for you to take the reins for your own education. That means being proactive in all sorts of things. That means meeting with your professors after hours, discussing things with them, continuing to read, continuing to think critically, to challenge whatever your assumptions were. It takes that kind of tenacity, that kind of initiative to really make the most of your college experience.”
Q: Tom Hanks recently praised Wright State’s arts programs saying, “Wright State not only has one of the most outstanding arts programs in Ohio, but one of the best in the entire nation.” What’s your impression of the arts programs at Wright State?
A: “I’m not very familiar with the arts program here, but I’m always celebrating the arts and I’ve always understood how important it was to education because I know how important it was to me throughout grade school, throughout high school and into college, how important having arts education and arts outlets, the ability to perform in school, the ability to work with other performers. That made me who I am. For Wright State to cultivate that, it means that Wright State understands how critical of a component it is of a great education.”
Q: Wright State is one of the few universities that host public hearings by the Ohio Civil Rights Commission and was instrumental in establishing the Ohio Civil Rights Hall of Fame. Why do you think it is important for universities like Wright State to educate students about civil rights?
A: “I think universities have an important place because, one, they are keepers of history. I think sometimes in America in political discussion, in discussion about how this country works and society works, sometimes we have amnesia. We don’t remember all of the things that have happened in our past and contextualize that to help understand what’s happening currently and what might happen in the future. So I think universities have an important place because they’re effective keepers of history and they pass that history along to students. So an effective university will say, ‘Let’s understand the roots of these issues.’ So when you talk about civil rights, let’s understand America’s history with civil rights. Let’s understand slavery. Let’s understand Jim Crow. Let’s understand the battles and all the fights that ensued as we tried to work our way out of the oppressive system of slavery, out of the oppressive system of Jim Crow, and into a place where all men were created equal and treated equally. And we’re still struggling to get to that place when we look at the criminal justice system, when we look at the educational system, and even now when we look at voting rights. Any reading of American history is not complete without understanding the fact that the right to vote for every citizen, for every adult citizen, has been something that’s been contested over the years. We’ve had a tension in this country where we decided that certain people were valuable enough to vote and certain people weren’t over time. Certain people were granted full citizenship and certain people weren’t. So when you understand that history and you bring that to 2012, even in Ohio where there are fights being had right now over who can vote and when they can vote and over strategies to try to suppress the vote here in Ohio and Pennsylvania and other states around the country, understanding our American history and the struggles that we’ve had with civil rights, with voting rights is important to understanding what’s happening right now. So I think it’s that our universities continue to teach our kids what happened and how that relates to what’s happening right now.”
Q: Wright State was recently named a “Top 5 disability friendly school” in the book, College Success for Students with Disabilities. How do you feel about that, and where does that fit into your priorities about improving access to college for all Americans?
A: “That’s a wonderful thing that Wright State is so committed to the disabled and giving them access to all these rights, all the resources that everyone else has. My mission in life really, my philanthropic mission, has always been about giving people opportunities to succeed, giving people opportunities to access a quality education, giving people the opportunity to achieve the American dream. And that extends to everyone. If you believe in equal opportunity, you have to believe in equal opportunity for all. And that includes black, white, Hispanic, Asian, the disabled, no matter who they are. A university that’s committed to equality for all is a great university in my opinion.”
Q: For the third year and a row, Wright State has been named “military friendly” by G.I. Jobs magazine and Military Advanced Education in part because Wright State has classes tailored specifically to veterans. I know you’re a big supporter of our troops and veterans. How important is it for universities like Wright State to cater to our veterans now that many of them are coming home?
A: “This area has always respected the military. We’ve got a lot of folks that work in the government and work with the military in this area, at Wright-Patt. And I’ve grown up around that. My dad served in the National Guard. I’ve had lots of relatives that were in the military as well, some currently serving right now. So I think it’s wise of Wright State to understand that our returning soldiers are an important part of our society. And they have so much to offer society. But they also want that opportunity to refine their skills, refine their learning, and prepare themselves for the job market. Wright State has taken advantage of that. I think that’s a great thing.”