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Aim for the Stars

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

KAIST Commencement Ceremony
KAIST Sports Complex
Daejeon, South Korea

Friday, February 11, 2011

Good afternoon.

Graduates — I congratulate all of you for your achievements, and I thank you for including me in this very special day in your lives. I especially thank KAIST — its faculty, its president, and its Board of Trustees — for bestowing on me an honorary degree.

KAIST has leapt to the forefront as a globally recognized research university in roughly the time that I have been working as a professional scientist, educator, government official, and administrator.

The rapid rise of South Korea itself from an underdeveloped agrarian society to the prosperous and technologically advanced nation that it is today, has astonished and impressed the world. Much of this growth, of course, is undergirded by South Korea’s investment in science and technology, and the specialized education that KAIST provides. Industrialization and economic growth have been so rapid that South Korea has been given the title “Asian Tiger.”

In addition, in recognition of the growth and maturity of its nuclear program, and its efforts to support nuclear safety, South Korea was invited to join the International Nuclear Regulators Association (INRA) in 2006. Since its founding in 1997, South Korea is the only additional nation to be chosen to participate in this high-level forum for examining issues on matters of nuclear safety. The association has benefited from the expertise and wisdom of South Korea. I am especially gratified by this recognition of South Korea’s strength in the nuclear arena, since I spearheaded the formation of the INRA while I was Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

I will note that South Korea — looking toward the futurealso has taken the initiative to lead in making a commitment to sustainability and establishing a green economy. This was a topic of much discussion at the recent World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland. In fact, I moderated a session on this very topic where your own Dr. Han Seung-Soo, Chairman of the Global Green Growth Institute, spoke about South Korea’s very strong efforts in this arena. Taking care of our planet is one of the great challenges of our time, and South Korea is out in front, setting an example for its global partners.

Graduates — Your parents have seen and participated in the rise of South Korea as a leading nation, and they should be honored for their contributions. Their achievements demonstrate the power of optimism, commitment, and high aspirations. These qualities, which have served your country and your university so well, can be your allies as you pursue your professional careers.

Optimism sometimes is dismissed as being naive, but most successes are built on a positive attitude. As long as optimism does not blind you to the challenges you face or rise to unrealistic levels, it can fuel your activities and sustain you through difficulties.

In addition, optimism can attract others to help you attain your goals. Talented people are drawn to those who demonstrate optimism and confidence, and, often, their help can the deciding factor when obstacles appear.

The world is full of naysayers who can drain away optimism, so I hope that you resolve to do three things:

First, actively build your confidence by celebrating successes, even small successes.

Second, do not take setbacks — which are inevitable — too much to heart. Learn from them and move on.

Third, do not surround yourselves with people who have negative attitudes. Historically, for almost any achievement of any importance, there were those who stated in clear terms why such an achievement was impossible. There were emotionally charged warnings of risks, even disaster. Those who resist change are often more vocal, and eager to enter discussions, than those who support it.

Listen to their points, because all major endeavors do carry risk. As the interesting philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli said, “Never was anything great achieved without danger.”  And you want to accomplish great things, so learn about the risks, but do not let them deter you from your goals. You should be optimistic, because you have lived in the shadow of risk your whole lives, but look at what you have achieved to this point in your lives.

Commitment is also an essential ingredient for success. Each of you committed to the challenges of a rigorous technological education, so I am confident that you understand this. As I stated earlier, South Korea committed to the hard work of becoming a strong, vibrant nation. This university also committed to creating the platforms, attracting the faculty, and developing curricula and standards that have transformed it into an internationally recognized leading research university.

To take one example of commitment, it probably was not easy for KAIST to follow through on the decision to guarantee that all lectures would be given in English. Even as a native speaker, I understand that English is one of the most difficult languages to master, and I suspect some of you struggled to learn it. It might have been easier for your leaders here, with students already faced with an aggressive, technical curriculum, to create exceptions.

But something happens when a decision is clear and firm. Commitment, with a purpose, draws the best from us — in creativity, effort, and character. For all the benefits in global participation that English brings to KAIST, this community also benefits from having faced a difficult challenge, together, and met it.

You will find that following through, in the face of adversity, will teach you much about yourselves. It will make you stronger and expand your vision.

The third ingredient is high aspirations. Many people who are optimistic and committed have lives filled with small victories that do not add up to what they should. Your aspirations should be worth the time, ingenuity, and effort you put into them.

My father always said to his children — to me — “aim for the stars so that you can reach the treetops, and at least you will get off the ground.” I have always done so, and I can offer no better advice.

But what are the elements of high aspirations, and how do we identify the best goals?

Those who are not yet leaders, and seek to be, are wise to study those who are. KAIST investigated the best universities, looked at the aspects that made them excellent, and assessed what might be done to close the gap. A plan was formulated to accomplish this goal. Now, I developed a similar plan to promote excellence at Rensselaer, so I know the power of that important step.

But I also know that, for any such plan to be meaningful, there also must be vision — a determination of what will be necessary for leadership in the future.

Chuck Yeager, the U.S. test pilot who broke the sound barrier, has spoken of “pushing the envelope.”  Surely, if you never have had setbacks and you have not taken on tasks that seemed beyond your scope, you have not “pushed the envelope.”

So, part of high aspirations is being willing to take reasonable risks. But that is not enough. Yeager’s aspiration — to fly faster than anyone else ever had — was aimed toward defense. It became one of the building blocks to space exploration. Those were high aspirations. For Yeager, they came from looking at the world around him and listening to people who were attuned to emerging needs and possibilities.

And something new, perhaps surprising, should be included in aspirations. Yeager’s aspiration motivated him enough to break the sound barrier — which was truly new in aviation history.

Now, one of the legacies of the great history of Rensselaer is that one of my predecessors as president, John Winslow, secured the decision to build the first ironclad warship in the U.S. Navy. As a matter of fact, as a lesson in commitment, he underwrote its construction — with his own money — when the U.S. Navy refused to do so.

Our history books point to how critical this ship was to the Union’s victory in the American Civil War. And, often, the story is told as a lesson in American inventiveness and determination. It took impressive engineering to build an ironclad in 1860.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered accounts of a Korean ironclad, the “turtle boat,” that was launched in 1592.

Contemporary accounts vary on whether it had iron plates or simply iron spikes as protection, but there is no disputing that this was a ship ahead of its time — the U-shaped hull provided excellent stability for its cannons; it had both oars and sails for increased maneuverability; and the dragon’s head prow fumed fire and shot cannon balls — making it a powerful weapon of real and psychological warfare.

The ship, with all its innovations, took on a larger fleet just a day after it completed testing. It won. In fact, it won all of its 23 battles.

Korea’s opponents were surprised by this fabulous ship, but, perhaps, they should not have been. And the world should not have been surprised by the achievements of South Korea or how KAIST rose to find itself among leading universities in less than thirty years. This is because throughout history, Koreans have demonstrated creativity and achievement.

The essentials of achievement — optimism, commitment, and high aspirations — are found here in abundance. They are your inheritance.

Integrating these into your lives, in ways that will make the best use of your talents, requires deliberate effort, practice, and forethought. They will not appear on their own. You have done much already to prepare for the challenges of our times. They are myriad: energy security, climate change, global poverty, diseases without borders. So my wish for you is that you will continue to develop these characteristics so that you can make great contributions to South Korea and to the world.

Thank you very much. Good luck.

Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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