Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
St. Philip's Academy Role Model Lunch
Newark, New Jersey
Tuesday, April 20, 2004
Thank you, Danielle [Harrison], for that wonderful introduction.
Danielle and I have spoken by telephone, when she interviewed me for a school project. But, until today, we had not met in person. I am happy to meet Danielle, at last.
Like Danielle, and the other students of St. Philip's Academy, I grew up in an urban community. In my case, the city was our nation's capital. And, like Danielle and the students of St. Philip's Academy, the importance of teachers and role models upon my growth and development can not be overstated.
Therefore, being singled out today as a role model for the students of St. Philip's Academy — along with Mr. William J. Marino, president and CEO of Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey — is an honor upon which I place great value.
To be a role model, especially to children who aspire to achieve excellence in all that they do, is to touch the future in the most powerful and lasting way imaginable. To be a role model is to enable and to shape the potential accomplishments of others — people whose impact may stretch well beyond our own.
A role model is not unlike a mentor, especially when the role model is a knowing participant in the nurturing and modeling relationship. I hope you will indulge me as I spend a few moments delving into the history of the word mentor. Since childhood, when I discovered great pleasure in translating Latin passages — for fun — I have had a passion for words, and I still enjoy exploring the roots of our language.
The contemporary meaning of the word mentor — a wise and loyal adviser or counselor, a teacher or coach — comes to us from Greek mythology and Homer's epic poem The Odyssey. But, before I tell you the story, let me provide a little etymology.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) tells us that the root, men-, means to think, to remember, to counsel. (The suffix -tor is simply the masculine form, as in, for example, executor; the feminine being executrix.) The OED description goes on to say that the word mentor "possibly may have been invented or chosen by the poet as appropriately significant."
You may recall that Odysseus, hero of The Odyssey, was ruler of the island kingdom of Ithaca. Now, Odysseus and his wife, Penelope, had a son named Telemachus. Faced with the necessity of leaving the child for a prolonged period of time while he went off to fight in the Trojan War, Odysseus called upon his loyal friend, the elderly Mentor, to watch over his son.
Whether or not Mentor was, in fact, a good watchman and guide is open to discussion by students of the poem. However, there is general agreement that Telemachus, was a favorite of Athena, the goddess of intellect, and that Athena often assumed Mentor's shape in order to act as the youth's guide and adviser. Before Odysseus eventually returns, Telemachus, nurtured by Athena in the guise of Mentor, becomes a mature, self-confident, and assertive young man.
But, whatever the history of the word, the importance of role models, mentors, and exemplars in my life is indisputable.
I was fortunate to have had teachers who pushed me very hand. They asked for excellence — nothing less — and, they had no tolerance for excuses or second-rate performance.
I understand that the teachers at St. Phalip's are also demanding. Good. I know — from personal experience — that setting high standards leads to high accomplishment. Students need to be helped and encouraged, absolutely, but that help should be focused toward the goal of extracting excellent results.
Equally important is the role of adults — inside and outside of the classroom — in helping young people to envision success by pointing to appropriate role models and mentors. Today there are many more success stories than when I was a girl — examples of women and minorities, people with handicaps, refugees and inner city dwellers, arriving at the very top of their professions in business, in academia, in engineering, and in the sciences. But many of these role models are not always highly visible. The media are full of the questionable examples. The role of the teacher and parent and adviser is very important here.
The late Dr. Ralph Bunche, a towering American and the first person of color to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, once said, "If you want to get an idea across, wrap it up in a person."
That is why I am gratified to see so many community leaders here, today, in support of St. Philip's Academy and its young people. This institution is a Newark treasure. It is a place where a child's sense of wonder is nourished, curiosity is rewarded, commitment and purpose are forged, and dreams are born. It is a place where children experience the excitement — and the relevance — of learning, and where the next generation of intelligent, hard-working, tolerant, disciplined leaders is being nourished.
As the president of a major research university, I believe we — you and I — have a sacred duty to open doors of possibility to these young people. Our nation cannot afford to lose even one talented child. But children need to be encouraged to dream big dreams and to see that those dreams are attainable. Then, with guidance, they need to develop the skills and habits and traits of character which will enable them to reach their goals. We should expect our children to seek out role models for themselves, but we should also show them where to look, and help them to weed through the possibilities.
Above all, we must be willing to be those role models ourselves. We must be today's Athenas and Mentors.
We, who are in leadership positions, must set personal examples of commitment, hard work, adherence to high ethical standards, and generous philanthropy in how we shape our institutions, in how we educate and nurture our young people, in how we speak to the larger society, and in how we conduct our lives.
As Dr. Bunche would say, we must wrap our ideals up in ourselves. We must personify the dreams of our young people.
Thank you for this honor. Thank you for your presence here, and thank you for all that you do with and for St. Philip's Academy. This is important work.
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.