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Hope in Challenging Times

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

Grand Valley State University Commencement
Grand Rapids, Michigan

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Good morning.

Greetings to the Board of Trustees, graduates, faculty, staff, honored guests, family, and friends.

I extend my heartfelt congratulations to the graduating class of Grand Valley State University. This is your day!

It is a special pleasure for me to be at Grand Valley today because President Haas is an outstanding fellow academic leader, a friend, and colleague with a connection to the university I lead. He earned a master’s degree at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and we were thrilled and honored when he returned to our Hartford campus in 2006 as our commencement speaker.

That, by the way, happened to be the same year in which our Hartford campus celebrated its 50th anniversary. How fitting, then, that I am here with you, today, at your commencement, as Grand Valley celebrates its first 50 years.

It may be hard to imagine that there was a time when Grand Valley was not here, but there was. Getting this university established was not easy. Indeed, one story that is appropriate to recall this morning is the way in which the “father of Grand Valley,” the late L. William Seidman, would drum up support for his then-unusual idea, back in the late 1950s, of establishing an independent, state-supported, four-year institution of higher education in West Michigan. As he has explained: “We started having meetings with all kinds of organizations … anybody that would listen … I would take out what we used to call a recording machine, and I would play ‘High Hopes.’”

Now, I do not know how many of you graduates — or even parents of graduates — actually remember that song. It was a big hit for Frank Sinatra. The lyrics were pretty catchy, but I will not (repeat: not) sing it for you.

But it starts off with rather a whimsical question: “Just what makes that little old ant, think he’ll move that rubber tree plant? After all, as the song points out: “Anyone knows an ant, can’t, move a rubber tree plant.” It seems that the ant is in possession of what are extraordinarily — one might even say, astonishingly — high hopes.

Likewise, Mr. Seidman had very high hopes for establishing a university here. And despite many hurdles, including a recession, unemployment, and a state budget deficit (sound familiar?), he was undeterred in bringing his dream — your soon-to-be alma mater — to fruition. He moved the rubber tree plant, although he was not an ant – by any means.

Mr. Seidman was motivated, in part, by the grand challenges of his time, which also offered great opportunities. This included the dawn of the Space Race in 1957, when the Soviet Union launched the first unmanned satellite, Sputnik 1. This undermined the U.S. belief that we were better than all other countries in mathematics and science. Suddenly, America risked falling behind technologically and scientifically. Sputnik jolted us into the “space race,” which was, in actuality, a defense-based “science and security race.” This set the stage for Congress to pass the National Defense Education Act in 1958, which provided funding for schools at all levels, for scholars in multiple fields important to National Security — including engineering, and for financial assistance to college students. The results speak for themselves – man on the moon, the explosion of scientific discovery and technological innovation — resulting in everything from semiconductors to the Global Positioning Satellite (or GPS) system, to the Internet, to the mapping of the human genome — and all that has flowed from these leaps.

Now, fast forward to today. What, then, are the grand challenges of your time? Certainly, one overarching issue today is the need for affordable, accessible, and sustainable energy. Over the past four decades, worldwide energy consumption nearly has doubled, and continues to grow — as emerging economies grow — making energy security a key challenge, which will require national and global solutions, and innovation of the highest order.

Coupled with this, is the fact that ours is a flattening and ever more interconnected world. Global economies are interlinked, which, in fact, enabled underlying economic and financial market weaknesses to take us to the brink of a global recession, and certainly into a national one. Contemporary threats and challenges — including terrorism, energy shortages, poverty, and disease — have no borders. Disasters and their causes — such as the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, turbulent weather, and political instability in the Middle East — reverberate worldwide.

These intersecting vulnerabilities have created a Sputnik moment — for these times — and have presented us with daunting challenges.

Which brings me to my question this morning: What is the role of hope in these challenging times? Does hope help us to solve problems, or is it a crutch? Does being hopeful motivate us to try harder, or does it lead us down a primrose path, with blind faith that things will improve? Were Mr. Seidman’s “high hopes” for a university a sound motivator, or was it wishful thinking, when naysayers said to give up? You know where I am going with this. Graduates, I ask you: what role will hope play in your lives?

Interestingly, perhaps a good place to search for answers is in Greek mythology, with the legend of Pandora’s Box. As you may know, the legend tells the story of Pandora, the first mortal woman, created from earth and clay by the gods. Zeus sent her to earth with a pithos — a storage jar — and warned her not to open it. But her curiosity got the better of her, and she lifted the lid. Out swarmed all the evils and miseries of the world — plagues, diseases, and myriad other horrors. She quickly slammed the lid shut, just in time to ensure that the one last thing left in that jar did not escape. And that thing was called elpis, the Greek word for “hope.”

Now, it is worth noting that there has been much scholarly debate about the meaning of this myth. Some take the view that hope is trapped inside that jar, withheld from us when we need it most. Others argue that hope remains inside as a blessing to mankind — like a candle lighting the darkness. Yet another interpretation is that, in fact, many good things flew out of that jar, and hope was the only good thing to stay.

Whether hope seems hidden from us — buried in our challenges — or is readily available; whether we imbue it with good, bad or neutral connotations, we still need and yearn for hope. We do not ever want to lose hope. Nor do we necessarily want hope to be perceived as something static.

That is because hope is a tool — hope is as hope does. Its effectiveness depends upon how it motivates us. In its best sense, hope helps us attempt the seemingly impossible. It helped establish an institution of higher learning where there was none. And it helped a nation embark on a race that ultimately put man on the moon.

Hope, in the form of patriotism and belief in others, motivated and enabled Ralph Hauenstein to make his way over glaciers in Iceland, during World War II, to retrieve the Enigma Code book, from a downed German plane, and bring it back to the Allies. Hope enables Robert Thompson to use his success to make an educational difference in the lives of thousand of children from the poorest neighborhoods of Detroit, and send them on for postsecondary education. Hope, in the form of determination, and with great mechanical skill, enabled my own father, serving in a segregated Army unit in World War II, during the Allied invasion of Normandy, to fashion, on the spot, a ruddering mechanism for amphibious landing vehicles whose rudders had failed, and in the process, save many lives.

Hope will help the people of Missouri, and of Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and other places rebuild their homes and their lives after the terrible destruction and loss of life wreaked by recent tornadoes.

Importantly, as you journey through life, hope can enable you to face your deepest fears, to pick yourselves up at your lowest moments, and to take calculated risks instead of settling for the status quo.

Journalist and peace advocate, Norman Cousins, has said “the capacity for hope is the most significant fact of life. It provides human beings with a sense of destination and the energy to get started.”

I agree. In fact, perhaps it is wise to think of “hope” not merely as a feeling that things will work out, but as a desire for success, fueled by three ingredients: optimism, commitment, and high aspirations.

Optimism sometimes is dismissed as being naive, but most successes are built on it. As long as optimism does not blind you to challenges, it can fuel your activities and sustain you through difficulties. Optimism can attract others to help when the inevitable obstacles appear. Optimism means not taking setbacks too much to heart — too personally. It means surrounding yourselves with positive people.

Commitment also is an essential ingredient for success. Commitment, with a purpose, draws the best from us. As I am sure you have learned, following through, in the face of adversity, teaches you much about yourselves. It makes you stronger and expands your vision.

Finally, we all need high aspirations. Many people show optimism and commitment, without the victories that should flow from them. Your aspirations should be worth your time and effort. My father always said, “Aim for the stars so that you can reach the treetops, and at least you will get off the ground.” In other words, if you do not aim high, you will not go far. I have always tried to follow my father’s advice, and I can offer no better advice to you. High aspirations can lead to large victories — which, sometimes, are the aggregation of many smaller ones.

Ultimately, your hopes should pave the way for others. As the Chinese writer, Lin Yutang put it: Hope is like a road in the country: there was never a road, but when many people walk on it, the road comes into existence.” Blazing new trails often rests on the shoulders of many, and this supportive community spirit — this sense of belonging — is what you have found here at Grand Valley. I hope you will carry it with you as become Grand Valley alumni/ae.

Graduates, I leave you to ponder: What great opportunities will you find, as you make your way in the world? Whatever your field or passion — whether you are pursuing a career in business, community service, engineering, computer science, health care, or nursing — rest assured that you will find opportunities and solutions — as long as you have optimism, commitment, and aspiration…or as Mr. Seidman would say: high hopes.

Graduates — Congratulations! And Godspeed!

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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