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Remarks to the Graduates

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

Clarkson University
Potsdam, New York

Sunday, May 9, 2004

Good morning. Thank you, President Collins, Chairman Welch, Trustees, Dr. Baltus, faculty, alumni, friends, distinguished guests, and — most especially — graduates.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Clarkson University share two things: a great rivalry and a great common purpose.

The rivalry is most directly expressed in men’s ice hockey — where we are fierce competitors. The common purpose is to educate those who would become the technological innovators and leaders of tomorrow.

Ironically, yet importantly, we recently came together in common purpose around our greatest rivalry in the successful effort to preserve our NCAA Division I ice hockey traditions. It speaks directly to the power of cooperation, when one transcends “one against the other” competition.

It is a delight that we have prevailed. It is an equally great delight to be here, today.

Having the privilege to lead one great technological research university and being a graduate of another, I have deep appreciation, admiration, and respect for what you, who are graduating today, have achieved to have come to this point.

I went to MIT in the 1960s. It was a time of great turmoil and change in our country, rooted in the civil rights struggle and the Vietnam War. I was one of forty-three women and five African Americans in the freshman class of 900 students. These were difficult times, and even though there was a lot going on, I lived a lonely existence. I was shunned by my classmates and left out of study groups. I worked alone. I did very well academically, but I was hurt and lonely. That isolation began to lead to alienation. But I was always taught by my parents — do not just succeed for yourself. Help someone else along the way.

I started doing volunteer work at Boston City Hospital in a pediatrics ward. There were children of all races with leukemia, orthopedic problems, and other ailments. There was one beautiful little blond-haired baby boy — perfectly formed — except that he had no real face: no eyes, just sunken spaces; no real nose or mouth, just openings. No one ever came to see him that I could discern.

Every day, when I came to the hospital, I would just sit and hold him for a while. He really seemed to like it. As I sat with him and looked around at the other children, I came to appreciate that life deals everyone a hand — no matter who they are — with good cards and bad cards. Some people have a tougher hand than others. I realized, then, that even though I was not being well-treated by my classmates at M.I.T. at the time, I was the lucky one. I had my health, ability, and an opportunity at one of the world’s great technological universities, and I decided I would optimize that experience. I did, and here I am today.

My lesson to you is simple. Count your blessings. Use them wisely.

Congratulations and Godspeed.

Thank you for this honor.

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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