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Rensselaer’s 198th Commencement Address

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

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Harkness Field
Troy, New York

Saturday, May 15, 2004

As president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, it is my duty, my honor, my privilege, and my very great pleasure to welcome you to Rensselaer’s 198th commencement exercises.

For the faculty, staff, and trustees, this is the day when we can take pride in the fruits of our work. Graduates: We truly are proud of you. We salute you, and we share in the joy of your accomplishments.

For your parents, your spouses and partners, and your families and your friends, this morning marks the fulfillment of years of anticipation and dreams. Let us thank them for the sacrifices they have made to help bring you to this moment.

Graduates, your achievements today have a ripple effect in the world. They impact your loved ones, your classmates, your professors, and the staff at Rensselaer, and, soon, your new colleagues at workplaces and graduate schools around the globe. And, you, now, are taking your places alongside thousands of distinguished Rensselaer alumni who have gone before you.

As a group, you have traveled countless miles to be here at Rensselaer. Some have traveled short distances, while others have come across states, countries, continents, and oceans. Now, you go out into the world as people with bright promise, eager, I am sure, to make your marks.

What does it mean to be educated in our increasingly complex world? At a very basic level, it means that you have mastered bodies of knowledge, information, skills, and experience in disciplines, and that you can bring all of this to bear, successfully, in real-world situations. In fact, Rensselaer graduates are known for an ability to solve problems, and for their talents for working collaboratively with others to accomplish great things.

We saw an inspiring example of this, recently, when more than a dozen Rensselaer graduates played important roles in the Mars Rover Project. Your drive to innovate, to create, to discover, to delve into the mysteries of the physical, natural, and aesthetic worlds, ensures that your education will not end here, but it will continue, throughout your life to astonish, surprise, and delight you.

To be truly “well educated” in today’s world, however, means so much more. Education is a habit of mind. It demands that we nurture and feed our curiosity about the world around us. A Hebrew proverb says: “Teach thy tongue to say, ‘I do not know.’” You are an extraordinarily knowledgeable group, but every day the world offers us opportunities to put aside our preconceived ideas and opinions, and to open our minds to new ways of thinking and being. Seize these opportunities.

Well-educated people, also, must have truly multicultural perspectives, striving to learn more about the constellations of cultures, societies, and experiences of those around us – and, of those whom we will never meet. Indeed, lack of understanding is at the root of so much of the conflict that plagues our world. We need well-educated people, such as you, our graduates, to do the work, in your own ways, of healing the rifts that separate us, one from another.

While much of your education demanded precision, accuracy, and exactitude, there is a great deal in our world that is complex and ambiguous. Maturity is often defined as the ability to accept ambiguity, and, nonetheless, act decisively. I believe this capacity also defines a well-educated person. While it is important that we have a principled sense of what is right and ethical, the acceptance of complexity and ambiguity is an important aspect in the ability to think constructively, and to act positively, despite uncertainty.

Indeed, I have believed, always, that three words embody the spirit of the well-educated person: excellence, leadership, and community.

But, rather than defining these qualities in the abstract, let me tell you about two Rensselaer graduates, present and past, who exemplify these three threads which, ideally, should be woven through our lives.

Desiree Croteau, who, today, will receive a master’s degree in management from the Lally School, is an example of the pursuit of excellence and leadership in the face of incredible challenges. More than eight years ago, Desiree, an active businesswoman with a child, suddenly lost her eyesight. She admits that after the initial shock, she went to a “dark place,” emotionally. But, she did not let her loss of sight stop her from continuing to run her financial consulting business, nor from enrolling – and excelling – in Rensselaer’s graduate management program. In fact, she will go on to study for a Ph.D. in management operations at Rensselaer next year. She does not stop there. Desiree works hard to give back, and to make education and career excellence possible for many more with physical limitations. She said: “My blindness is the reason I am excelling. Blindness is an unforgiving teacher. I have learned the value of learning. I love it. Now, I have a thirst for knowledge.” Desiree, please stand.

Sean O’Sullivan, Class of 1985, was one of the founders – along with other Rensselaer student-entrepreneurs – of MapInfo in the mid-1980s. As many of you know, today, MapInfo is a successful global mapping software company, and one of the leading companies at the Rensselaer Technology Park. Sean left the company in 1993 to pursue other interests – including music and filmmaking. Today, he heads an organization, which he initiated, based in Baghdad called JumpStart International, which employs more than a thousand Iraqi citizens to tear down and clear the hundreds of buildings destroyed during the war. Sean believes that improving the cityscape, in this way, will help the inhabitants to see signs of recovery and progress, while providing desperately needed jobs for Iraqis. Sean has been in harm’s way on numerous occasions. He is using his own personal wealth to fund this work, even as he looks for other financial supporters. This is unpaid work for Sean. He said: “I figure I can give a year of my life to do this, sort of like my own Peace Corps.” His impact—his commitment to community - that community—is sure to last much longer.

Sean and Desiree exemplify excellence, leadership, and community in action. They changed their worlds to receive a Rensselaer education, and they are using their Rensselaer educations to change the world, for themselves and for others. I could add any number of you as examples of these attributes, and I am proud of you—all of you.

While I am speaking of excellence, leadership, and community, I want to add that in our thoughts today are the men and women serving in our Armed Forces around the world. Among you, here, today, are family, friends, and loved ones of those who are serving or will soon serve. As we celebrate today, let us also reflect upon our gratitude for the service and devotion to duty of our service women and men, who are doing the right things, doing the honorable things, doing what our country expects of them, to the standards we expect—every day.

In a few moments I will be privileged to bestow upon each of you a Rensselaer diploma. Think of this day as the threshold to new adventures in your lives – a new opportunity to continue your education, to strive for excellence, and to lead, to serve, and to learn.

Thank you.

Final Remarks

Before we make our way down the hill to the picnic tents, and the celebrations with loved ones, I want once again, to thank the families of our graduates for the privilege of educating and guiding these extraordinary people. Rensselaer is proud to call them graduates.

Graduates, the future belongs to you. We have given you the education to shape, and to build, this future. I believe that Rensselaer has positioned you to excel in all that you do, to become global citizens, and leaders. Now, it is your turn to lead us.

Let me leave you with a quote from Mark Twain: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

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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