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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s 202nd Commencement

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

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Troy, New York

Saturday, May 17, 2008

As President of this university, it is my duty, my honor, my privilege, and my very great pleasure to welcome you to the 202nd commencement exercises of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

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 families and your friends, your spouses and partners, this morning marks the fulfillment of years of anticipation and dreams. Graduates, join us in thanking them for the sacrifices they have made to help bring you to this moment. 

Finally, it is here. Your commencement day. A day that marks both an ending and, perhaps more importantly, a beginning.

This is a very special day in your lives; a time to look back and to reflect, and to look forward with excitement, anticipation, and, perhaps, some nervousness. You are on the brink of a new adventure in your lives, as, today, when you cross this stage to receive your diplomas, you will be crossing the threshold to your future.

You are not alone in this symbolic, yet, very real journey. You walk with past Rensselaer graduates — those who have come before you for more than 184 years and have made their marks in the world. You have the support of the faculty members who have taught you, mentored you, challenged you, and inspired you. You have the friends you made, here — friendships that will last a lifetime, and will sustain you in the years ahead. All of this, you will take with you.

You, now, go forth into the world, ready to meet the increasingly complex — and interconnected — global challenges. In doing so, you will be anchored by the two vibrant roots of Rensselaer education.

  • The first root, inscribed in the university’s founding documents, is “the application of science to the common purposes of life.” This has kept the university’s focus on solutions to national, and even international, needs and challenges. You are walking in the footsteps of Rensselaer graduates who made the discoveries, constructed the canals, roads, bridges, skyscrapers, and basic infrastructure, around the world, which formed the basis for 19th and 20th century society. Your forbearers changed the world — just as you will. 

  • The second root, also encompassed in the origin of Rensselaer, is the employment of unique educational strategies. From the earliest days, students were responsible for teaching their peers what they had learned in the classrooms and laboratories — since first head of the Institute, Amos Eaton, understood that teaching reinforces learning. Likewise, students performed scientific experiments — rather than watch faculty conduct them, as had been the common practice. At the time, these concepts were considered revolutionary and distinguished from all others. This legacy has been transformed into the unique teaching and learning here today, which has prepared you to succeed — to excel in advanced study and in your careers.

You are familiar, of course, with the Rensselaer challenge — “Why not change the world?” which acknowledges that today’s “common purposes of life” now include challenges that transcend geographic boundaries — challenges such as environmental sustainability, infectious disease, terrorism and other security concerns, energy security, water purity, and many more.

You, the graduates of Rensselaer, have taken the Rensselaer challenge to heart and have not waited to receive your diplomas to discover and innovate world changing contributions. From day one, you sought ways to bring your passion for discovery, innovation, and commitment to creating a better future, to your work inside and outside your classrooms and labs. In many instances, your work has been groundbreaking — holding promise for future breakthroughs in critical areas of inquiry. Consider, for example, doctoral degree candidate Paul Morrow, a physicist who has developed a nanomaterial never before produced — an array of nanoscale columns creating a specialized three-dimensional material which exhibits promising magnetic properties at room temperature. Or, Megan Salt, who is receiving a bachelor degree in biochemistry/biophysics, and who plans to continue her research into cancer cell interaction within the micro environment that she performed as an undergraduate in laboratories at Rensselaer and MIT.

Ian Jacobi was part of an exciting research program as an undergraduate in computer science and physics, working with the leading-edge Rensselaer-MIT team engaged in research on the Semantic Web. He will continue that research, under the direction of World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, as a Ph.D. student at MIT.

Phil Bracken, who is graduating with a major in aeronautical engineering, wants to be an astronaut. But first, he will continue the research he began at Rensselaer at aerospace company, Orbital Sciences, where he will further develop a next-generation, liquid first-stage rocket engine that runs on liquid kerosene and oxygen, instead of conventional solid propellants. The engine is slated for use in space in 2010.

Laura Wontrop will use her degree in mechanical engineering and her experience in building race cars, to her key role at General Motors — solidifying the design of next-generation concept cars. Perhaps, many of us will be driving cars designed by Laura some day.

Brian Patrick MacInnes, graduating with a degree in Electronic Media, Arts, and Communications, helped to set up a design and art exhibit at Mass MOCA, and will become program Manager for web invention for Microsoft Corporation.

There are so many more stories of graduates nurtured by the two roots of Rensselaer education who have grown their own talents, and will bring the Rensselaer legacy to new heights.

Among you, as well, in the Class of 2008, are effective leaders, gifted artists, superb athletes, those who render service to our neighborhoods and to people around the world, and individuals who have dealt with personal crisis and challenges with courage and dignity.

You are an impressive group. You have left your mark on the Institute. It is a richer institution because of you. And, as you go forward, I challenge you to take the extra step to lead extraordinary lives. By this, I do not mean necessarily becoming famous, or rich, or lauded publicly for your achievements. What I mean by “extraordinary” is to seize the opportunities in your lives — and, as Rensselaer graduates, you will have many — and use them to make positive difference in the lives of others. We can become so focused on personal achievement, on success, on career aspirations, that we can lose sight of how our individual avocations can of service to others. Just in the several examples of graduates I cited, we can see how these individuals, through their work, have the potential to improve lives — and perhaps to save lives.

It is easy to be overwhelmed by seemingly countless challenges — local and global — which we encounter each day. But think of the example of your classmates, Jennifer Ash, Zach Barth, and Peter Mueller, who led the multidisciplinary CapAbility Games Research Project, to create a groundbreaking interactive game simulation to help individuals with disabilities develop life skills, and obtain increased autonomy. Using computer technology, visual art, engineering, and music, they are helping to make a shopping trip to the grocery store, something most of us take for granted, into a reality for people with disabilities.

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of “the fierce urgency of now.” His words resound, today, as we deal with very fundamental questions of human survival — how will we provide ample food for people around the world, secure sustainable sources of energy, mitigate climate change, provide clean water, safe and habitable shelter, and make computer technology accessible and affordable in our communities and around the globe? The current humanitarian crisis in Myanmar tragically and aptly demonstrates the great amount of work we all must do to understand and to respond to climate and weather effects, as we extend the promise of prosperity, freedom, and health and safety to those who suffer. China’s earthquake-created disaster challenges us to deploy science and technology even more to predict and to mitigate seismic events.

Taking the global view and being equipped with multicultural sophistication, intellectual agility, curiosity, and openness to experience is more important than ever. Visionary physicist John Wheeler, a member of the Manhattan Project, who popularized the concept of “black holes,” said: “If you haven’t found something strange during the day, it hasn’t been much of a day.” Professor Wheeler, who went to his office at the University of Texas well into his 90s died last month at age 96. He certainly was a prime example of remaining open and engaged. Finding something “strange” means finding something that makes us think, reflect, question assumptions, and, that leads us to a deeper and richer understanding of the world — and of one another.

In a few moments I will bestow upon each of you a Rensselaer diploma. With this in hand, each of you will go forward to write your own chapter in the Rensselaer story, your own legacy, your own very special future. What will you do to address the “common purposes of life”? How will you pass on what you have learned? How will you shape the 21st century?

I urge you to live both wisely and boldly; to hold firm to your values and your convictions; to care about others; to steward and to change the world, as those who have come before you have done.

Your future is here. Your future begins now.  Live it.

Congratulations and Godspeed.

Thank you.      

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, you, now, are on the threshold of great adventure. I believe we have given you roots, and we have prepared you well to grow, to flourish, and to succeed in your chosen professions, in your continued education, and in your personal lives. Be proud of what you have achieved. And remember, this is just the beginning of a lifelong journey.

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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