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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s 201st Commencement

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

Harkness Field
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York

Saturday, May 19, 2007

As President of this university, it is my duty, my honor, my privilege, and my very great pleasure to welcome you to the 201st 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 which they have made to help bring you to this moment.

Today is a very special day in your lives. You will remember this day — always — as a pivotal moment — a time to look back and to reflect, and a time 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 will not be alone, however. You have with you — and behind you — the legacy and tradition of Rensselaer — more than 183 years of the pursuit of knowledge and excellence, leading to discovery and innovation for the greater good, for “the common purposes of life.” You have the support of the faculty members who have taught you, mentored you, challenged you, and inspired you. You have your friends. The friendships you have made, here, will last a lifetime, and will sustain you in the years ahead. All of this, you will take with you.

You are a class which has met many challenges and taken advantage of the resources available to you, to develop into who you are. This is important because the world needs you. This means that you must continue to meet challenges, and seize — or create — opportunity.

Let me share with you four examples of your classmates who already have seized opportunity.

Eben Bayer is an inventor who is working to find “green solutions” to global energy challenges. His patented combination of water, flour, minerals, and mushroom spores could replace conventional foam insulations, which are expensive to produce and harmful to the environment. As the son of a successful Vermont farmer — and as a dual major in mechanical engineering and product design and innovation — Eben used his knowledge of the Earth and fungal growth to develop a novel method of bonding insulating minerals. His process resulted in a new energy-saving, cost-effective, environmentally friendly class of insulation that could replace traditional synthetic insulators such as foam and fiberglass. This innovative idea was recognized as the winner of the annual Change the World Challenge last year, and Eben was named a finalist in the prestigious Lemelson-Rensselaer Student Prize competition this year. He has joined with fellow graduate Gavin McIntyre to form a company, called Greensulate, to commercialize the technology.

Caitlin Piette majored in biology, bioinformatics, and molecular biology. She is known for her skill in microscopy, and for her use of bright colored stains, which result in detailed images which are more intuitive and easier to understand than traditional slides. She won first place in Rensselaer’s 2006 Undergraduate Research Forum, as well as 18 months of funding, in 2005, from the prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute. She plans to enroll in a doctoral program at Brandeis to study genetics and neuroscience.

Matthew Pelliccione graduates with two bachelor’s degrees in applied mathematics and physics, as well as a master’s degree in physics, and a set of prestigious fellowships to continue studying physics at Stanford. Matthew examines the physics of building nanostructures using novel nanofabrication techniques, and his advances could enable the development of more efficient semiconductor devices and optical or magnetic coatings. His work has earned him a much-sought-after National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and the prestigious Fannie and John Hertz Foundation Fellowship, an honor extended to only 15 students nationwide.

Finally, Kirk MacDonald has left a lasting legacy here at Rensselaer by taking the challenge of a serious illness and using it as an opportunity to help others. Many of you know Kirk as captain of our Division I men’s hockey team. He is a cancer survivor who had to miss an entire hockey season — and his academic classes — for his lengthy treatment and recovery. Yet, Kirk never lost sight of wanting to help others. Kirk has been very active over the last several years in fund-raising campaigns for cancer research and awareness — helping to raise tens of thousands of dollars for the cause. He also has served as a spokesman here and at other local colleges for cancer awareness — and he was named to the American Cancer Society Youth Council for New York and New Jersey. For this, and for his service to local organizations, Kirk received the Rensselaer Alumni Association Community Service Award, and he has been named a Coca-Cola Community All-American, a Lowe’s Senior CLASS All-American, the U.S. College Hockey Online Unsung Hero, and a finalist for the national Hockey Humanitarian Award. He also has been honored with the Livingston W. Houston Citizenship Award, given to a student who is considered the “First Citizen of the College,”— an individual who ranks high in character, leadership, scholarship, and athletic ability. Kirk will continue to pursue his career in professional hockey, having already started it with the Albany River Rats in April.

There are many more stories of exemplary graduates — because so many of you have made a difference in myriad ways. I encourage you to continue to optimize the best in yourselves, and to continue the Rensselaer tradition of discovery, innovation, entrepreneurship, and service.

You are entering a world which is growing increasingly interconnected, complex, and challenging. The challenges abound: we are a country at war and dealing with the threat of terrorism around the globe. Indeed, today, we, also, remember all members of the Rensselaer family who are now serving in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and around the world, and those who soon will embark on armed services careers. On this day — Armed Forces Day — let us remember them, and thank them for their service, and let us be mindful of the sacrifices of their loved ones, who deserve our gratitude and our respect.

In a world that is interconnected and “flat,” as our honorand Thomas Friedman deems it, we, also, have greater opportunity. An important opportunity is in alleviating global asymmetries between countries and peoples, which can be measured in the degree of poverty or comparative GDP, literacy levels, degree of public health, and access to food, clean drinking water, and affordable, sustainable energy. These asymmetries have prevented some nations and groups from developing to their full potential. Today, the richest 10 countries are 50 times richer than the poorest 10 countries. By comparison, 250 years ago, at the onset of the industrial revolution, the ratio of the average income per capita between rich and poor was a factor of 3. As we learned in yesterday’s colloquy, our honorands built their careers by changing the world. You have the same opportunity.

You have that opportunity because you are here. You are literate. You are brilliant. You are knowledgeable, and knowledge-based enterprise is key to helping to build the kind of life you will want to build for your families, to keeping our nation secure and strong, to tackling global challenges.

Meeting challenges requires not only strength in your chosen disciplines, but, also, multicultural sophistication, a global view, and intellectual agility.

This means:

  • You must be able to encompass diverse cultures, with associated differences in thought, perspective, lifestyle, and practice;
  • You must work from your professional base across multiple disciplines and sectors, and welcome and appreciate them;
  • You must value all individuals, of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds, for their contributions and their ability to compete on a level playing field — in a flattening world.

You also must be leaders with:

  • Vision
  • Courage and Integrity
  • Involvement
  • Organizational Ability
  • Inspiration
  • And, Action Orientation

When the human spirit meets challenge, strengthened by valuing others, and reinforced by courageous leadership, then innovative, creative solutions begin to emerge. And, out of this strengthened coalescence, comes unexpected — and often exhilarating — opportunity.

In a few moments I will be privileged to bestow upon you a Rensselaer diploma. With this in hand, you are uniquely positioned to assume the mantle of challenge — and of opportunity — of this young century. You, also, are called to be leaders. I am confident that you will lead wisely and boldly, with the knowledge you have gained here, with your spirit of discovery, with your creativity and your imaginations, and with your commitment to build a better world.

Theodore Roosevelt said that we should give credit to the individual who “. . . strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotion, spends himself in a worthy cause; who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

Today, I challenge you to dare, to take risks, to have courage, to work for a better future. It now is in your hands.

Congratulations and Godspeed.

Thank you.

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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