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Commencement Address

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

200th Commencement
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Harkness Field
Troy, New York

Saturday, May 20, 2006


As President of this university, it is my duty, my honor, my privilege, and my very great pleasure to welcome you to the 200th 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.

Today, is a very special day for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute — the 200th commencement ceremony in its history. That is a very significant milestone for this institution. Think of it, graduates. You are walking in the footsteps of some of the giants of the 19th and 20th centuries, as you are sure to leave your imprint on the 21st century. This university has come far since the first commencement exercises, which were held on April 26, 1826, at the Institute's original home in a building on River Street. Ten students graduated that day, with President Samuel Blatchford presiding. The graduates participated in the ceremony by delivering demonstration lectures on scientific subjects. (You will not be asked to do that this morning.)

Just look around you today, and you will quickly see how much we have grown through the first 199 commencement ceremonies, to today. There are more than one thousand of you here to receive your diplomas with family and friends surrounding you and looking on from near and far. You are receiving degrees in subject areas unheard of — and unimagined — by those who attended the first commencement. Their world was smaller, more self-contained, with a vast frontier of the United States yet to be explored, and settled. You are entering a world of increasing complexity, interconnectedness, and, in many ways, fragility.

Indeed, the careers of our honorands here this morning epitomize the importance of the global perspective: they are global leaders and innovators, who are very influential in architecture, in business, and in public service. Listen to what each has to say about the world which awaits you. They are living examples of the idea espoused by the 19th century education and religious leader John Henry Cardinal Newman that: "A truly great intellect is one which takes a connected view of old and new, past and present, far and near, and which has an insight into the influence of all these one on another; without which there is no whole, and no centre."

The development of this kind of rigorous and far-reaching intellect, combined with a deep engagement with the world, is the aim of a Rensselaer education. Graduates, you embody this ideal in myriad ways. For example, Rensselaer students are extraordinarily committed to service and philanthropy. They devoted more than 23,000 hours to community service in the last year alone — time spent on such projects and programs as Habitat for Humanity, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and UNICEF; tutoring children from Troy public schools, organizing the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day events, and raising money for relief efforts for victims of Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Pakistan, among many other activities. Students raised an unprecedented amount of money this year — almost $190,000, including more than $124,000 for the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life.

Let me share with you some other examples of exemplary achievement from among our graduates.

Ryan Salvas, from the School of Architecture, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, took first place in the Global House 2005 International Design Competition for his idea of incorporating housing into bridges, sign trusses, and on and off ramps on highways. He says his idea was inspired by the Ponte Vecchio, in Florence, Italy, and especially by how shops were built into the structure of the bridge. Ryan said that visiting the bridge while a student in the School of Architecture's international exchange program "sparked a realization that you don't always have to build on land."

Three other graduates and fraternity brothers — Tawheed Kader, Glenn Dixon, and Peter Curley — are among the five founders of a company called "HipCal." The company developed an online calendar service, piquing the interest of the Silicon Valley-based company Plaxo, which bought HipCal and hired its founders. The online calendar started as a to-do list application for a class, but soon other members of Alpha Chi Rho were using it, as well. The "brothers" decided to put their majors in computer science; mathematics; electronic media, arts, and communications; along with information technology; into action to form a company around this technology. They committed themselves to building HipCal, even, in a couple of cases, turning down positions with GE and IBM. Peter Curley referred to that decision as "a no-brainer. And our parents thought we had no brains." Their story was featured in Red Herring magazine as the first acquisition of one of the many so-called "Web 2.0" online calendars by a high-tech company.

Finally, Rensselaer bids farewell to the last of the six Cochran brothers to attend the Institute. Like his brothers, Grant Cochran has distinguished himself in the classroom, on the football field, and in the R.O.T.C. program. He is receiving a degree in biomedical engineering, and he has been honored with numerous academic awards, including two National Academic All-American honors and two ESPN the Magazine's Academic All-American Awards. Grant was a two-time captain of the varsity football team, and he was part of the team that played in the NCAA Division III National Semi-Final game in 2003. Even his wedding reception was held on the football field last summer. Grant will continue his commitment to learning and to service, when he enters the Navy this summer. He will study medicine at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, in Bethesda, Maryland, with the goal of serving his country in the medical field.

Grant believes that "College has taught me that if I want to be happy and successful, I need to commit to meaningful things. I think people are afraid of obligations, but I only feel satisfied by making and keeping commitments." He has been recognized for this commitment with the Livingston W. Houston Citizenship Award, which is presented to a student who ranks high in character, leadership, scholarship, and athletic ability. With this award, Grant now is considered the "first citizen of the college." You can see why it has been an honor to have Grant and his five brothers — along with the rest of the Cochran family — become such an integral part of the larger Rensselaer family.

As we note Grant Cochran's accomplishments, I want to mention that his brother Flynn, from the Class of 2004, is now serving as a gunnery officer on the USS McCampbell, stationed in the Persian Gulf. We are proud of his service, as we are proud of all members of the Rensselaer family who are now serving in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and around the world, and also those who will be embarking soon on their careers in the armed services. On this, 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 respect as well.

In a few moments I will be privileged to bestow upon you a Rensselaer diploma. Today marks the beginning of a new chapter in your lives. As you step forward to begin your career and the rest of your lives, you will have an exciting and challenging road to walk. Keep in mind that you are part of a global community — a world that needs your knowledge, your passion for service, your ingenuity, and your commitment to creating a better world. Be a force for hope, for optimism, and apply your Rensselaer education — as that first commencement class was exhorted — "for the common purposes of life."

As you embark on a new road on your journey, my wish for you is to keep learning, always to reach for the stars, and always to look for opportunities to make a positive difference in the world. French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur said that: "Chance favors the prepared mind." In that spirit, you are exceedingly well-prepared to enjoy the fruits of your learning, and be a light of reason, knowledge — and hope, to the world.


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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