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Commencement Address

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

199th Commencement
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Harkness Field
Troy, New York

Saturday, May 21, 2005

As President of this university, it is my duty, my honor, my privilege, and my very great pleasure to welcome you to the 199th 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.

Graduates, many of you attended the First-Year Convocation on August 26, 2001, where it was my honor to officially welcome you to Rensselaer.

I am sure that evening you were filled with many emotions and thoughts: excitement, nervousness, questions about how you would fit in at Rensselaer, how you would succeed in your classes. Think back on that moment, try to remember that time — and reflect on how far you have come. At the Convocation, I encouraged you to “savor this moment. There will be another — in about four years — when you will sit with essentially these same people at graduation. You will be marking another end and yet another beginning, a continuation of the voyage that you begin today.”

And, indeed, here you are.

When looking back on that date, you could not have known, then, that little more than two weeks later, the world as you knew it would be turned upside down. Especially for the Class of 2005, your first weeks here were a time of unprecedented turmoil and uncertainty. But, I remain proud of how all members of the Rensselaer community came together, acted, and reacted, in that dark time. Indeed, if our call to change the world was ever relevant, it was then, as it is now.

That time gave the Rensselaer call to global citizenship even more urgency, and I am proud to say that many of you have heeded that call in creative and innovative ways. Let me share with you examples of global citizenship in action by some of today’s graduates.

Marija Kuzmanovic is a native of Skopje, Macedonia, and she is graduating today with a multidisciplinary degree in ecological economics, values, and policy. Marija has a keen interest in social responsibility, and a project for a class in Environment and Society inspired her to try to make a change on campus. She became interested in the issue of “fair-trade coffee,” which, as you may know, is made from beans purchased directly from cooperatives of small farmers at a guaranteed minimum, or “fair,” price. Fair trade appealed to Marija because it allows people to use their buying power to help coffee producers in developing countries to do better economically. Because of student efforts, which she led, to educate the campus community about this topic, today fair-trade coffee is served at several campus dining locations and more people are aware of an important global development issue.

Marija said: “What we do with the knowledge we learn in the classroom is truly enhanced by how we apply it to addressing social and community issues. This has helped my sense of belonging to many communities.”

Meanwhile, Shefali Sanghvi, a School of Architecture graduate, has been using her education to advance work in the field of sustainable communities in developing countries. She has pursued her interest in study abroad programs and in international competitions, where her work has been honored and exhibited. For one competition, Shefali worked with classmate Kristin Malone, who also is graduating today with a degree in Architecture, to create a master plan for a Palestinian village in Israel. For another, she collaborated with students at a university in China in a housing development design competition. The focus of her senior project was developing designs for sustainable housing in the poorest sections of Ahmedabad, India. She will continue this work this summer, which she will spend in India conducting further research.

At Rensselaer, Shefali discovered the power of architecture to change the lives of people in need. She said: “We may not have the financial means to rebuild communities, but it takes special skill to develop and design plans for sustainable structures in communities.”

There are so many more stories of global citizenship at Rensselaer. The students who raise awareness of social and cultural issues, the numerous works of philanthropy for local, national, and international organizations, the countless hours spent volunteering, the potentially life-changing work that many of you do with the young children of the Capital Region. This is your legacy to Rensselaer. . .

. . . And, it is a legacy you take with you. For after all, what is a university? What is a democracy? It is a place where differences are valued, where differing points of view are listened to, with respect, and afforded dignity. We may disagree, but we do not abuse. This you have learned, and, as a true global citizen, this, you will teach the world.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel said: “The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference.” And you, graduates, are the opposite of indifferent. You have changed Rensselaer, you have changed this community, and you have changed the world — for the better. And I look forward to seeing how you will continue to change the world, in the years ahead.

The world has changed enormously in your time, here. But, my hope for you is that, as you move forward, you will hold fast to your core values and to your principles — they will be your North Star, your guide to navigating the challenges which are sure to lie ahead.

This day would not be complete without pausing to reflect on the service being rendered by the men and women in our Armed Forces, around the world. Let us think, as well, of the family, friends, and loved ones of those, today, who are serving, have returned from service, or will soon serve. It is important to acknowledge your sacrifice as well. Your loved ones serve in sometimes very dangerous conditions far from home and they deserve our gratitude and respect, as do you.

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. And that, is to understand how a nation must protect itself in the face of threat, yet to understand and to exploit the very globalization which connects us, sometimes threatens us, and, ultimately, protects us, when we all work together for a better world.

My wish for you, as you embark on that journey, is to always keep learning, always to reach for the stars, and always to look for opportunities to make a positive difference in the world.

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, you now are on the threshold of a great adventure. I believe we have prepared you well to succeed, to grow, and to flourish in your chosen professions, in your continued education, and in your personal lives. Be proud of what you have achieved, and go forth to achieve even bigger dreams.

Let me leave you with a quote from the writer John Updike: “You cannot help but learn more as you take the world into your hands. Take it up reverently, for it is an old piece of clay, with millions of thumbprints on it.”

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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