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The Power of One

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

19th Annual Spring Commencement of Clark Atlanta University
CAU Panther Stadium
Atlanta, Georgia

Monday, May 21, 2007

Thank you, President Broadnax.

And greetings to the Clark Atlanta Trustees, Golden Sons and Daughters faculty, family, friends, and honored guests. I am delighted to have been invited to speak to you this morning.

I extend my heartfelt congratulations to the graduates of Clark Atlanta University. You have reached a significant milestone. Enjoy this day!

As I look out among you, I see in your faces understandable excitement and the sense of accomplishment.

Aside from waiting for the moment you receive your diplomas, and get this ceremony over with, so that you can celebrate with family and friends, I bet you may be a little nervous about what the future holds.

I see before me future leaders and global innovators. I see people who can make a difference in so many varied arenas — business and finance, science and technology, law and public service, education, social work, the arts.

But, futures, by definition, are uncertain. What is certain is that you are graduating from this place and this base, and from wherever you come from, into a world which is more globally interconnected and interlinked than ever before.

But, I am getting a little ahead of my message.

So, if you will indulge me, I will go back to a beginning, of sorts — my beginning. It relates to how I got here. No one person’s pathway is the pathway for all, but perhaps you can learn a few things from my experiences.

I am a child of the Civil Rights era.

I grew up in Washington, D.C. in the 1950s and 1960s. My parents believed in the value of family, the virtue of hard work, and the power of education. They believed in their children. They lived what they believed.

I learned courage and resolve from my mother. She was orphaned by age 14. Her older siblings pooled their resources to send her to a boarding school for “colored girls” in Virginia, since there were no high schools for African Americans, at that time in the part of Virginia in which she grew up. She was lonely, but she persevered. She went on to college and taught for a while, before becoming a caseworker in the Department of Human Resources in Washington, D.C. My father strengthened my curiosity. My father, whose own father died while he was a teenager, never finished high school — never went to college. He always worked two jobs to support his family. He was gifted mechanically and mathematically, and he always helped me with science projects. In World War II, at Normandy, while in a segregated Army unit, he fashioned new steering for amphibious landing vehicles that had lost their rudders — thereby saving many lives. He received a special commendation for this.

Both of my parents believed in the power of education to enable — my mother because it changed her life; my father, because he wanted his children to achieve what he could not.

At the time I was in early elementary school, racial segregation of public schools was legal. Although we lived only a few blocks from a public elementary school, my siblings and I had to attend an all-black school several miles away. There was no school bus, so neighborhood parents formed daily carpools to get their children to school and back.

But then, two events converged, closely in time, to change my life. The first was the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court Brown versus the Board of Education decision, which ended legal segregation in public schools. I was able, then, to attend the public elementary school close by — one with more resources, more competition, and ironically, greater diversity of thought.

The second was the 1957 Soviet launch of Sputnik — the first Earth-orbiting satellite. This riveted the nation and began the space race — in reality, a science-based defense race. The federal government poured money into strengthening science and math education, and into supporting those wishing to pursue advanced study in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

I was one of those. I was my high school valedictorian. I received a number of scholarships, and went on to M.I.T. My education unfolded accordingly.

But opportunity never comes without challenge. In 1965, when I was completing my freshman year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), I was deciding on a major, and considering physics. At the time, I was one of only two African-American women in a class of 900. I asked one of my professors what type of career I should pursue. He offered me this advice: “Colored girls should learn a trade.” Needless to say, his words were hurtful, but they only reinforced my resolve. So I chose a trade. I chose physics

So the first lesson is — aim high and with resolve — never give up.

My father always told me to “Aim for the stars, so that you can reach the treetops, and at least you will get off the ground.” That is, if you do not aim high, you will not go far. This is why I am a physicist, and a university President, today.

The second lesson is that convergences matter. Sometimes they are societal convergences, sometimes technological — which takes me back to the beginning.

The technologically-driven “flat world,” as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman describes it, is creating ever more connectivity of nations, enterprises, and people. The world is more integrated and interconnected than ever before — which brings threats, competition, and opportunity ever closer. Threats because global asymmetries are more visible than ever before, which means that, if other peoples’ and other nations’ aspirations are not realized, and the scourges plaguing them are not addressed, these things will always come back to haunt us — whether through terrorism, civil unrest, or global pandemics.

Interconnectedness also means, that as you pursue your careers, you must compete — not just locally or nationally, but globally. There are millions of individuals on the other side of the world who hold your same ambitions, and who now can compete with you — through globally dispersed commercial enterprises, global trade, and global communications, and on their own. To stay ahead of the game, requires you, then, to be intellectually agile, multi-culturally sophisticated, and globally aware.

Global connectivity also means that you have opportunity — from your own base, without losing who and what you are, to use the tools and technologies of the modern world — the Internet, email, new media — to effect change, not just locally, not just nationally, but globally — if you so choose.

I am reminded of the award of the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize to a woman named Jody Williams. She used email to bring individuals and organizations together — around the world to pressure governments to adopt an international accord against landmines. Jody Williams illustrates the power of one — with high aim and resolve, intellectual agility, and a global view — the power of one — to use the convergence of modern technologies to effect change on a global scale.

Change is about innovative thinking. It means using the tools available to find a better way. It usually requires taking risks, and being willing to be a groundbreaker. And, I will be honest with you: That can be a very lonely place. It can involve many set-backs before you achieve your goals. It can mean rejection, or even ridicule. That is often the price of innovation. For when it comes to new ideas, sometimes we have to wait for others to catch up. But, I assure you, there is no better investment of your energy than innovative leadership to make the world a better place for future generations.

So optimize who you are and what you are. Optimize your experiences and what you have learned. Optimize and hold up others. Optimize your opportunities. Seize them and do meaningful things. Count your blessings — and, then, count them, again — and use them, wisely.

And, always remember how you got here. As the song, “Amazing Grace” reminds us:

’Twas Grace that brought us safe thus far, and Grace will lead us home.

Congratulations and Godspeed.

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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