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Your World Is As Big As You Make It

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

Remarks at Commencement
Emma Willard School
Troy, New York

Saturday, May 29, 2004

Emma Willard educates young women — dynamic young women — young women with infinite possibilities. In other words — you.

Emma's graduates have always taken those possibilities and gone on to make a difference. Mary Lake Polan was the first chairwoman of the clinical department at the Stanford University Medical School, and founded the Eritrean Women's Health Project in east Africa; Hannah Chase Kinney has performed groundbreaking research on Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS); and Erin Crotty is Commissioner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. And, I have not mentioned even Jane Fonda, or, Emma Willard trustee Jane Wales, who served President Clinton as Associate Director for National Security and International Affairs in the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Science and Technology on the National Security Council staff.

But you will follow your own unique paths to accomplishment, which you may not yet even imagine.

In Sue Monk Kiddís best selling novel, The Secret Life of Bees, Lily, the young narrator, discovers that her room fills with bees during the night. In an ill-fated attempt to connect with her indifferent, and sometimes abusive father, she captures some bees in a jar to show him. Two days later she decides to set them free, and she removes the lid. And, here I quote from the book:

“‘You can go,’ I said. But the bees remained there, like planes on a runway not knowing they'd been cleared for takeoff. They crawled on their stalk legs around the curved perimeters of the glass as if the world had shrunk to that jar. I tapped the glass, even laid the jar on its side, but those crazy bees stayed put. The bees were still in there the next morning.”

Somehow, their confinement did not take long to condition the bees to accept the limitations of their space and their place — curious, since they, nevertheless, could see the outside world through the glass of the jar. But, their constant bumping against the glass taught them that they were confined — irrespective of what they saw.

Now, there is no glass wall — or ceiling — here at Emma Willard — although it could be said that you have been in a defined [as opposed to confined!] place for a defined period of time. The difference is that the environment, here, is one which deliberately nurtures you, and in so doing, gives you the confidence to know that all things are possible — even if you do not realize, yet, what your imprint on the world will be.

Like the open jar in which the bees remained, many of the barriers we face in the real world impede us merely because we allow ourselves to be contained. Conviction, curiosity, and imagination permit us to see that the jar is, in fact, wide open — in fact, there is no jar. Education and knowledge give us wings with which to fly.

Sitting at my own high school graduation, I never would have imagined that in 1995, the President of the United States would ask me to become the Chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, to ensure the safety of the national nuclear power infrastructure, and to set policy which helps to keep our nation safe and competitive, through the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. But, I was prepared for this assignment because I did imagine more than my circumstances would suggest, and I followed my interests and curiositiesóobserving, studying, and learning as they unfolded before me, and preparing for my opportunities.

I never could have imagined that in 1999, I would become President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute — with the privilege of helping to educate the next generations of scientists and engineers; especially having been a transition child — living through the Civil Rights struggle — before which someone like me could not aspire to much — irrespective of ability and motivation. But, here I am.

Helen Brooks Taussig is another inspiring example of someone who used her knowledge and followed her curiosity and her convictions to change the world. She was a renowned pediatric cardiologist who designed surgery to save “blue babies” — babies with a heart defect which prevented them from receiving sufficient oxygen, and who generally died before age 12. With the help of surgeon Alfred Blalock, Dr. Taussig's “blue baby” surgeries saved thousands of children.

Yet, Dr. Taussig's curiosity led to yet another discovery.

In 1962 Dr. Taussig learned of an unusual birth defect, “phocomelia” (which means “seal limbs”) observed in Germany, which caused children to be born limbless — or with hands and feet attached directly to their torsos. The defect had been rare, with only 15 cases reported in a decade. But, within the previous two years, there had been 124. Investigators suspected that this was due to thalidomide, a sleeping pill given to pregnant women.

Concerned, Dr. Taussig went to Europe to investigate, and became convinced that the drug posed a serious threat. She returned to the U.S., and persuaded officials at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the need to prevent the use of thalidomide in the United States. That happened. Shortly, Congress enacted a law requiring more thorough drug testing, particularly of drugs prescribed for pregnant women — a change which directly reduced birth defects.

Not all of you will find yourselves in situations where you can change how the world looks at, and does, things in the way Dr. Taussig did. But, all of us can make a difference where we are, and, collectively, this makes the world a better place.

Being who you are and what you have been given, all of us — trustees, your teachers, your parents, your classmates — expect a great deal of you, as I am sure you are aware by now! But, who wants to be bombarded with expectations? You are just glad to be done — you want to spread your wings without the weight of what others expect of you — right? I used to feel the same way.

Well, think of those expectations as a gift — a gift of faith in you and belief in your possibilities.

As you leave Emma Willard School, imagine more — follow your own curiosity and convictions. They will take you down unknown paths where you will find your own passions, and strengthen your own beliefs. Follow them wherever they take you; strive to make a difference; think big thoughts and make dreams come true. As poet Georgia Douglas Johnson wrote:

Your world is as big as you make it,

I know for I used to abide,

In the narrowest nest in a corner,

My wings pressing close to my side.

I battered the cordons around me,

And cradled my wings on the breeze,

Then soared to the uttermost reaches,

With rapture, with power, with ease!

Stretch out your wings — I know that you will soar!

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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