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What Will Be Your Voyage?

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

Commencement Exercises
Rensselaer at Hartford
Hartford, Connecticut

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Thank you, Dr. Minasian. Good morning. And welcome graduates, families, friends, and special guests, to the Rensselaer at Hartford 53rd commencement exercises.

On behalf of the trustees, faculty, staff, and the entire Rensselaer community, I offer hearty, and heart-felt, congratulations to the 337 graduates of our Hartford campus. Whether you completed your studies last August, last December, or last month, today is a celebration, not just of your new degrees, but of your willingness to challenge yourselves and to stretch your limits in order to reach this special day.

Before enrolling at Rensselaer, you already were leading full, busy lives. Many of you are working professionals, with demanding jobs. Many of you have family members whose needs you must consider along with your own. There are those who would have chosen not to rock the boat by going back to school.

But you took a different route, over new and sometimes choppy waters. To borrow from sailing terminology, you changed your tack. Like the great explorers who sailed the oceans centuries ago, you chose to expand your horizons — despite the difficulty and sacrifice required, in order to achieve greater things. Today marks the finish line of this challenging academic journey — one that may have taken you several years to complete, and one that — by virtue of its duration, its hurdles and its relentless pursuit of a goal — is not unlike the journeys upon which all great explorers have embarked throughout history. 

We have one of those explorers here with us today: astronaut and Rensselaer at Hartford alumnus, Rick Mastracchio, our commencement speaker. Mr. Mastracchio recently completed his third space shuttle flight, so he knows a thing or two about exploration and stretching one’s limits.

Indeed, it is particularly fitting to have him speak to us this morning because today — June the 5th — marks the anniversary of two other challenging journeys. These were not journeys into the vastness of space, like those of Mr. Mastracchio. These were expeditions across vast oceans, by sail. And, interestingly, these two sailing journeys took place nearly four centuries apart.

The first began on June 5th, 1594, when a Dutch navigator, Willem Barentsz, set sail from the Netherlands on his maiden voyage in search of the Northwest passage to Asia. He and his crew got as far as the west coast of Novaya Zemlya, an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean north of Russia, before being forced to turn back in the face of large icebergs. Satisfied with their discoveries for that season, they returned safely home, where their countrymen seemed to have been very pleased with the results of the voyage. Despite two more expeditions, Barentsz — like Columbus before him — failed to find his route to the Indies. But historians believe that those explorations laid the foundation for a ‘golden age’ of trade with Russia. And the Barents Sea — just north of Russia and Norway — is named in his honor.

Nearly four hundred years later, in 1988, Sunday, June 5th marked the end of a sailing expedition of a very different sort. On that day, to the cheers of tens of thousands of well wishers, a 34-year-old Australian, Kay Cottee sailed into Sydney Harbor, which made her the first female sailor to circumnavigate the globe alone, unassisted and nonstop. It was the realization of her childhood ambition, and it was a journey that took her more than six months — 189 days, to be exact — to complete, in a 36-foot sloop named First Lady. The expedition was not without obstacles: While sailing near the coast of southern Africa, her yacht capsized and she was washed overboard, saved only by two safety lines, which harnessed her to her boat. When asked by a female journalist, “How does it feel to have conquered a man's world?”, she is said to have answered, “I was brought up believing there is no such thing as a man's world or a woman's world. It's everyone's world!”

I agree. It certainly is “everyone’s world.” And today, June 5th, 2010, as you embark on the next stage of your life journey, with your new master’s degrees in hand, you will find that it is, indeed, your world to conquer — and, to paraphrase our Rensselaer motto, it is your world to change.

The question is: what will be your voyage? On what great quest will you embark? Only you can answer that question. Our role at Rensselaer has been to equip you, with a solid preparation, for the adventure and challenge of your choosing. And whether your choice is to sail solo into uncharted waters, or to serve as a leader of others, we believe you will do great things.

I would add a final thought. During your journey here at Rensselaer, unlike Kay Cottee, you have had the benefit of many helpful hands on deck. By this I am referring to your loved ones — your family and friends and those people who supported you during your academic quest. Many of them are here today, and I would ask that we warmly acknowledge their important contributions to your success.

Once again, congratulations! Good luck. Godspeed. And, of course, I wish you fair winds and following seas!

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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