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First-Year Convocation

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

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
‘86 Field

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Good evening.

As President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and on behalf of the entire Rensselaer community, it is my very great pleasure, to welcome you, the Class of 2012, into the Rensselaer family.

Tomorrow, as the first classes of the semester convene, your university career officially begins. After all that you have experienced in the last few days, I imagine that you are excited, nervous, and, perhaps, a bit overwhelmed this evening.

Remember — you are smart, resourceful, and talented. You belong here. We have a great deal of experience in selecting students who will thrive at Rensselaer, and every one of you is here because we know that you can succeed and flourish.

Above all, never lose sight of the fact that you are not alone as you embark on this adventure of living and learning. The Rensselaer community includes caring men and women whose sole purpose is to help you thrive, and to make your experience, here, as rich, and rewarding, as possible. At the top of the list are your resident advisors, your academic advisors, your professors, and all of the people in the division of Student Life and the Office of the First-Year Experience.

Also working to support you, by providing overall leadership for the Institute, is the President’s Cabinet.

Will each cabinet member please stand as your name is called?

  • Dr. Robert Palazzo, Provost
  • Mr. Charles Carletta, Secretary of the Institute and General Counsel
  • Mr. Laban Coblentz, Chief of Staff and Associate Vice President for Policy and Planning
  • Ms. Virginia Gregg, Vice President, Finance and Chief Financial Officer
  • Mr. John Kolb, Class of 1979, Vice President for Information Services and Technology and Chief Information Officer
  • Dr. Eddie Ade Knowles, Vice President, Student LifeMr. James Nondorf, Vice President, Enrollment, and Dean, Undergraduate and Graduate Admissions
  • Mr. Curtis Powell, Vice President, Human Resources
  • Mr. Claude Rounds, Vice President, Administration
  • Mr. William Walker, Vice President, Strategic Communications and External Relations

Thank you. You may be seated.

Although you may not see each of these people every day, you may be sure they are working, all the time, to make Rensselaer stronger, and, therefore, your experience better.

Before you become caught up in your work and activities, I wish to plant two seeds which, I hope, will grow and flourish in your minds, and hearts, in the days ahead.

The first is this: Rensselaer is a special place — an exciting, surprisingly intricate community of people, places, and experiences. You will work hard here — perhaps harder than you ever have worked before. You will be stretched, sometimes uncomfortably. At times, you may become discouraged. But you, also, will have unparalleled opportunities to grow, and to contribute, in ways you can barely imagine today.

You, now, are taking your place in a tradition of excellence, discovery, innovation, and entrepreneurship — established 184 years ago by our founders, and, which, now — with 90,000 living alumni and alumnae — extends to the farthest reaches of the globe.

Your own introduction to Rensselaer may have begun some time ago. Perhaps a relative, a friend, or the friend of a friend, a high school guidance counselor, or a chance encounter at a college fair, set things in motion. These were your first encounters with the far-flung community of Rensselaer. Then, our admissions officers, alumni and student volunteers, professors, and staff may have welcomed you at an open house, or a campus tour, or answered your questions via e-mails, or phone conversations. Perhaps you were here in April for Accepted Students Day, and heard me tell you why I believe Rensselaer offers an unsurpassed education for the 21st century.

You met still more people and learned about the nuts and bolts of Rensselaer life at one of the Student Orientation sessions held this summer. And finally — whether you chose to brave the rapids of the upper Hudson River, helped to build a house with Habitat for Humanity, played in the orchestra, or immersed yourself in a forensics mystery — you began to make connections between and among yourselves during Navigating Rensselaer and Beyond.

This is a special place — which offers much, and comprises a unique community of individuals — challenging and learning from each other. I hope that you tried something which you had never done before, and, that you, indeed, began to forge relationships with people whose interests and life experience may have been different from your own. Rensselaer is wonderfully diverse — intellectually, socially, ethnically, and with regard to geographic origin. Take a moment, now, to look around you. Your class — which was carefully selected — adds new energy, new talents and enthusiasms, new skills and passions to the mix. It even includes two sets of twins — Paul and Brian Orecchio from Massachusetts, and Nicola and Vivian Schmied from New York. Take full advantage of this mix — explore new ideas and experiences, seek out new ways to connect with the community around you, and reach out to the broader world. Look for ways to make a difference — even while you are still preparing for your place in the world. Vote. And, remember to share what is happening to you with the community most eager for you to succeed — your family.

You have come to Rensselaer in search of the best education possible, and we — the faculty and staff, my cabinet, and I — will do all within our power to provide you with that — confident in our belief that there is no better way to be prepared for the challenges of the future than to be well educated.

But, the precise texture of your education will be determined by you. Focus on your studies and keep your eyes, and minds, open to unexpected opportunities and possibilities of all sorts — both within and beyond the classroom and laboratory.

Engagement is important to growth in the residential university setting. So, I urge you to keep alive the spirit of “trying the new,” which you demonstrated during the past few days.

I said that there are two important seeds I wanted to plant with you.

The second seed is this: The year 2008 may well be the most important, and the most exciting time to join the Rensselaer community, since Stephen Van Rensselaer (our founder) and Amos Eaton (our first teacher) set out to transform higher education in 1824.

Over the past several years, Rensselaer has been on an exceptional, upward trajectory which many have called a virtual renaissance. Entirely new areas of inquiry have been added to our curriculum and research portfolio; we have attracted, attracting new cohorts of researchers and graduate students from around the world, while traditional areas of expertise have been strengthened and broadened.

A wider, more diverse undergraduate population has been aggressively recruited and carefully selected. Talented new faculty have been hired. World-class facilities have been constructed and world-changing programs have been initiated. At the same time, opportunities for our undergraduates to study abroad, to participate in meaningful research, to enjoy a wide array of cultural and recreational activities, have been strengthened or created from scratch. Innovative student-support programs and services — like Navigating Rensselaer and Beyond — have been implemented.

If you are engineering majors, you will have an opportunity for an international experience — through our Rensselaer Engineering Education Across Cultural Horizons program (or REACH). This may involve an academic semester at a partner university, an international internship, an oversees research fellowship, or something similar. REACH will begin this academic year for 100 to 200 junors, with programs in Denmark and Singapore. It will expand to include all engineering undergraduates, and ultimately, all undergraduates, over the next several years. REACH builds upon, and benefits from, our Architecture program, which has semesters abroad for architecture students in Italy, Turkey, Shanghai (China), and India.

In a few minutes, our featured speaker, Dr. Susan Gilbert, head of the Biology Department, will tell you a bit more about what all this growth can mean to you — personally.

But let me set the stage by telling you more about “new” news of great importance to you, as you embark on your personal odysseys here. To assure continuity of support for your growth throughout your years here, we are beginning what we call the CLASS Initiative, which stands for Clustered Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students. It consists of time-based and residential clustering (our version of a residential college model). Beginning in your sophomore year, and as you progress from one year to the next, an array of professionals, led by a Class Dean — with faculty involvement — will integrate across the academic portfolios to fold in a full spectrum of student services, and career counselling, and extra curricular programming. Likewise, residential cluster deans, who may be faculty, and/or student life professionals, will begin to live in the on-campus residential complexes to create a continuum of living-learning opportunities and communities within Rensselaer. Greek Life and off-campus living (for upper-class students) are being assigned their own deans and are being aligned with residence life and the CLASS initiative, so that wherever you are in our residential model — campus residence halls, fraternities, off-campus housing, et cetera — you remain within the Rensselaer community, and within reach of the sphere of Rensselaer curricular, co-curricular, and extra-curricular programming and growth and participation opportunities, and, of course, counselling, and services.

Today, upper-class undergraduate and graduate students reside in undergraduate residence halls, where they serve as residential and learning assistants, and offer workshops on time management, study skills, technical textbook reading, and problem-solving. As we completely fold in the CLASS initiative, these live-in upperclassmen and graduate students will help to lead enhanced programming — under the guidance of the cluster deans and class deans.

Finally, the Class of 2012 always will be linked with one of the crowning event of the Renaissance at Rensselaer — the grand opening, in October, of the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, or EMPAC.

Why is this so important to Rensselaer, and, to you?

The complexities of the world are rapidly moving us into more nuanced and combined conceptual/qualitative approaches to discovery, creation, learning, and problem-solving. The old ways of doing science and engineering, architecture, and business — the old ways of thinking and confronting challenges, are no longer adequate. Dr. Richard Feynman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, and considered by many the greatest American physicist, described how science has progressed beyond our ability to understand it. He put it this way: “Our imagination is stretched to the utmost, not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend those things which are there.”

In order to understand the universe, to explore the full beauty of the workd, to experience and appreciate other cultures, and to meet multifaceted challenges such as climate change, energy security, global health, terrorism, and more, we must develop multifaceted approaches which enable and exploit our full intellectual and creative potential.

So, in October, we will celebrate the grand opening of the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, or EMPAC, a unique venue for creative research, production, and performance. Already sponsoring innovative arts programs and events, and leading-edge research, EMPAC will support artistic creation, high-end performances, and research in areas such as visualization, animation, simulation, acoustics, haptics, virtual worlds, cognition and learning, architectural design, imaging science and engineering, and much more.

This facility, unlike any other, is a 220,000-square-foot home for an emerging, engaged community of artists, engineers, scientists, and designers. Here we offer Rensselaer faculty, students, and the broader arts, engineering, and science communities a balanced forum between left and right brain endeavors, and the means to connect the two. EMPAC is a collaborative platform where art challenges, and alters, the limits of science and technology, where science and technology push the boundaries of art, and where they intersect and potentiate — a creative arts arena, and a world-class research and education platform.

What that convergence will look like, what results will emerge, we do not yet know. EMPAC is designed to take us into the unknown.

But this we do know. EMPAC will open new doors, and will change us all. And the results will be important.

As part of the EMPAC opening, you will have the opportunity to attend a variety of EMPAC activities, including performances, tours, concerts — many of them featuring faculty-led research student group performances, video installations, 3-D movie screenings, and world-renowned performing artists.

All of this is just the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more to learn about Rensselaer, what it offers, and the exciting changes occurring now.

You did not come here just to do what you were doing before.

If you are to become the leaders in your fields we expect you to become, then what you do here should help you to: clarify your values; learn to set the example; envision the future; search for opportunities; experiment and take (prudent) risks; foster collaboration; enlist, strengthen, and recognize others; and celebrate your victories.

With that, I welcome you to your new home, and to your roles and engagement in the continuing history of Rensselaer.

Thank you.

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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