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The Great Questions: First Year Convocation

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

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
EMPAC Concert Hall

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Good evening. As President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and, on behalf of the entire Rensselaer community, it is my privilege, and my very great pleasure, to welcome you, the Class of 2014, into the Rensselaer family.

You met members of our community this summer at one of the Student Orientation sessions. Last week, you met more Rensselaer people, and began to make connections among yourselves during Navigating Rensselaer and Beyond. Whether you chose to brave the rapids of the upper Hudson River, helped to build a house with Habitat for Humanity, or immersed yourselves in a forensics mystery — I hope you had fun, made some new friends, and tried something you had not done before.

Tomorrow, as the first classes of the semester convene, your university careers begin. After all the activity of the past few days, I imagine you are excited, nervous, and perhaps, a bit overwhelmed this evening.

So take a deep breath — and allow me to remind you of two things.

First, you can do this. You are smart, you are resourceful, and you are talented. You belong here. We have a lot of experience in selecting students who will thrive at Rensselaer. Each one of you was selected for the Class of 2014 because we have confidence in you.

It will not be easy. Great achievements never are. In fact, you will work harder than ever before, and you will be stretched — sometimes uncomfortably. But, as you work and stretch, you will build new intellectual strength, agility, and endurance.

Second, you will not be alone. The Rensselaer community includes caring men and women whose sole purpose is to see 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 the people in the office of Undergraduate Education, and in the division of Student Life, especially the Office of the First-Year Experience. The Clustered Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students program, popularly known as CLASS, has been created to integrate the full spectrum of academic and residential living experiences.

It will provide support to you throughout your undergraduate years, including living in and having common experiences in a residential cluster (or Commons), having live-in Commons deans, and the assignment of a CLASS dean for the Class of 2014, when you are sophomores.  The CLASS dean will then work with your class, in ways analogous to the Dean of the First Year Experience, until you graduate. You will learn much from CLASS, and grow much if you put yourselves into it wholeheartedly. 

Please, take advantage of all of these people here and the resources they offer, as you continue to exercise the adventurous spirit you revealed this week.

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

Will each cabinet member* please stand as your name is called, and remain standing until all the names are read?

  • 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
  • Mr. John Kolb, Class of 1979, Vice President, Information Services and Technology, and Chief Information Officer
  • Dr. Eddie Ade Knowles, Vice President, Student Life
  • Dr. John Minasian, Vice President and Dean, Rensselaer Hartford Campus
  • Dr. Paul Marthers, Vice President, Enrollment, and Dean, Undergraduate and Graduate Admissions
  • Mr. Curtis Powell, Vice President, Human Resources
  • Mr. Claude Rounds, Vice President, Administration
  • Dr. Francine Berman, Vice President, Research
  • Dr. Brenda Wilson-Hale, Vice President, Institute Advancement
  • Mr. William Walker, Vice President, Strategic Communications and External Relations

Thank you. You may be seated.

I hope you already have learned something about the history of Rensselaer. If you have, chances are that you know our students have gone on to build a lot of bridges. Certainly, this includes literal bridges, like the Brooklyn Bridge. But our graduates have also built bridges between disciplines and cultures and individuals.

This magnificent facility in which we sit represents the dreams of many — for creating collaborations and conversations between those in the arts and media, and those in science and engineering.

Our society needs more than ever to build relationships, sometimes between unlikely parties. The public discourse has become strained, and, to say the least, much debate lacks a minimum of critical thinking.

Your imagination, thought, questions, analyses, and solutions are needed by this world. That is why this is the best possible time to be at Rensselaer.

Over the past ten years, guided by a visionary document called The Rensselaer Plan, the Institute has been on an exceptional, upward trajectory. We are now entering a new era. Entirely new areas of inquiry have been added to our curriculum and research portfolio, attracting new cohorts of researchers, and undergraduate and graduate students from around the world. Traditional areas of expertise have been strengthened.

Talented new faculty have been hired. A wider, even more talented and more diverse undergraduate population has been recruited. Such a diverse cauldron of individuals will serve to deepen the social and intellectual discourse that is Rensselaer. Because global challenges demand global perspectives and cross-cultural sophistication, we, as a university, have built enduring partnerships and exchange relationships with universities and other institutions around the world, and we are developing opportunities for every undergraduate to have experiences abroad.

World-class, convention-defying platforms for research, computation, artistic creation, and athletics have been constructed.

What does all of this mean to you? You have at hand the resources you need to become who you were meant to be. You have knowledge to gain, tools to use and people (especially faculty and student life professionals) with whom you can approach and solve complex problems and delve into the issues of the day. You have before you the pieces you need to solve the mystery of you.

In a few minutes, Professor Robert Hull will reflect on how college years offer a unique period in you lives to learn, experience, and grow. He will share his own journey and his passion for materials engineering. I understand that he will even explain what materials engineering is.

You need not worry. There will not be a test.

All of our lives are filled with questions and answers, and the most important ones do not appear on tests.

I believe Rensselaer students like getting the answers... like getting them right. But most of them probably are more interested in great questions.

The questions that matter in life are really only answerable by you. Without a doubt, your answers will come from your experiences and conversations with other people, but the right answers are answers that respond to who you are, what you value, and to your individual talents and potential. You will get advice. Occasionally, it will be helpful — but the answers to important questions must come from you.

I have no doubt that society may try to proscribe your choices, and even to tell you which options to avoid. Ironically, society only develops and changes when people responsibly respond to the challenges of their times and to what is in their hearts.

First, ask yourself, what truly fits me? Amid the constellation of options, offers, and possibilities for reinventing yourself, which ones seem to say, “pay attention to me”?

Now, sometimes fate's claims on us are whispered, and we have to listen closely and ignore distractions. Sometimes the call will not be what we expect — because people with talent always walk into college with definite expectations placed upon them. Sometimes the call may be frightening because of the challenges it poses and sacrifices it requires. But, when you hear people say that you need to be true to yourself, this is what they are talking about.

Second, what is happening — or about to happen — that will really turn history in your lives? The answers here will guide you on how you use your talents and direct your lives so they are intertwined most fruitfully with the times in which you live. Perhaps you have heard the expression that generals fight the last war. Too many students prepare themselves to solve yesterday's problems. They competently go forth and take on things that are not the most urgent needs of their times. This is usually a safe play, but ultimately disappointing. Your full potential is only realized when you take on what matters most, within the limits of your capabilities.

Third (and this is implied in the previous two questions), who are you? Now I know this is one of the most clichéd questions that bubble up during the college years. Generations of students have asked this question without learning anything. They do not get the answer by looking in the mirror — although looking at what you are doing can be revealing. Mostly, the answer will come in two modes: by testing yourself in new ways — that is daring to explore knowledge and relationships and ideas that are not part of your lives right now.  And by listening.

Listening, really listening, is one of the most valuable skills you can develop. I have found it is becoming more rare day by day. People are more interested in talking than in listening. As the saying goes, you have one mouth, but you have two ears. So if you do look in the mirror, notice that — not just how gorgeous you are. And when you listen, listen critically. Make sure that what people say makes sense. Do not be afraid to ask where their supposed “facts” come from. And, most importantly, listen to the tone. Be very suspicious of anything someone says if the undercurrent is anger or fear or superiority. Emotions are fine, even vital, but many people have swallowed lies that were spiced with high emotion. This is equally true of face-to-face and Web-based conversations.

Leonardo da Vinci said, “Where there is shouting, there is no true knowledge.”

Of course, the most important listening is listening to yourself. The truth will speak to you most clearly in times of quiet. Give yourself the gift of being still, of putting away the distractions and the noises that fill our lives today. You live in an exciting and stimulating environment. That is mostly a good thing. But please allow me to offer a piece of advice: Take a deep breath from time to time, and give yourself a chance just be yourself.

So, three questions: What is your calling? What matters most in your times? And who are you? These questions, asked, and asked again, will shape your lives more than any that appear on calculus exams. I doubt that anyone at Rensselaer will approach you with these questions after today, and answering them is not required for your degree. But the value of your years here, and, indeed, the years that follow your graduation, will depend upon how you answer them.

I thank you for entrusting your education to us, as I welcome you to this special place — the wonderful community we call Rensselaer.

Thank you.

* Ms. Virginia Gregg, Vice President, Finance, and Chief Financial Officer was not in attendance.

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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