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The Power of Empathy

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

First Year Convocation – Class of 2015
EMPAC Concert Hall

Monday, August 29, 2011


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 2015, officially into the Rensselaer family.

Many of you have already demonstrated your commitment and resilience – just by being here. I am sure some of you left homes without power, dodged downed trees, and found your ways around floods to join us. I salute you all!

I know all of us are keeping those who are suffering from Hurricane Irene’s wrath in our thoughts and prayers. And I personally wish those here today safe travel home.

You met staff and Rensselaer students from upper classes this summer at one of the Student Orientation sessions. Last week, you were introduced to more members of our community and began to make connections among yourselves during Navigating Rensselaer and Beyond. Whether you dared to climb rocks in the Adirondacks, helped to build a house with Habitat for Humanity, or explored our environment at the Darrin Fresh Water Institute—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 career begins. 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 2015 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—and fun—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 in the Office of the First-Year Experience (FYE). The Clustered Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students program, known as CLASS, of which the First-Year Experience is the first step, has been created to integrate you into the full spectrum of academic and residential living experiences at Rensselaer to help you to grow, prosper, and succeed.

Please take advantage of the people and the resources we 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.

I ask each cabinet member to 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

Ms. Virginia Gregg, Vice President, Finance, and Chief Financial Officer

Mr. John Kolb, Class of 1979, Vice President, Information Services and Technology, and Chief Information Officer

Dr. Timothy Sams, Vice President for Student Life

Dr. John Minasian, Vice President and Dean, Rensselaer Hartford Campus

Mr. Curtis Powell, Vice President, Human Resources

Mr. Claude Rounds, Vice President, Administration

Dr. Francine Berman, Vice President, Research

Ms. Brenda Wilson-Hale, Vice President, Institute Advancement

Mr. William Walker, Vice President, Strategic Communications and External Relations

Thank you. You may be seated.

Class of 2015, what we all have witnessed in just the past week, on the East Coast of the U.S. – the earthquake last week and Hurricane Irene this past weekend – tells us why what we do here – what you will learn and research and do here – are so important. And this is before we fold in other catastrophes you and we have witnessed in just the last decade: war and terrorism, pandemic disease, the tsunami in Indonesia and other places, the earthquake and tsunami in/near Fukushima, Japan; Hurricane Katrina, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, global financial market volatility, the Great Recession… I could go on, but what is important for you to know is that, with a Rensselaer education, you can change the world, as Rensselaer graduates have always done, for 187 years.

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, and bridges to the future – through scientific discovery, technological innovation, entrepreneurship, the arts, the law, medicine and many other fields.

Your imagination, thought, questions, and analyses 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 have entered a new era. Entirely new areas of inquiry have been added to our curriculum and to our research portfolio, attracting new cohorts of faculty 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, more diverse undergraduate population has been recruited. Both serve to deepen the intellectual and social discourse that is Rensselaer. Because global challenges demand global perspectives and cross-cultural sophistication, we 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. The building in which we sit represents the dreams of many - for creating collaborations and bridges between those in the arts and those in science and engineering, and for creating new futures at the nexus of all of these. What does this mean to you – as you embark on your Rensselaer undergraduate experience? Why is this important? It is important because we need to understand art and human behavior, which we can explore through EMPAC, through the study of social/cognitive networks. We also need to design the built environment for more resiliency, which we/you can learn to do, and, in fact, do through studies in civil engineering, structural engineering, electrical and computer engineering, materials science, architecture and more. We need to understand the origins of the universe and the origins of disease, which you can do through the study of, and in, science. We need to understand how humans interface with society, especially when the interaction is mediated by technology, which you can do through your studies in the humanities, arts and social sciences. Finally, we need to learn to propagate new ideas, new approaches to things into the marketplace, into wider use, and to learn to create new enterprises, and to manage large complex organizations, which you can do through studies in the Lally School.

What does all of this mean to you - today? You have at hand the resources you need to become who you are meant to be. You have new arenas to explore, discoveries and innovations to make, tools to use, and people with whom you can delve into the issues of the day.

You have before you the pieces you need to develop your talents, your perspectives, your philosophy of life, and your character.

An essential attribute for exploring the world and yourselves is your imagination.

Author J.K Rowling (who wrote the “Harry Potter” books) said, “Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not -- and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”

Now most of you have come here with a passion for innovating and inventing. You love to delve into data, facts, and experiments, and to emerge with something new and wonderful. As you study here in the coming years, you will have many opportunities to invent and innovate, and we expect you to do so. The world needs to find new answers to challenges related to energy and the environment, peace and prosperity, justice and health care. Indeed, we are depending upon your intelligence, diligence, and your imaginations to create the future.

But the answers you find will be incomplete, they will not quite fit, if you fail to approach them with empathy.

Empathy is the capacity to be in tune with the joys, sufferings, concerns, and yearnings of others. Empathy makes the feelings and perspectives of the people around us available to us in a special way. Empathy reveals new possibilities and guides our choices. It is empathy that takes us beyond ourselves so we can reach out to our family, friends, and neighbors.

Recently, an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that college students today are much less empathetic than students of 1980. According to the article, testing shows that scores “have dropped 34 percent on ‘perspective taking’ (the ability to imagine others' points of view), and 48 percent on ‘empathic concern’ (the tendency to feel and respond to others' emotions).”

One could argue about the validity of such testing, but I think few would argue that our world needs more understanding, more tolerance, and more empathy. So, as you develop your imaginations in the service of your intellects, I encourage you to also develop your imaginations in the service of your hearts.

One of the values of Rensselaer is community. We provide opportunities, as you already have seen, for face-to-face encounters, for teamwork, and for collaboration. This provides practical skills, in a world where we need to work together to meet complex challenges, and it provides personal experiences in sharing, cooperating, and reaching out to others. Growing your capacity for empathy will help you in your careers, but, more importantly, it will enrich your lives.

As J.K. Rowling says, empathy is a transformative and revelatory capacity. While you are here, I hope you find opportunities for service. It can take many forms. Take the time to comfort those who are troubled and concerned. They may be your own classmates. Envision yourself in the shoes of others and develop your ability to, at least, understand the context in which they live.

Most importantly, let me say: I thank you for entrusting your education to us. You have made a wise choice. I welcome you to this special place we call Rensselaer.


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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