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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Remarks Hutchins Center Honors

Category: Regional
October, 2018
Sanders Theater, Harvard University

W.E.B. Du Bois Medal Ceremony

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

I am privileged to be recognized with the other distinguished medal recipients today.

W.E.B. Du Bois believed in the power of higher education—particularly a liberal education befitting free men and women—to inspire and to elevate the African American community in the United States, and, indeed, people of African descent around the world. He believed in the sheer power of excellence.

I stand before you today, because I had wonderful parents, who also placed their faith in education, and in excellence.

My mother, a social worker who loved literature, taught me and my siblings to read before kindergarten. My father, who was not a high school graduate, and who worked for the U.S. Postal Service, was mathematically and mechanically gifted, and encouraged my early interests in science and mathematics.

He served in World War II in a segregated Army unit. During the Normandy invasion, when the rudders of the amphibious vehicles bringing the supplies and the troops to shore kept breaking, he was able to improvise a repair—with a special splice that he created on the spot. For that, he received a Bronze Star.

My parents taught me not only to study, to work hard, to explore, and to excel—but also to use all that I learned to serve others.

Indeed, I have had a wonderful career that has encompassed scientific research, business, and government, and have served society in that way. However, it is as a leader in higher education that I have had the greatest opportunity to encourage and launch talented young people from all backgrounds; also, to reinforce excellence as the goal in higher education—a goal, that when achieved, inevitably parts the waters.

My father used to say, “Aim for the stars. You will at least reach the treetops—and be sure to get off the ground.”

We each live through our “window in time,” that is such a determinant of what happens to each of us. When a door opens in our time, if we are prepared, resilient, and focused enough, and if it is our time, amazing things can happen. They happened for me.

I am grateful to Harvard University, the Hutchins Center, Dr. Gates, and all of you for this great honor—and I hope that it inspires younger generations, also, to aim for the stars.

Thank you so much!