Freshman Convocation

Welcome to RPI! This is the largest class in Rensselaer history—and the most diverse—and we are looking forward to getting to know all of you.

In the fall of 1977, as a first year RPI student, I was in exactly your shoes. In fact, I am a freshman again, starting my first year as President of RPI, after 41 years at MIT. 

One of the things I have been doing this summer to get to know the RPI of today, as opposed to the RPI of 1977-1981, is embarking on a listening and learning tour. The listening part means meeting with every faculty member in small groups, as well as with staff, student leaders, parents, and alumni.

The learning part means spending a day with every Dean learning about each school and visiting every facility on campus—so, if you find me poking around your residence halls and checking out the utility closets, don’t be alarmed.
One of the most important questions I have been asking our faculty members and staff is, “What do you love about RPI?”

The overwhelming response is “the students.”

They talk about how bright all of you are. But they also talk about RPI students’ character: Phrases like “smart, but not pretentious,” “extremely hard-working and not entitled,” “collaborative, not competitive,” and just plain “kind” are used over and over. 

This says something to me—that our Enrollment Management people are making really subtle distinctions and selecting freshmen every year able to handle the rigorous curriculum here with enthusiasm and grace.  So, if you are sitting here wondering, do I really belong at RPI—trust us, you do.

One of the things I learned as a freshman at RPI was how to work hard. I suspect that for many of you, getting anything less than an A is an unusual occurrence. But here, you will find the work more demanding and the pace a lot swifter than you are used to. But don’t be afraid to learn, even at the sacrifice of a grade now and then—and understand that your fellow students are going to turn out to be your collaborators and lifelong friends.

To that point, the second most popular answer to my question, “What do you love about RPI?” is the collegiality and the willingness to collaborate across all borders.

From the time RPI was founded in 1824, the kind of education we offer has been one of an exchange of ideas between professors and students—and shared explorations—rather than expecting students to sit in their chairs and passively receive knowledge. So, don’t be shy: Your voice is very much wanted and appreciated here.

In fact, a number of the professors I’ve spoken with in the last few weeks have pointed out that their own interdisciplinary research has been spurred by the interests of their students. The learning is mutual. 
After you get your sea legs, I would urge you to attack college with a sense of adventure and go beyond the campus boundaries, physically and intellectually.

Explore the fascinating city of Troy, which was once an industrial powerhouse because of an advantageous site near where the Hudson River, the Mohawk River, and the Erie Canal meet. Today, it is home to a number of entrepreneurial companies founded by RPI graduates. A few years from now, some of you may be launching your own start-ups right down the hill.

Get involved in research as soon as you can, whether at the Darrin Fresh Water Institute field station on Lake George; or in New York City at our Center for Engineering and Precision Medicine, where we partner with the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai; or at our Institute for Energy, the Built Environment, and Smart Systems, where our partners include the Brooklyn Law School.

I hope you will approach your classmates and all the members of this community with an equal sense of adventure. While we are not immune to the divides that are plaguing the United States at the moment—we certainly can demonstrate the ways those divides can be bridged, by being inclusive and welcoming, and simply listening to each other with a desire to understand.

At RPI, you will encounter people from many different parts of the globe—people whose experiences, backgrounds, and ideas are different than yours. They represent an incredible opportunity for you to learn about the world and about yourself. Take full advantage and get to know the fascinating people sitting right next to you.

As I am learning about the RPI community, I am learning that it is both extremely friendly and supportive and absolutely fearless in pursuit of the new. I think you are all going to find this a wonderful place to learn, to grow, and to do truly original work.  

We are so happy that you have joined us.  Please, have a great academic year!

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