Freshman Convocation

Well, we’ve seen each other several times over the past few days, but let me NOW formally welcome you to the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute – the first and longest running technical university in the United States! We are thrilled you are here, and we look forward to getting to know all of you over the next few years. 

You’ve met Dr. Konwerski, so allow me to introduce the rest of the leadership team working to make sure your student experience at RPI is everything you’re hoping it will be:   

  • Dr. Rebecca Doerge, our new Provost;
  • R. May Lee, Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer for Institutional Impact
  • Craig Cook, Secretary of the Institute and General Counsel;
  • Matt Ter Molen, Vice President for Institute Advancement;
  • Dr. Robert Hull, Vice President for Research;
  • Ernie Katzwinkel, Vice President for Administration;
  • John Kolb, Vice President for Information Services and Technology and Chief Information Officer;
  • Eileen McLoughlin, Vice President for Finance and Chief Financial Officer;
  • Lou Padula, Vice President for Human Resources;
  • Dr. Jonathan D. Wexler, Vice President for Enrollment Management;
  • Dr. Jonathan Dordick, Institute Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering; and
  • Pamela Smith, Acting Vice President for Strategic Communications and External Relations.

Please join me in giving these leaders a round of applause. 

I don’t want to presume to know how you are feeling at this moment, but after talking to some of you since your arrival, and reflecting on my own freshman year at RPI, I have some sense of what’s going through your head. It’s some combination of excitement and nervousness.

This is a major transition in your life, and you are about to embark on a journey through RPI that can, and will, have a profound impact on your life. The thing is, we don’t know what that impact will be, or where it will propel you. Whatever it is, I am confident that what you learn and achieve at RPI will take you to great places. 

For me, when I arrived here in the Fall of 1977, I was excited, and that excitement was well-founded. Because in my four years as a student here, I solidified my passion for engineering, I learned from my professors and classmates, and made friendships that last to this day. I found the people in this community to be smart but not pretentious, eager to work as a team, and usually just plain kind. That hasn’t changed — I’m sure you’ll have a similar experience.

I admit I was also a little nervous during those first days on campus, both because it was a new place, and because I knew that RPI coursework would be rigorous. One of the things I had to learn as a freshman was how to work hard. I’m sure that for many of you, a grade less than an A has been a rare occasion up to now. You will find the work here demanding, and I’m sure you will worry ‘will I achieve that A in my class’. My advice: take advantage of the resources around you, and of your fellow students to learn together. Along the way, the grades will take care of themselves. If you are sitting here wondering if you really belong at RPI — trust me, we admitted you because we believe you belong.

RPI was founded on the idea that an education should be about the exchange of ideas between professors and students, rather than students sitting in their chairs and passively receiving knowledge. That remains the case today. Many of your professors have told me that their own interdisciplinary research has been spurred by the interests of their students. The learning is mutual. So, don’t be shy: Your voice is very much wanted and appreciated here.

But an RPI education is so much more than just classes and exams. As you get your bearings, I hope you’ll explore the campus, taking advantage of the opportunities the Union offers, the many clubs and activities, attending shows at EMPAC, and coming back up here to ECAV to support your teams. 

Then head on down the hill and see everything that our hometown of Troy has to offer, from coffee shops to restaurants to the world-class farmer’s market, as well as a number of startups founded by RPI alums. 

Consider getting involved in research as soon as you can. Come January, RPI will be the first university in the world to house an IBM Quantum System One, and you’ll have access to it. But maybe you’ll go out to our Darrin Fresh Water Institute field station in Lake George, or down to our Center for Engineering and Precision Medicine in New York City.

I hope you’ll approach this experience with a sense of adventure and openness. At RPI, you’ll encounter people from all over the globe — people whose experiences, backgrounds, and ideas are different from yours. That’s an incredible opportunity for you to learn about the world and about yourself. Take full advantage of getting to know the fascinating people sitting right next to you. 

But, I must say, our community isn’t immune to the divides that trouble this nation, and the world at this moment. However, on this campus, we can demonstrate the ways those divides can be bridged, by being welcoming, and simply listening to each other with a desire to understand. My greatest hope for you in your time here is that you learn how to speak and exchange ideas with each other. I urge you to approach those conversations with curiosity, an open and inquisitive mind, and a dose of humility. If you do, you will contribute to creating ‘One Rensselaer’: not a community monolithic in thought, but a community that welcomes all, even if we don’t agree on everything.
Throughout the coming year, we’ll be celebrating our 200th birthday, and you’ll be the class that takes Rensselaer Forward into our third century. I think you’re going to find this a wonderful place to learn, to grow, and to do truly original work.  

In closing, I have to confess that I don’t remember my convocation in the Fall of 1977, but I am guessing that President George Low likely said some very smart things – and sadly – I can’t recall them – otherwise I’d say them to you! What I am certain of, is that I was not thinking that in 45 years, I would have George Low’s job! But RPI put me on a path, an exciting path, a path that brought me here as your President. I have every confidence that if your embrace your RPI experience, it will launch you on your own exciting path, and we’ll be there to cheer you on! 

We’re so happy that you have joined us. Have a great first year!

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