Skip to main content

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Remarks at Freshman Convocation

Category: University Events
August, 2018

Freshman Convocation

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

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 2022, and the architects of 2023, into the Rensselaer family.

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.

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

First, you are focused, resourceful, talented. Each one of you was invited to join the Rensselaer family because we have confidence that you will thrive here.

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.

The second thing I want to remind you of is that you will not be alone.

As you transition to college life, know that the Rensselaer community includes many caring men and women whose sole purpose is to see you thrive. At the top of the list are your resident advisers, your academic advisers, 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 resources offered by the Office of the First-Year Experience are just the beginning—the first part of the overarching student experience we call Clustered Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students, or CLASS, which will help to ensure that you live within a tight-knit, caring community, and are offered the right chances to grow at the right stages of your college careers.

Also working to support you is the senior leadership of Rensselaer. Let me introduce the President’s Cabinet:

  • Professor Prabhat Hajela, our Provost;
  • Professor Robert Hull, Senior Associate Vice President for Research;
  • Craig Cook, Secretary of the Institute and General Counsel;
  • Graig Eastin, Vice President for Institute Advancement;
  • Richie Hunter, Vice President for Strategic Communications and External Relations;
  • John Kolb ’79, Vice President for Information Services and Technology, and Chief Information Officer;
  • Lee McElroy, Associate Vice President & Director of Athletics;
  • Curtis Powell, Vice President for Human Resources;
  • Claude Rounds, Vice President for Administration;
  • LeNorman Strong, Interim Vice President for Student Life; and
  • Jonathan Wexler, Vice President for Enrollment Management.

I am delighted, also, to introduce our academic leaders…

  • Professor Thomas Begley, Dean of the Lally School of Management;
  • Professor Curt Breneman, Dean of the School of Science;
  • Professor Evan Douglis, Dean of the School of Architecture;
  • Professor Shekhar Garde, Dean of the School of Engineering;
  • Professor Mary Simoni, Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences;
  • Professor Stanley Dunn, Vice Provost and Dean of Graduate Education; and
  • Professor Peter Fox, Director of Information Technology and Web Science.

These leaders will do everything possible to make your academic career fulfilling…and your student experience a joy.

In addition to our faculty and staff, please connect with your fellow students. They are very exceptional people.

Your freshmen classmates have the strongest academic backgrounds of any entering class in Rensselaer history. They also represent the most diverse class in our history, and one with a startling array of talents, experiences, and ambitions—including remarkable athletes, musicians, and entrepreneurs.

Your classmates will change your minds, change your lives, and together, you may very well change the world! That, indeed, is what we expect of you—and what we need from you.

We hope that you have enjoyed Navigating Rensselaer & Beyond, which is designed, in part, to familiarize you with the “beyond” aspect of your education—with our home city and the remarkable region surrounding it—the Capital Region, the Adirondacks to our north, and the Hudson River Valley to our south. Indeed, many have devoted a lifetime of study to understanding the geology, geography, and history of this region.

The Hudson River itself is quite fascinating. For much of its length, the Hudson is not a river at all, but rather an estuary. So powerful are the currents of the Atlantic Ocean that, at high tide, the river is salinized all the way here to Troy, about 165 miles from its mouth.

In 1609, Englishman Henry Hudson was looking for a rumored northeast passage to China when he entered New York Bay, and what is now the river named for him. He and his crew traveled nearly to Albany before realizing that the Hudson would not, in fact, lead them to China.

Troy prospered, nonetheless, because of its favorable site near the juncture of the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers, which connected the city to the world beyond, and powered industry and commerce. Troy rose to prominence as a waypoint for the shipment of goods from Vermont to New York City. By 1860, Troy was one of eight manufacturing centers that produced all of the nation's iron and steel—key materials for the Industrial Revolution.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute was founded at a critical juncture in this nation’s history—in 1824—to assist in spreading knowledge and commerce across our nation. The school was established to enable—in the words of our philanthropic founder Stephen Van Rensselaer—“the diffusion of a very useful kind of knowledge”—concerned with “the application of science to the common purposes of life.” Indeed, Rensselaer graduates went on to design and/or build roads, bridges, railroads, canals—the infrastructure that made the United States a great industrial power—something our graduates continue to do today, in the digital and physical realms.

But, you are our focus today. You are beginning your university career at a pivotal moment in the history of humanity, when we face increasingly complex and interconnected national and global challenges—including a changing climate and its effect on our food, water, and energy supplies; natural disasters—some linked to climate change; human health and disease propagation and mitigation; our need for sustainable infrastructure; national and global security; the intelligent allocation of natural resources; and diverging demographics between aging developed nations and young developing nations with rapidly growing populations.

Indeed, many of these challenges reflect intersecting vulnerabilities that can trigger cascading consequences.

Such complex challenges cannot be addressed by a single individual working alone—nor by a single discipline, sector, geography, or generation. Collaboration is key—along with young men and women sophisticated enough to lead such collaboration.

Fortunately, as well, we have remarkable new tools of analysis, discovery, invention, and prediction—such as genomics and all the other “-omics,”—as well as spectacular advances in sensor technologies, machine learning, and computation—for multi-faceted problem-solving that will offer us answers to questions previously unanswerable.

Each year, we select a theme for consideration by the entire Rensselaer community. The theme for this year is "Breaking Paradigms and Transcending Borders: Transformative Leadership in the 21st Century."

You are the leaders of the future, and you will break the paradigms under which we operate today, and lead us toward a better future.

It is our role as a university to provide the experiences, the people, the knowledge, and the tools that allow you to grow into such leadership. How will we do that? First, through our leading curriculum, you certainly will gain specific knowledge, and hone your analytical skills, with the most sophisticated technologies available. But, what kind of professional you become, and what kind of person you become is up to you. We will work to afford you every opportunity for intellectual, professional, and personal growth. You must reach to understand and learn—yes—from your teachers, yes—even from us here on the stage, and especially importantly, from each other. Indeed, your education here is intended to help you find your place, and make your mark, in the larger world.

You already have begun to make important connections with people whose knowledge and perspectives are different from yours — and we will help you continue to make connections with students, faculty, and leaders in all fields who will help to expand your view of the world. This includes developing and practicing empathy, trust, humility, and civility.

Given our commitment to uniting a multiplicity of perspectives at Rensselaer in order to enable transformative work — it is especially fitting that our faculty speaker today, Professor Michael Oatman of our top-ranked School of Architecture, brings together many different kinds of human artifacts in order to create witty and challenging architectural environments. He has been described as “a storyteller making a novel out of objects.” His collages and installations integrate thousands of found and made material objects, as well as drawings, paintings, and videos.

Even as he carefully constructs them, ultimately, he leaves it to his viewers to understand and interpret their own experience.

And so it is with your education. We have collected some of the best minds, assembled some of the most advanced tools, and built a state-of-the-art curriculum and campus to support you.

Ultimately, it is up to you to make the most of this opportunity.

At our last commencement exercises, the legendary jazz pianist Herbie Hancock addressed our graduates. He said, “If we take it upon ourselves to transform ourselves, we transform others and the world around us.” You have already begun a journey to transform yourself by joining the Rensselaer family. Now, you must build on this strong start. Cross barriers and borders, and stray beyond the edges of all existing maps. As you do this, collaborate, experiment, explore, ask for help when needed, and help others.

We look forward to how you will grow and surprise us.