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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

College of St. Rose 96th Commencement

Category: Regional
May, 2019
Times Union Center
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D., President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

It is a very great honor to join the Class of 2019 this morning, as you proudly receive your degrees from the College of St. Rose.

I congratulate the graduates, and their families and friends, who made this achievement possible.

Graduates, the people who love you did more than encourage you, feed you, and finance you—they instilled values in you that the College of St. Rose surely has deepened—with its own emphasis on service, on global connectedness, on tolerance and diversity, and on a culture of collaboration and innovation.

I would urge you to reflect on the values that you have gained from your families and your alma mater—celebrate of course!—but then reflect, because these values will guide you on the path ahead.

When I look back on my own successes, my wonderful parents, who inspired a love of learning in my siblings and me, are clearly at the root of them. Although the society around me did not expect very much of a young African American girl growing up in segregated Washington, D.C., during the 1950s—my parents always believed that I would step through my “window in time” to contribute to the world in a significant way.

My mother, a social worker who loved literature, taught my siblings and me to read before kindergarten. 

My father, a postal worker who never had the opportunity to graduate from high school, was mathematically and mechanically gifted. 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 some troops) to shore kept breaking, he improvised a repair—with a special splice that he created on the spot. For that, he received a Bronze Star.

My parents encouraged my early interests in science. My father helped me and my siblings to build and race go-karts. I learned a lot about the principles of mechanics and aerodynamics from this experience, and I quickly figured out that the skill of the go-kart driver was less important than the aerodynamic design of the vehicle.

I also would capture live bees and keep them in Mason jars under our back porch. I observed how they behaved under different conditions—such as the relative amount of light and darkness they were exposed to. Today, we would say that I was doing experiments in circadian biology—which refers to the chemical clocks inside our cells that respond to cycles of light and darkness during a 24-hour day. This is an important area of research, including at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, because disruptions in our circadian rhythms have many impacts on human health.

In addition to supporting my interests, my parents taught me and my siblings the value of hard work, of striving for excellence, and of service to others—all of which have stood me in good stead throughout my life.

I was shaped, as well, by the confluence of two historical events. The first was the desegregation of the Washington, D.C., public schools—in the year following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. This meant that I could attend a good school, in my own neighborhood, with more competition, with children from backgrounds different from mine, who introduced me to new perspectives.

Two years later, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, which occasioned a degree of panic among United States political leaders and policymakers that we might be losing the Cold War. This sparked the Space Race, which, as you know, culminated with human missions to the moon. Sputnik 1 also spurred a rigorous emphasis on mathematics and science in the public schools, which dovetailed with my own interests and abilities. I was placed in an accelerated academic honors program in the seventh grade, and achieved at a level to become valedictorian of my high school.

However, it was not until I arrived at MIT as an undergraduate, that I truly considered the chances that life had occasioned for me.

MIT was then, as it is today, a challenging and thrilling place to receive an education. It also was rather cold on the personal front. I was one of just two African American women in my class, and the other students were sometimes quite unfriendly. I was not invited to join the study groups in my dormitory. Some students were unwilling even to sit next to me in class, or to eat at my table during meals.

When I was thinking of majoring in physics and sought the advice of a distinguished professor, his response was, “Colored girls should learn a trade.”

I was taken aback and hurt that this professor thought so little of my prospects—especially since I had the highest grades in his class.

But I knew that in life, there are both chances and choices. Chance had made me an African American female—a heritage I proudly embraced.

I also saw that I had a choice here: I could give in to ignorance, or persevere and pursue excellence. I remembered something my father always said, “Aim for the stars, so that you can reach the treetops—and at least, you will get off the ground.” So, I chose excellence, and made physics my trade.

By the way, I did so well in his class that this professor invited me to work in his laboratory. I like to think that I taught him something—that physics is a perfectly appropriate trade for a young African American woman.

Please allow me to tell you one other story from my time at MIT. In April of my senior year, deciding where to attend graduate school, I visited the University of Pennsylvania, which was hoping to recruit me. As I was leaving for the airport at the end of my visit, with a friend, we heard on the radio that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot and killed. We nearly drove the car off the road.

Inspired by the courage of Dr. King, I decided to remain at MIT for graduate school in theoretical elementary particle physics—and to do what I could to open windows for the students who followed me. MIT needed to become much more welcoming to minorities, both for its own sake, and for the sake of the nation. I helped to establish the Black Students’ Union, and I was asked to join the Task Force on Educational Opportunity—headed by then-Associate Provost Paul Gray (later President of MIT). Our recommendations led to MIT hiring minority faculty and staff, actively recruiting minority students, and initiating a six-week summer program, that helped to prepare incoming freshmen for the rigorous coursework they would encounter. Although I was still a student, I was asked to help design, and teach in, the physics curriculum.

The students I helped to bring to MIT truly excelled, and proved that talent and success in science and engineering is not limited to one race, or gender, or origin.

A window had opened in my life, and with an excellent education, I was prepared to step through it. Because I had proven that I could address intricate challenges in science and in the broader socio-economic realm, I was asked to advise, and lead, on other complex issues, in multiple domains—scientific, governmental, academic, and economic.

At first, I focused on my research—at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois, and at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland. But then, sometime after I had launched my research career at the great Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey, Governor Thomas Kean appointed me to the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology, which promoted innovation—through investments in research—at the major public and private universities in the state—in areas deemed important to the New Jersey economy. Because the Commission included politicians, university presidents, and corporate CEOs, I gained insights into leadership in different sectors.

Two other senior advisory positions followed under the next two governors of New Jersey. One opportunity led to another in multiple realms.

My first corporate board service—at New Jersey Resources Corporation—was where I initially became engaged with the energy business. As a result, I was an interesting choice, when a recruiter was looking for a new director for Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG), in 1987.

My board service with PSEG—where today I am privileged to serve as Lead Director—changed my life. PSEG owned or co-owned, and operated, a number of nuclear reactors. Because of my background in physics, I sat on, and later chaired, for a number of years, the PSEG Nuclear Oversight Committee.

I believe this service led to my name arising in 1994, when President Bill Clinton was seeking a Commissioner for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission—the NRC—which regulates the civilian use of nuclear power and materials. After interviewing at the White House, I was offered the job of Chairman of the NRC. Thanks to my board service in state government and at PSEG, I was ready for this leap.

My tenure as Chairman of the NRC coincided with the end of apartheid in South Africa, and the initial aftermath of the breakup of the Soviet Union, with the weapons-grade uranium of the Soviet nuclear programs needing better control in the newly independent states. My tenure also came nine years after the Chernobyl nuclear plant explosion in 1986, in Ukraine. As a consequence, not only was I faced with leading the oversight of the nuclear industry in the U.S., I was very involved in international efforts to promote nuclear safety and non-proliferation, by working with President Nelson Mandela’s government to create a policy and process framework for nuclear safety regulation, and working with the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union, to improve the safety of their nuclear plants, and to create a framework for nuclear materials disposition.

Then, another window opened. Four years into my NRC tenure, I was asked, in 1999, to assume the presidency of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the oldest technological research university in the U.S. At that point, my experience in research, in national and international leadership roles, and in fostering international cooperation, led the Board of Trustees to believe that I could guide Rensselaer through a needed transformation—which we have achieved. 

At Rensselaer we work to imbue in our students intellectual agility, multicultural sophistication, and a global view. Why are we so focused on these attributes? Well, what happens here, in our communities, is deeply affected by, and even driven by, challenges that are global in scope.

On an existential level, we face challenges of climate change; national and global security; the mitigation of disease and improvement of human health; food, water, and energy security—locally and globally; and sustainable infrastructure.

At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, we focus on these greatest of challenges in both research and education, recognizing that they are too complex and too intertwined to be addressed by a single person, discipline, or nation acting alone. With a vision we term The New Polytechnic, we serve as a crossroads for collaborations among brilliant and motivated people from all disciplines, sectors, geographies, cultures, and generations, using the most advanced tools and technologies to address hard problems. 

All of these challenges require new science and new technology. But not these alone. The world needs bright, well-educated people—as many as possible, from all backgrounds, and in all disciplines—to address our greatest challenges. Addressing them requires new perspectives, social consciousness and care, empathy, leadership, and service—attributes that you have been imbued with here at St. Rose.

As graduates of the College of St. Rose, all of you have benefitted from the strong tradition of service that was incorporated into this college from its very founding by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet.

Father Jean-Pierre Medaille brought together the Sisters of St. Joseph in 1650, with a very progressive idea: These women were not to be cloistered. Instead, they would go out into their communities to help vigorously, to improve their neighbors’ lives, and actively to give.

In the founding document of the Sisters, Father Medaille wrote of the women who would belong to this order: “The persons who compose it will be nothing for themselves, but wholly absorbed and emptied of self, in God and for God, and with that, they will be all for the dear neighbor.”

In other words, the most meaningful of challenges we can be immersed in, of course, are the ones that allow us to uplift others.

So, by now you know that I have had the opportunity to do theoretical physics research at some of the world’s greatest scientific laboratories, to advise government at both the state and federal levels, to lead a major federal agency, to contribute to international cooperation in critical areas, to create and lead an international organization, to serve on the boards of some of the world’s greatest corporations, to lead one of the world’s greatest technological research universities, and to serve on the board of trustees of another. 

I have had the privilege throughout my career to try to make a difference in multiple areas—here at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in the greater Capital Region of New York state, and on the national and global stage. In all that I have been privileged to do, I have always tried to turn my chances into choices, and to make a difference, wherever I am.

As you move off into the world, what I want to underscore for you, Class of 2019, is that heritage is by chance—success by choice. Heritage can be both an opportunity and an obstacle. However, from that moment in childhood, or early adulthood, when we learn to draw strength from our heritage—to overcome difficult circumstances—our lives become the product of our choices.

And more than any other factor, education is the greatest choice—by opening our eyes and our minds to new possibilities, allowing us to transcend the roles that chance has assigned us.

Those who have educated you here at St. Rose believe that you are resilient enough, confident enough, curious enough, and educated enough, to step through your “window in time,” to create your own best selves and to make up your own minds as to your paths in life.

Be proud of your heritage, embrace the values you have been taught, shape your lives by courageous choices—choices that help you, and help others.

This will make your lives rewarding, interesting, and profoundly meaningful.

I congratulate, again, the Class of 2019, and their families, and I wish you Godspeed on all the journeys ahead.