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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Freshman Convocation

Category: University Events
August, 2019
ECAV Arena
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 2023, and the architects of 2024, into the Rensselaer family.

Tomorrow, as the first classes of the semester convene, your university careers begin. After all of the fun of the past few days, I imagine that you are eager to get to work, but possibly also feeling some anxiety.

Please allow me to remind you of two things.

First, place your trust in us—we are very good at selecting those people who will thrive at Rensselaer. You are the strongest class we ever have admitted at Rensselaer, in terms of academic achievement. As soon as you adjust to our high expectations for you, you are sure to meet and exceed them.

Of course, even very intelligent people have to work hard to achieve great things. But, as you stretch yourselves to accomplish more, you will only grow more agile and more confident.

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

The Rensselaer community includes many caring men and women who are dedicated to seeing you thrive, and to making your experience here as rewarding as possible. 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.

Please, take advantage of all the resources they offer. Also working to support you by providing overall leadership for Rensselaer is my team—the President’s Cabinet.

Please allow me to introduce them:

  • Dr. Prabhat Hajela, our Provost;
  • Mr. Craig Cook, Secretary of the Institute and General Counsel;
  • Mr. Graig Eastin, Vice President for Institute Advancement;
  • Ms. Barbara Hough, Vice President for Finance and Chief Financial Officer;
  • Dr. Robert Hull, Senior Associate Vice President for Research;
  • Ms. Richie Hunter, Vice President for Strategic Communications and External Relations;
  • Mr. John Kolb ’79, Vice President for Information Services and Technology, and Chief Information Officer;
  • Dr. Peter Konwerski, Vice President for Student Life, whom you already have met;
  • Dr. Lee McElroy, Associate Vice President and Director of Athletics;
  • Mr. Curtis Powell, Vice President for Human Resources;
  • Mr. Claude Rounds, Vice President for Administration; and
  • Mr. Jonathan Wexler, Vice President for Enrollment Management.

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

  • Dr. Curt Breneman, Dean of the School of Science;
  • Mr. Evan Douglis, Dean of the School of Architecture;
  • Dr. Shekhar Garde, Dean of the School of Engineering;
  • Dr. Mary Simoni, Dean of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences;
  • Dr. Chanaka Edirisinghe, Acting Dean of the Lally School of Management;
  • Dr. Keith Moo-Young ’92, ’95, Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Education;
  • Dr. Stanley Dunn, Vice Provost and Dean of Graduate Education;
  • Dr. Aric Krause, Dean for Academic and Administrative Affairs, Rensselaer at Hartford; and
  • Dr. Peter Fox, Director of Information and Technology and Web Science.

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

I encourage you also to lean on your fellow students. They are not just smart—they are extremely interesting and diverse—and they already have achieved remarkable things in fields that range from athletics, to entrepreneurship, to community work.

So, whenever a chance appears, strike up a conversation with the person next to you. They are likely to expand your world.

I also urge to you engage wherever you can—by joining one of 250 clubs in our Rensselaer Union, by cheering on our athletic teams, by participating in student government, by volunteering out in the community, or by assisting your professors in their research.

At this moment, you may consider studying hard and doing well in your classes as the primary job of your undergraduate years. But equally important is developing new perspectives. We will educate you here for deep knowledge in your chosen field—but also for the breadth that will help you to do truly original work at the interstices between disciplines. We will do everything possible to help you to develop intellectual agility, multicultural sophistication, and a global perspective—qualities we consider essential for leadership in the 21st century.

At Rensselaer, we operate within a model we term The New Polytechnic. Polytechnic comes from the Greek for “skilled in many arts.”

Our vision is influenced by two factors: First, humanity faces increasingly complex and interconnected global challenges—including those surrounding climate change; our food, water, and energy supplies; human health and disease; our need for sustainable infrastructure; national and global security; and the intelligent allocation of valuable natural resources.

The second factor is the advent of remarkable new tools and technologies that allow us to address such complexity, such as CRISPR genome editing, and computational advances that include artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Both factors argue for collaboration. The challenges are too complex to be addressed by the most brilliant person working alone—or by a single discipline, sector, nation, or generation. And the tools, also, mean that scientists, engineers, architects, managers, scholars, and artists must join forces to find the best approach to the hardest of problems.

Here at The New Polytechnic, we serve as a great crossroads for talented people from everywhere, and we lead by gathering a multiplicity of perspectives and focusing them on the grand challenges. We will ask you, too, to lend your experiences and point of view to our explorations—and you will gain new insights in the process.

Our faculty speaker today, Professor Shayla Sawyer of the Department of Electrical, Computer, and Systems Engineering, truly embodies The New Polytechnic. As an undergraduate, Professor Sawyer wrote a paper about nano-bots in the body, and was thunderstruck by the possibilities, if biology and small electronic devices were combined. Today, she and her students in her Nano-Bio Optoelectronics laboratory combine materials science, electrical engineering, and microbiology. They are devising sensors, for example, that use bacteria as ultra-sensitive detectors of the phosphates that promote toxic algae blooms in freshwater lakes—part of a remarkable multidisciplinary effort to conserve freshwater resources that we call The Jefferson Project.

We hope that you, too, will forge new links among disciplines, among people, and among ideas.

I urge you to explore boldly—with the confidence that many, many people are here to support you, and to cheer you on.

You now are surrounded by a wonderful community—faculty, staff, administrative leadership, your fellow students, and beyond that, by wonderful Rensselaer partners such as IBM Research and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai—as well as a remarkable network of alumni and alumnae who care a great deal about your success.  

We all will be by your side—as we all work together to change the world, for the better. I so welcome you to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.