Remarks to the WPI Class of 2014

President Berkey extends a special welcome to the members of the Class of 2014 along with their parents and other members of the students' families.

Dennis D. Berkey, President

“A Mighty Heart (VI)”

I am delighted to add my welcome to the many you have no doubt received today. The members of this Class of 2014 are joining one of America’s finest universities. You have made an excellent choice, and so have we.

I wish to extend a special welcome to the parents and other members of the students’ families. We appreciate the confidence you have expressed in WPI by entrusting us with the education of your sons and daughters. We hope that all of you will feel a membership in our community, that you will return to the campus often to visit your students, celebrate their achievements, get to know their friends and professors, and share in the rich menu of academic, cultural, and social opportunities available at WPI.

Here is a little information about the Class of 2014:

As of today, there are 924 of you, a select group chosen from a record high applicant pool, reflecting WPI’s increasing popularity among outstanding students seriously committed to challenging education rooted in engineering and science. Also:

  • 34% (312) of you are women, a record high—please stand to be acknowledged.
  • 10.5% (97) are domestic students of color.
  • 12% (114) are international students.
  • Your average SAT composite score (two exams) is 1294.
  • Your average high school GPA was 3.8.
  • 381 of you had perfect 4.0 averages in high school (a “problem” that our dean of undergraduate education said “we are going to fix!”)
  • You include 54 class valedictorians and 34 salutatorians.
  • 13 percent of you have a legacy connection to WPI.
  • And, you represent 34 states and 3 foreign countries.

You are fabulous! Parents, please join me in a round of applause for these impressive young people.

You have chosen a very distinctive university, and I want to say just a few words about some of WPI’s essential qualities. Since its founding in 1865, WPI has emphasized both theory and practice. Indeed, that is our motto, a very literal translation of the German Lehr und Kunst. Originally, WPI students made things in the Washburn shops (drafting tables, engineering tools, etc.) as well as learning things in their Boynton Hall classrooms.  Today’s form of this blending of theory and practice is expressed most directly in the two major projects that are required for a WPI degree—the interactive qualifying project which focuses on the beneficial applications of technology in society, and the major qualifying project in the field of concentration, or major. And, outside of these major projects you will find a high degree of collaborative work, work that often crosses disciplinary boundaries and engages issues of vital importance, throughout our programs.

This novel structure to our curriculum provides much more than just a direct application of the subject matter from one course or another. It challenges students—it will challenge you—to deal with ambiguity, to identify and formulate problems properly, to marshal relevant resources and knowledge, to conceive and organize solutions, to work cooperatively in ways that complement one another’s strengths and weaknesses, to accommodate differences in style and philosophy, to integrate knowledge, and to communicate what has been accomplished, both in writing and in oral presentation. In this regard WPI students graduate very well prepared to apply their knowledge and their abilities, whether in professional practice, the world of work generally, or advanced study in graduate and professional programs. 

And, let me plead with all of you, the need for these abilities—for your abilities--has never been greater, due to the enormous challenges we face in health and medicine, in the environment, in the economy, and in global relations. Students who are well informed about science and technology, even if they do not major specifically in one of these fields, who know how to put their knowledge to work, and who understand the imperatives of achievement and leadership, will be well prepared to make a profound impact in the world, as I know all of you will do.

Now let me offer some rather more practical advice, because I very much want each one of you to succeed at WPI.

You will find your faculty eager to get to know you, to assist you with both your academic and personal challenges, and to be fully supportive of your efforts. Similarly, the professional staff will provide advising, personal and career counseling, social opportunities of all sorts, and general assistance of all kinds. But these extensive resources can only be helpful to you if you do your part to connect with and engage the persons and programs that are here to assist you. How to do this is relatively simple, and I can put it in nine words:

Come to class.
Do the work.
Ask for help.

I do not mean to be facetious.  Each of you is fully capable of succeeding here or we would not have admitted you. Students who fail to succeed at WPI for the most part do so simply because the do not come to class, keep up with the assignments, or ask for help when they need it.

This last tip, about asking for help when you need it, is especially important. You are high achievers, often the highest in your class (remember—more than one third of you were straight A students!). You are not accustomed to needing help; indeed, many of you have highly developed abilities to meet deadlines with heroic but last-minute effort. But now you are about to find yourself among classmates just as smart as you (well, almost as smart!); in courses that are completed, beginning to end, in a brief seven weeks; and with teachers who expect you not only to “learn” the material, but to master it and put it work. At WPI it is not uncommon for even the strongest students to need help from time to time. All you need to do is ask, but you must do the asking for yourself.

 All faculty post office hours, and I can assure you that they really do like it when students visit them at these times, whether you are there to ask a particular question or simply to introduce yourself and chat about the course or the project generally. Similarly, our staff members, including those in the provost’s, dean of students, and president’s offices, are eager to help you. I myself hold regular student office hours, and I am eager to meet many of you on these occasions. The times will be posted on the campus website.

So, developing good study habits (two to three hours of study for each hour in class), attending all classes and auxiliary course meetings, and developing good relations and communication links with your teachers and support staff will carry you a long way toward success. Simply put, we expect you to work hard! And keep in mind an observation of one of America’s most prominent engineers over the past half century, Norman Augustine, who said, “Motivation will almost always beat mere talent.”

Beyond the interactions in your assigned courses, I encourage you to get to know several of your faculty members personally.  Visit them during their office hours, invite them to your social, artistic and athletic events, and accept their invitations to assist in their labs or with their research projects.  I assure you they will welcome your interest.  I further assure you that these relationships will be of great value to you, not just in the courses you are taking from these special faculty, but in their capacity to guide you more generally as academic advisors, as mentors, and as individuals you can turn to in times of despair as well as in moments of joy.  These individuals will also be invaluable in their ability to provide recommendation for graduate school or employment from those who know you well.

Now, let me share a few words of caution. 

First, know that we expect a degree of civility and respect toward other students worthy of mature young adults.  Our residence halls are places where you can reasonably expect to study and to sleep as well as to have fun.  The norms and expectations that will be shared with you by your RA’s and other residence life staff have been thoughtfully developed to ensure the most fully satisfactory living environment for all residents, including proper respect for all individuals, and we expect everyone to comply.

Second, always keep in mind that WPI is located in an urban setting, and even though Worcester is not one of the country’s larger cities, it is a city nonetheless, and it presents many of the challenges and dangers of urban life:

  • Traffic on the streets adjacent to the campus, especially on Park Avenue, is fast-moving and often unpredictable.  Please use extreme caution near city streets, especially when crossing them or when jogging or riding a bicycle. Make every effort to use the marked cross-walks.
  • Crime of the usual types, mostly theft, does happen, although WPI has an excellent safety record and a visible, pro-active, and highly professional campus police force.  Be smart.  Protect your belongings, especially purses and laptop computers, and exercise due caution when moving around the campus and the city after dark. Be aware of those around you, and do not place yourself in situations of dubious personal safety. Use our Campus Escort Service if you find yourself in need of secure transportation, according to the posted guidelines for that service.
  • Illegal drugs are as available in Worcester as they are in any city, village, or hamlet in this country. The use of illegal drugs is a pathway to personal destruction along which I hope none of you will travel during your time here. Please understand that WPI provides no sanctuary for those who use or sell illegal drugs; we expect members of this community to obey the law, and we cooperate fully with city, state, and federal authorities in these matters 
  • Similarly, underage drinking, and especially the danger of binge drinking, are one of the biggest threats to student achievement, and simply to student health and safety, on campuses all across this country.  Please resist the temptation to allow your newfound freedom to jeopardize your status here, or even your life, by the abuse of alcohol.

All of this advice is really just about personal responsibility: for your safety; for your obligations in citizenship to the community; for your personal development, and for your education. As wonderful as the faculty, staff, and programs are, as stimulating and rewarding your relationships with your classmates will be, as fine as the facilities and programs that are available to you here are--the degree to which you find success and fulfillment in your experience at WPI will be very much up to you, and we have great confidence in your ability to take full advantage of the opportunity. I have every confidence in your ability to succeed here mightily!

Let me end with the charge I have given to every entering class since joining WPI in 2004. It is based on the eloquent words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.  Speaking at a Memorial Day ceremony in 1884, reflecting on the generations of Americans who had waged our great Civil War, Justice Holmes said the following:

“Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing.  While we were permitted to scorn nothing but indifference, and did not pretend to undervalue the worldly rewards of ambition, we have seen with our own eyes, beyond and above the golden fields, the snowy heights of honor; and it is for us to bear the report for those who come after us.

But above all, we have learned that whether [one] accepts from Fortune her spade, and will look downward and dig; or from Aspiration her axe and cord, and will scale the ice[y heights]; the one and only success which is [ours] to command is to bring to [our] work a mighty heart.”

Members of the class of 2014, I hope as in the words of Justice Holmes you will bring to your work at WPI a mighty heart, that you will scorn nothing but indifference, and that in your study, your work in our community, and throughout your lives, your hearts will be touched with fire.

My very best wishes to all of you.

August 25, 2010

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