President's Welcome Remarks to the Class of 2015

President Dennis Berkey addressed the incoming freshman class and parents on Sunday, August 23, 2011.

A Mighty Heart (VII)

Members of the Class of 2015, I am delighted to add my welcome to the many you have received on this special day. Today, you officially join one of America’s finest universities—a university with a long and distinguished history of focusing on the critical problems that challenge our world. WPI is also nationally renowned for producing graduates who are undaunted by big challenges and well prepared truly to make a difference in the world. So you are to be congratulated, for you have chosen well. And so have we, in choosing all of you!  

I wish also to extend a warm welcome to the parents and families of the Class of 2015. We appreciate the confidence you have expressed in WPI by entrusting us with the education of your sons and daughters. It is my sincere hope that you will stay connected to the WPI community in the months and years ahead, and that you will return to campus often to visit your students, celebrate their achievements, get to know their friends and professors, and share in the rich variety of academic, cultural, and social events happening regularly on our campus.  

The Class of 2015 has the special distinction of being our Sesquicentennial Class. Their graduation year, 2015, will be the 150th anniversary of WPI’s founding. It will be a time of great celebration, with many events and programs that you will help us plan and organize, so everyone, please stay tuned, and stay connected. 

Here is a little information about this most impressive class of 2015:

  • There are 1,023 of you, a record-high number of entering students. You comprise a select group chosen from among our highest-ever number of applicants, reflecting WPI’s increasing popularity among top students seeking a challenging education rooted in engineering and science.
  • 312 of you are women, a record high number and approximately 30.5% of the class.
  • 127 of you are domestic students of color, another record high number, and approximately 12.5% of the class.
  • 148 of you are international students, yet another record high number, and 14.5% of the entering class.
  • Average SAT composite scores (2 exams) have increased from 1284 two years ago to 1294 last year to 1298 for your class.
  • Your average high school GPA was 3.8.
  • Over 44% of you—nearly half the class – had perfect 4.0 averages in high school
  • You include 44 class valedictorians and 55 salutatorians  
  • And, you represent 41 states and 35 foreign countries.  

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

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Oh, dear—that page of my text with all that impressive data about you has just gone blank! Ah, yes—we have just arrived at that magical moment when the record of your past achievements goes blank, and your story starts entirely afresh with what you will accomplish at WPI.  

A young faculty member, wise beyond his years, once said in a welcoming address to newly arrived freshmen, “There will be no day in your life when the difference between the person you have been up to that point and the person you are about to become will be greater than the day on which you leave home to begin college.”  

Things will be different here from your high school experience. For example, half of you will have the new experience of being in the bottom half of your class—even some of the 44% of you with those perfect high school grades that we just forgot about! But I want you to know that I have every confidence that you will seize the opportunities here to build upon the great achievement you have already made with the help, guidance, and support of your family, your teachers, your counselors, your coaches, and your friends—as you prepare yourselves to make important, even amazing, contributions in the professions, businesses, families, and communities that you will serve and lead throughout your lives. The world badly needs you and your generation to provide the leadership, wisdom, innovation, and civility to renew the important progress toward the better world and more fulfilling and prosperous lives that we want for everyone worldwide. You, every one of you, bring enormous potential to seize these opportunities and make profoundly important contributions, and we are committed to providing every means of enabling you to do so. So, I want to spend the remainder of my time with you this afternoon talking a bit about your new home, WPI, and your role in it. But first, let me share some important advice.  

When I began planning this talk, I asked some of our graduating seniors what advice they would have me give to such an outstanding group of entering freshmen. Here’s what they told me:  

--First, “un-friend” your parents from your Facebook account--right away!

--Second, make sure to call home once a week—not a text message or an e-mail, but a real phone call, and talk about how things are going, the good and the bad.

--And third, remember that tattoos are permanent, so think long and hard before getting one. (And if you do, your mother’s name is usually a safe choice.)  

I also asked the parents of some of our graduating seniors what advice I might give to you parents. Here’s what they said:

--First, don’t be offended if your child “un-friends” you from her or his Facebook account. You’ll sleep better at night, they assure you.

--Second, if your WPI student doesn’t call home once a week, cut off his or her discretionary spending. (Not their tuition payments, mind you. Just any allowance you may be providing.)

--And, finally, parents--remember that tattoos are permanent, so think long and hard about getting one. (No advice here on safe choices.)  

Class of 2015, you have chosen a very distinctive university, and I want to say just a few words about some of WPI’s essential qualities. We are the nation’s third oldest technological university (the first and second being RPI and MIT, respectively.) Our heritage centers on engineering education, and engineering remains our most popular area of undergraduate study, mechanical engineering being our largest major. Chemical engineering boasts the highest starting salaries for its graduates, however; Fire Protection Engineering is one of the nation’s top two programs in the field; and Biomedical Engineering, our second most popular major, reflects the increasing sophistication by which the power of technology and science can be applied in health and medicine, in such areas as tissue engineering and neuro-prosthetics. Our curriculum is ever-evolving, and some of the newer programs are highly inter-disciplinary in nature, such as our Robotics Engineering major, the nation’s first (pun intended); Interactive Media and Game Development; Environmental Engineering; and Environmental Studies.  Our Global Perspective Program provides opportunities world-wide for students to complete projects in a variety of foreign settings, and our Business School is working to ensure that every WPI student has an opportunity to take at least one business course, so as to better understand how business proceeds and to appreciate the power of entrepreneurial thinking. Finally, our Social Science and our Humanities and Arts departments offer a rich variety of programs to enable formal minors and even double majors for students wanting to broaden and enrich their academic experiences.  

Regardless of the choice of majors, the over-arching educational philosophy and core degree requirements are the same, and are referred to today as The WPI Plan. Since our 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, “Theory and Practice.” Originally, WPI students made things in the Washburn shops (drafting tables, engineering tools, etc.) and studied academic subjects in their Boynton Hall classrooms. Today, Theory and Practice appears all over campus, in every building, and in nearly every classroom. It is best exemplified by a relatively new program for freshmen, called the Great Problems Seminars, and by the two major projects you will be required to complete for your WPI degree.  

The Great Problems Seminars comprise a set of multidisciplinary, project-based explorations of some of the major challenges facing our world, as reflected in the Seminar Titles: Feed the World, Heal the World, Power the World, and so on. Working in project teams as well as doing archival research, and hearing lectures from a variety of distinguished faculty, students tackle aspects of one of these great problems and make impressive contributions in their analysis and proposed solutions. The culminating ritual of these seminars is the presentation in poster format of the results from the student project teams. It has been my observation that the quality of the work presented in these sessions is fully competitive with poster presentations of our graduate students (although you don’t need to tell the graduate students that I said this!)  

Later, typically in their junior year, students complete the interactive qualifying project, solving a problem at the intersection of technology and society, with about half of the students doing their work at one of our twenty-six international project centers around the world. Seniors complete a major qualifying project, in their field of concentration, or major, often undertaken in conjunction with a sponsoring corporation. These project-based experiences, while challenging, will give you opportunities to make significant impacts in important ways, for they often put our students face-to-face with some of the world’s greatest challenges.  A lot of universities talk about “changing the world.” At WPI, we make it a degree requirement.   

Make no mistake about this, our curriculum will provide the depth and breadth of all first-rate college curricula; but beyond this, due to our distinctive educational philosophy and emphasis on solving important problems, it will challenge you profoundly—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 each other’s strengths and weaknesses, to accommodate differences in style and philosophy, to integrate knowledge, and to communicate what has been accomplished, in both writing and oral presentation. This is why WPI students graduate exceptionally well prepared to apply their knowledge and their abilities immediately after graduation, whether in professional practice, the world of work generally, or advanced study in graduate and professional programs. As I often say, “At WPI it’s not just about what you know, and it’s not about competition with your classmates--it’s about what you can do with your knowledge, and especially about what you can accomplish in collaboration with your teammates.  

At WPI we care much less about grades, rankings, and meaningless comparisons than we do about what your education can do for you and, because of it, what you can do for others. It is a viewpoint that all of higher education should take more seriously.  

And, the need for these abilities—for your abilities—has never been greater. The world faces enormous challenges in health and medicine, in the environment, in the field of energy, in the economy, and in global relations. Young people who are well informed about science and technology, 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. And they will be especially well prepared if they make the humanities and arts a treasured set of college experiences and life-long passions. This campus is rich with academic courses in the humanities, theatre studies, music, and visual arts, and with the associated performances by which the creativity, joy, and substance of the human spirit are reflected upon and celebrated. Yes, it’s a great time to be a nerd, but fullness in a fine liberal education runs well beyond science and technology, and it is all here for you in abundance at WPI. I hope you take full advantage of all of the opportunities awaiting you, and even some that you will create all on your own.  

I want to say a word also about the aspects of campus life outside the formal academic program. I am exceedingly proud of the quality of leadership and service to community that we enjoy from our students at WPI. The organized “co-curricular” activities, and even the less formal social interactions reflect the very high personal qualities of our students.  

A well-known scholar of environmental engineering and international relations, Dr. Adil Najam, a former colleague who has just been called to his homeland of Pakistan to lead a prominent university there, has commented in a recent article about him in the Boston Globe, where he said “Universities don’t build just engineers and doctors and scientists, they build citizens. What students need [in addition to their academic competence] are civic spirit, community pride, and a sense of optimism.”  

I told Dr. Najam that I would share his comments with you today, and he sends his congratulations and good wishes to all of you. I also told him that I was proud to say that the values he described--civic spirit, community pride, and a sense of optimism--are very much characteristic of WPI students and the quality of campus life at WPI. I am exceedingly proud of the work WPI students do on our campus, in the larger Worcester community, and around the world to serve and improve society through creative and collaborative problem-solving, selfless and inspired leadership, and a deep sense of civic responsibility and pride in what they accomplish together and in collaboration with those they encounter at home and abroad.  

Members of the Class of 2015, you come here with enormous potential to play very important roles in shaping the future of our world. I hope that in your time and work on this campus you will keep in mind, on a daily basis, that you are preparing yourselves for entire lives of meaning, achievement, and leadership in much the same ways in which you will be leading and building community here as undergraduates.

Now let me offer some 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 be helpful only if you take it upon yourself to 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—the nine magic words for success at WPI:

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, is especially important. You are high achievers, often the highest in your class (remember—44% of you were straight-A students!). You are not accustomed to needing help; indeed, many of you may have a highly-developed talent for meeting deadlines with heroic, last-minute effort.  (I see some parents out there nodding their heads.) 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 just 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 WPI faculty post office hours, and they welcome visits during these hours. I strongly encourage you to get to know your professors 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 can also 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 as academic advisors, as mentors, and as individuals to whom you can turn to both in trying times and during moments of triumph. Faculty can also be invaluable to you when it comes time to provide recommendations for graduate school or employment.  

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 one can reasonably expect to study and to sleep, as well as to have fun. Your RA’s will share the expectations we have for you concerning residence life, which have been thoughtfully developed to ensure a satisfactory living environment for all residents, including proper respect for all individuals, and we expect everyone to comply.   

Please 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 crosswalks.  

Crime of the usual types, mostly theft, does happen, although WPI has an excellent safety record and a visible, proactive, and highly professional campus police force. Be smart. Protect your belongings, especially purses and laptops. 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. You can find details about the Campus Escort Service on the WPI website.  

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, alcohol abuse— especially binge drinking—is 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 to your fellow students, for your personal development, and for your education. As wonderful as the WPI faculty, staff, and programs are, as stimulating and rewarding as your relationships with your classmates will be, as fine as the facilities and programs 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.

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 [we] 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 [takes] 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 2015, 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, and welcome to WPI!

Dennis D. Berkey, President

August 29, 2011

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