President's Welcome Remarks to the Class of 2016

President Dennis Berkey addressed the incoming freshman class and parents on Sunday, August 19, 2012.

A Mighty Heart (VIII)

Members of the Class of 2016, parents, and other guests, 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—one with a long and proud history of distinguished contributions to the critical problems that challenge our world and the opportunities to improve it. You have chosen well; and so have we, in choosing all of you!

I included all of you, not just the students, in welcoming you to membership in the WPI community, for we appreciate the confidence you parents and other supporters have expressed in WPI by entrusting us with the education of these fine young adults. 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.

Here is some information about this most impressive class of 2016:

  • There are 967 of you, a select group chosen from another record-breaking applicant pool, reflecting WPI’s increasing popularity among outstanding students seriously committed to challenging education rooted in engineering and science.
  • 314, or 32.5%, of you are women, an all-time high number.
  • 102 of you, or 11%, are domestic students of color, representing many different cultural and ethnic traditions.
  • You come from 37 states and 43 countries—131, or 14%, of you are international students—and you come from nearly 700 different high schools across the world.
  • Your average SAT composite score (2 exams) is 1302.
  • You graduated from high school with a cumulative GPA of 3.8.
  • 439 of you, or 45%, had perfect 4.0 averages in high school.
  • 103 of you were either valedictorian or salutatorian of your graduating class.
  • And, finally, nearly half of you are entering with advanced credit due to your excellent work in either AP or International Baccalaureate programs; 20 of you are National Merit Scholars; and six of you are National Hispanic Recognition Scholars.

Even more important than these impressive data are the many personal qualities that we learned about you from your teachers and guidance counselors. You have great empathy, a strong work ethic, and a deep commitment to excellence in all that you do. These are defining characteristics of all who study and work at WPI, and they will continue to be important contributing factors in your success at WPI and throughout all your lives. You are fabulous! Parents and friends, please join me in a round of applause for these impressive young people.

In recognizing the outstanding qualities that led you to WPI, we are mindful of the daunting time in which you are coming of age. Your entire high school years have been spent during a great recession; and you are witnessing a highly negative political climate in this country where elected officials often seem more committed to preventing advancement by the other party and discrediting opponents for office than in moving the country forward. Higher education, once revered by the likes of our second president, John Adams, as essential to the success of a democracy, is now under skeptical, daily attack in the media and in Congress over matters of cost, student debt, and practical value. And the brilliant British scientist Stephen Hawking is warning on the urgency of colonizing outer space because the planet earth is, in his view, likely to exist for only a few more centuries.

John Adams eloquently said, “People and nations are forged in the fire of adversity.” In that spirit I want to encourage you that there is much to be optimistic about, and that you, the class of 2016, have all the elements required to move the nation and the world forward, rebuilding the economy, advancing human health, sustaining the planet, and shaping a more just society. Within the past month America has placed a robot on Mars, appropriately named “Curiosity,” that is the next important step into outer space; and we have celebrated the Summer Olympics, where athletes from around the world came together again in the spirit of healthy competition to celebrate the human quest for the highest levels of performance and achievement. And the innovation flowing from our colleges and universities, as well as our national labs and corporations, provides enormous potential for profound progress in broad domains. So think boldly and creatively, as a WPI student named Robert Goddard did when he imagined how a liquid fuel rocket would open “the endless frontier” of outer space, and acted famously on that vision.

I want also to encourage you to think hard, not just about technological innovation and economic development, but about the kind of world you want to live in, and the leadership and hard work required to achieve it. Take inspiration and hope from the beautiful words of President Lincoln’s second inaugural address, delivered near the end of the civil war, several months before his assassination which, incidentally, happened only days after WPI’s founding. He pleaded with the nation, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, let us strive on to . . . achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

I often say, and I mean this most sincerely, that I have never seen a college campus where students work harder, conduct themselves more politely and graciously, and seem happier and more enthusiastic about themselves, each other, and their college, than here at WPI. You are joining an incredible student body, and you are capable of doing amazing things. I hope you will use your time here and your great talents to the fullest, making us as proud of you as we have been of those who have preceded you.

Class of 2016, you have chosen a very distinctive university, and I want next to note some of WPI’s special 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 and engineering-related programs remain our most popular, with Mechanical Engineering being our largest major. Our relatively new program in Robotics Engineering is growing rapidly in size and prominence. Just last week it was cited by a leading computer science magazine as a model program being copied by other major universities, and the OnlineUniversities.com blog ranked WPI number one in the nation for having “cool robots on campus.” Chemical Engineering boasts the highest starting salaries for its graduates, second only on campus to the Department of Computer Science; Fire Protection Engineering is one of the nation’s top two programs in that 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. I have already mentioned our Robotics Engineering major, the nation’s FIRST (pun intended). Others include Interactive Media and Game Development; Environmental Engineering; Environmental Studies; and Architectural Engineering. 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 innovation and 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 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. In arguing for the importance of a well-educated citizenry to the success of a democracy, John Adams had asserted, and I quote, that “There are two types of education. One should teach us how to make a living. And the other how to live.” WPI’s founders took a more holistic view, believing that the skills required for productive participation in the industrial revolution of the 19th century should include “the refinements of art and culture,” so as to combine both types of education, realizing that much of what is required for a productive life well lived results from developing both intellectual sensibilities and practical abilities.

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. 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 first-year program called the Great Problems Seminars, and by the two major projects required for graduation.

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, students tackle aspects of one of these great problems and make impressive contributions in their analysis and proposed solutions.

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 off-campus project centers around the world. Seniors complete a major qualifying project, in their field of concentration, or major, often undertaken at a sponsoring corporation. These project-based experiences, while challenging, will give you opportunities to make significant impacts in important ways, for they often put students face-to-face with some of the world’s greatest challenges. Many 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, whether in professional practice or advanced study in graduate and professional programs. And you will be especially well prepared if you make the humanities and arts a treasured set of your 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 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.

Outside the formal academic programs the organized “co-curricular” activities, and even the less formal social interactions reflect the very high personal qualities of our students. Recently, a former colleague who had just been appointed to a distinguished university presidency replied to my congratulatory letter by saying, in part, “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.” In my reply I assured him 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. I know that these will be exciting and rewarding experiences for all of you.

Now let me offer some practical 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 suggested:

– 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 for you, the good and the bad. And be sure to ask your parents how things are going at home, now that you are no longer there to guide them;
– And third, remember that tattoos are permanent, so think long and hard before getting one. (BUT if you do, the word “Mom,” tastefully displayed on your bicep, is a good 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, just 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 before getting one. Of course, the phrase “My Son/Daughter Goes to WPI” would make a nice tattoo, but remember, we have bumper stickers in the bookstore that convey the same sentiment.

More seriously, students, you will find your faculty eager to get to know you, to assist you with both academic and personal challenges, and to be fully supportive. Similarly, the professional staff will provide advising, personal and career counseling, social opportunities of all sorts, and general assistance. But these extensive resources will 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 they do not go 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. And let me assure you--none of our professors will accept a video parody of “Call Me Maybe” in lieu of legitimate class assignments. 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 student office hours (as do I) 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 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 all members of the campus community 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, and we expect and will appreciate your full compliance.

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 common 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, backpacks 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, 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.

I end these remarks 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 2016, I hope, as in the words of Justice Holmes, that 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!

As Seen In 

Huffington Post College

August 21, 2012

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