Remarks to the WPI Class of 2011

Mighty Heart (III)

President Dennis Berkey's Remarks to the Class of 2011
New Student Orientation, August 19, 2007

It is a pleasure to add my welcome to the many you have no doubt heard already today.  You are joining the extended family of one of America’s finest universities. The dedicated faculty, staff, and students who have welcomed you, helped you move your belongings into the residence halls, provided information about the countless opportunities in store for you on this campus, and—yes—accepted your checks, demonstrate by their enthusiasm, no less than their competence, what an exceptional type of person makes WPI what it is today, and what it has been for 142 years.

I want to extend personally a special welcome to the parents and other members of the students’ families.  We appreciate the confidence you express in WPI by entrusting us with your sons’ and daughters’ educations.  Just as we hope that every new student arriving today will enjoy a lifelong membership in the WPI family, first as a student and then as one of our alumni, we hope that all of you will feel a membership in our community, returning to the campus often to visit your students, celebrating their achievements, getting to know their friends and faculty members, and sharing in the rich menu of academic, cultural, and social opportunities available to you on this campus.

I am especially excited, and I know the faculty feels this way as well, to be welcoming another class of outstanding undergraduates. It was the students who most strongly attracted me to come to WPI. Indeed, much of what makes WPI such an outstanding university is due to our exceptional students. Their enthusiasm for science, engineering, and technology; for working collaboratively to solve challenging problems; for high achievement in all endeavors; and for building a rich, stimulating, and rewarding campus culture is truly amazing. And I have already seen, in my encounters with some of you, that this year’s entering class will measure up fully to these expectations.

Here is a little information about you, the class of 2011:

There are 819 of you as of today, including

  • 211 women; 608 men
  • 62 domestic students of color
  • 68 international students.

Your average SAT composite score is 1284;

Your average high school GPA is 3.7

210 of you had perfect 4.0 averages in high school!

23 are class valedictorians

22 are class salutatorians; and

40% of you enter WPI with AP or IB advanced standing credit.

You represent 33 states and 33 foreign countries.

The top six states are: MA, CT, NH, NY, RI, and CA.

The top five countries are: China, Pakistan, Turkey, Vietnam, and Ecuador.

You are fabulous! Parents, please join me in a round of applause for these impressive achievements from all of these young people. (Applause)

As you may have heard, beginning with the class entering next fall we will no longer require SAT scores for admission at WPI. You are the last class for which the SAT was a requirement. (Sorry about that!)  The reason for this is that we do not find the SAT a particularly good predictor of success at WPI. For us, what matters most is not simply what you know, or how good you are at taking tests, but rather what you can do with what you know. We find that performance in high school, as attested by your grades, your recommendations, and your success in challenging courses, is a much better predictor of success in a curriculum that emphasizes collaboration rather than competition, and true achievement rather than memorization, than are scores on standardized tests. Although many American colleges and universities have made this move away from the SAT, WPI is the first technological university to do so, and we believe it marks another contribution to leadership in engineering and science education.

You have indeed chosen a very distinctive university, and I want to say just a few more 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 as well as learning things in their classrooms.  Today’s form of this blending of theory and practice is expressed most directly in the three major projects that are required for a WPI degree—the first integrates what is learned in the arts and humanities, the second is rooted in the intersection of technology and society, and the third occurs within the field of concentration, or major.

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 to deal with ambiguity, to properly identify and formulate problems, to marshal relevant resources and knowledge, to conceive and organize solutions, to work cooperatively in ways that complement each others’ 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 the practice of engineering, the world of work generally, or advanced study in graduate and professional programs

These unique elements of “practice” do not detract from our commitment to excellence in academic work. The “theory” part of our motto means that WPI students complete a fully rigorous program of academic courses, tutorials, and independent studies in addition to their major projects. Our seven week terms are fully supportive of this approach, allowing students to concentrate on only three courses each term, and providing just the right periods of time for the major projects.  Many of our students elect to pursue one or more of these projects, especially the Interactive Project, at one of our more than twenty international project sites, located literally around the world, from London and Copenhagen to Bangkok and Namibia.  (Two new centers are being launched this year, one in South Africa and the other in Morocco.)  

The latest enhancements to our curriculum include an increased emphasis on entrepreneurship, on the applications of science and technology in medicine and in health, and on broadly interdisciplinary programs such as Interactive Media and Game Development, Environmental Engineering, and the nation’s first undergraduate degree program in Robotics Engineering.

These aspects of a WPI education have never been more important than they are today.  The health of the global economy, and our progress toward solving the major problems in health and disease, the environment, energy, food, and poverty, both in this country and worldwide, depend to a very great degree on the creativity and innovation that have been characteristic of American enterprise. Students who are well informed about science and technology, even if they do not major specifically in one of thesefields, 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.

Just as importantly, we believe that your achievements and the contributions that you make in your life, and the very quality of your life, will be greatly enriched by your engagement with the fine and liberal arts. We offer an outstanding theatre program, with its own, dedicated facility; a wonderful orchestra and concert choir, and many vocal and instrumental groups of all varieties. And our academic coursework in history, philosophy, literature, and economics will illuminate the world as you perceive it and hopefully ignite some of your own passions.  These are the aspirations we hold for you, and they are the marks of distinction that we see in so many of our alumni.

Now let me speak to you in somewhat more practical terms, because the enormous potential represented by a group of such well qualified students entering such a challenging and potentially rewarding program requires that we be very clear about what is required for your success. And I very much want each one of you to succeed at WPI. Indeed, I want to challenge the class of 2011 set a school record for the highest graduation rate. We can do that if you will do your part. I pledge to you that the faculty and the administration will do ours.

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, and 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—nearly half of you were straight A students!). You are not accustomed to needing help, and some of you have highly developed abilities to meet your deadlines with focused 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. Ask for it whenever you need it. All faculty post office hours, and I can assure you that they really do like it when students visit them at these times, whether it is to ask a particular question or simply to introduce themselves and chat about the course or the project generally. Similarly, our staff, including those in the provost’s and president’s offices, is eager to help you. I myself will be announcing student office hours shortly, and I hope many of you will stop by on these occasions, introduce yourselves, and share some of your initial impressions of WPI.

Just this past year we reinstituted the position of Dean of Undergraduate Studies, with a fulltime Associate Dean for the First Year, to ensure the quality of the undergraduate experience. I say to the faculty that, yes, we are a research university with strong commitments to scholarship, to regional economic development, and to other aspects of institutional distinction, but undergraduate education is the most important part of our mission. You should expect to find, and you will indeed find, that the quality of undergraduate education on this campus is as good as you will find anywhere in the United States.  

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 (and virtually everyone at WPI is easily accessible by e-mail if not in person) will carry you a very long way toward success.

One corollary of the advice on attending classes and other events is to be aware of the hazard of spending too much time cloistered in your room, and especially on the internet. The attraction of complex computer games, Texas Hold’em poker, and other internet offerings can lead to isolation that spawns both social frustration and academic failure. Do not let your face time with classmates, teachers, and friends take a back seat to that with your computer screen! And as I learned recently from some of you in the EMSEP Program, a round of “Bobby’s World” can be as challenging as what you find on your computer screen, and a lot more fun (even though I’m not very good at it).

The success of our teaching, and your learning, depends to a very large extent on the degree to which you do your part.  If you come to class prepared, having done the assigned reading and homework, challenging as it may be, you will gain enormously from the insights your professor and your fellow students provide on already familiar material.  It’s the power of “soak time” -- the magic that transforms information into knowledge, the ideas you struggled with by yourself now being illuminated by another perspective, or just a succinct retelling. You have joined incredibly talented class mates and a truly excellent teaching faculty.  I hope you will take full advantage of this opportunity.

Beyond the interactions in your assigned course, I encourage you to get to know several of your faculty members personally.  Visit them during their office hours, invite them to your social events, and accept their invitations to assist in their labs or on 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 them, 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 relationships can have value lasting over lifetimes, not the least of which is the role your faculty mentors can play when you need letters of 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 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 hall 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. (And I want to say a special word of recognition and thanks to our RA’s and orientation leaders, a great group of dedicated upperclassmen who will be making your residential experience not just satisfying but a reallearning experience and lots of fun.)

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.

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 move 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 

All of this advice-giving 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 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

Let me end with a charge to the Class of 2011 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 that 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 are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference, and do 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 2011, 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 19, 2007