Remarks to the Class of 2009 and Parents

A Mighty Heart

President Dennis Berkey's Remarks to the Class of 2009 and Parents
New Student Orientation, August 20, 2005

It is a pleasure and an honor to add my welcome to the many you have no doubt heard already today. I believe you are joining the extended family of one of America's finest universities, and the greeting you have received today demonstrates much of what makes WPI such a special place. 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 140 years.

I want to extend 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, celebrate their achievements, get to know their friends and faculty members, and share in the rich menu of academic, cultural, and social opportunities available to you on this campus.

Adam Wilbur and Professor DiBiasio have eloquently covered just about everything that ought to be said to our entering students, and in so doing have given you an enticing preview of what is in store for you both in our classrooms and laboratories, as well as in your associations with fellow students. I take no small amount of pride in being associated with a university where the faculty are so devoted to their students' development, and where the students contribute so much to the quality of campus life. I thank both of them.

In the time that remains let me touch on just a few issues that might add a degree of completion to what has already been said.

You have chosen a very distinctive university, one that since its founding in 1865 has emphasized both theory and practice. Originally, WPI students made things in the Washburn shops as well as learned things in their classrooms. Today's form of this blending of theory and practice is expressed most directly in the projects that are required for a WPI degree. Knowing how to get things done has a very large meaning at WPI, including not only a command of the requisite knowledge, but also the ability to distinguish the truly important from the less so, how to collaborate successfully with other members of a team, and how to interpret and communicate what has been learned and what has been accomplished. If these sound more like "real-world" skills than academic ones it is because an education at WPI is truly an engagement with the real world.

These characteristics of a WPI education have never been more important than they are today. I hope you have had a chance to read Tom Friedman's book, The World Is Flat, or that you have at least heard about it. America's future depends to a very great degree on our ability to continue to provide the creativity and innovation on which American industry, and thus the American economy, so critically depends. And if you have had the pleasure of reading David McCullough's 1776, you have seen how critically important leadership is to success in human endeavors. Students who are well informed about science and technology, even if they do not major specifically in one of those fields, and who understand the imperatives of achievement and leadership, will be well prepared to make a profound impact in the world. These are the aspirations we hold for you, and they are the marks of distinction that we see in our distinguished alumni of all ages.

I want to take a moment to underscore some of the challenges Professor DiBiasio has given you, especially in your academic work with the faculty. You will no doubt be told at some point soon, if indeed it has not already been said to you, that "the most important things you learn in college are learned outside the classroom." Don't believe it!

Unfortunately, the statement is true for some students, but only because they fail to take full advantage of the opportunity to learn from the excellent teachers who await you. Nothing we do at WPI is more important than undergraduate education, and I assure you that our faculty are fully committed to this most important part of our mission. Yet the success of our teaching, and your learning, depends 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. Those who come to class unprepared, and certainly those who don't attend class at all, fall into the wrong category in Aristotle's famous observation,

"The educated are to the uneducated as the living are to the dead."

One university president used to put it to his students this way: If you spend three to four hours per day in class and labs, six to eight hours studying (and, at WPI, doing project work), and eight hours sleeping, that still leaves four to seven hours a day for fun - and how much fun can any one person stand!

You are now in the hands of one of the finest teaching faculties in any college or university anywhere. I urge you to take full advantage of the opportunity.

I urge you also, as Professor DiBiasio has, to get to know several of your faculty members personally. Visit them during their office hours, invite them to your social events, respond to their offers to assist in their labs or on their research projects. I assure you they will welcome your interest in them. I further assure you that these relationships will be of great value to you, not just in the particular courses you are taking from these 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 relationships can have value lasting over lifetimes, not the least of which is the role your faculty mentors can play when you need recommendations for graduate school or employment.

Next, let me share a few words of caution with you.

First, know that we expect a degree of civility and respect toward other students worthy of the highly distinguished young adults that all of you are. Our residence halls are places where you can reasonably expect to study and to sleep as well as to have fun. If you have somehow missed the iPod pandemic, and your idea of fun in the residence hall is to blare Fitty Cent or Usher at 5,000 watts per channel on your stereo, Houston will be notified that "we have a problem." ("Houston" is the code name for our Dean of Students.) More generally, the norms and expectations that will be shared with you by your RAs and other residence hall staff have been thoughtfully developed to ensure the most fully satisfactory living environment for all residents, and we expect you to comply. I hope that none of you runs afoul of the student judicial system, but I assure you it is there, primed and ready to look out for your best interests even if you do not do so yourself.

Second, 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.

Illegal drugs are as available in Worcester as they are in any city, village, or hamlet in this country. 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. The use of illegal drugs is a pathway to destruction along which I hope none of you will move during your time here.

Let me sum up all of this advice-giving by saying it is really all 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. This is a moment of great opportunity and challenge for you, best summed up by a young faculty member who once said to a group of new freshman on an occasion such as this,

"There is no time in your life when the difference between the person you have been up to this point, and the person you will become, is any greater than the moment when you enter college."

At this very special moment, I want to assure your experience at WPI can make a profound difference in your life, just as WPI students and alumni make a profound difference in the world.

Let me complete my charge to you with 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 2009, I hope 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 beyond, and throughout your lives, your hearts will be touched with fire.

My very best wishes to all of you.

August 20, 2005