Remarks to the WPI Class of 2010 and Parents

President Dennis Berkey's Remarks to the Class of 2010 and Parents
New Student Orientation, August 20, 2006

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 141 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, 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.

Jim McLaughlin and Sunny Manivannan have eloquently covered much of what should 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 your fellow students and with your teachers. Our faculty are every bit as eager to welcome and engage you as are the staff and upperclassmen, and I extend their greetings. It is a source of great personal pride for me to be associated with a university where faculty are so devoted to their students' development, and where the students contribute so much to the quality of campus life.

You have chosen a very distinctive university, and I want to make sure that all of us share a common appreciation for 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 and learned 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 Sufficiency Project integrating what is learned in the arts and humanities, the Interactive Project rooted in the intersection of technology and society, and the Major Project in your field of concentration.

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 complements 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 it be in the practice of engineering, the world of work generally, or advanced study in graduate and professional programs. This partly explains why WPI graduates are so much in demand by employers, especially engineering and high technology companies such as General Electric, Raytheon, EMC, and many others.

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. The earlier part of the WPI experience, in particular the first year, is devoted primarily to academic subjects, and I hope you students will not find this discouraging, for it is the knowledge from these courses that will be applied in your advanced studies and project work in succeeding years. Our seven week terms are fully supportive of this strategy, allowing students to concentrate on only three courses each term, and providing just the right periods of time for the major projects that are undertaken off campus. 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. Indeed, these international experiences, organized by our Global Studies Programs, add a great deal of maturation and expanded world view to our students' development, and are highly treasured experiences. 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.

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, or Doris Kearns Goodwin's recent biography on Lincoln, you have seen how vitally 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 these fields, and who understand the imperatives of achievement and leadership, will be well prepared to make a profound impact in the world.

Finally, we believe that your achievements and the contributions that you make in your life, and the very quality of that life, will be greatly enriched by your engagement with the fine and liberal arts as well as with science and technology. That is why the first major project most of you will undertake will be in the humanities and arts, and why WPI places such a high value on our courses and programs in these areas. We have 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 enlighten 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 2010 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.
  • Complete your assignments.
  • 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. Developing good study habits (two hours of study for each hour in class), attending all classes and auxiliary course meetings, and developing good relations and communications 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 university president used to put it to his entering students more simply: "If you spend three hours per day in class, six hours studying, and eight hours sleeping, that's a total of seventeen hours, which leaves seven hours per day for fun -- and how much fun can any one person stand to have?"

Before leaving this point let me develop three aspects of it a bit further. First, I want to underscore the importance of asking for help when you need it, and to develop personal relationships with your teachers before you need their help. 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 of us in the provost's and president's offices, are 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.

Second, the corollary of 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 computer games, Texas Hold'em poker, and other Internet offerings has seduced many a student into the isolation that leads to 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!

Third, let me emphasize again that 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. You now find yourself among incredibly talented classmates 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 with you.

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 RAs 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 great learning 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 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 2010, 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 20, 2006