Remarks to the WPI Class of 2013

President Berkey extends a special welcome to the members of the Class of 2013 along with their parents and other members of the students' families.

Dennis D. Berkey, President

"A Mighty Heart (V)"

I am delighted to add my welcome to the many you have no doubt received today. The members of this Class of 2013 are joining one of America's finest universities. You have made an excellent choice, and so have we.

Normally it is my practice to speak with students extemporaneously, inviting discussion, and without prepared remarks. As we teach in our courses and project work, however, when one has something really important to say, preparing a thoughtful set of remarks in advance is worth the investment of time and a more formal delivery. Since this is the only occasion we will all have to meet together prior to your graduation in 2013, I wanted to take the opportunity to address you somewhat formally, in the presence of your parents and family members, and so I hope you will indulge me by considering these remarks.

I wish to extend a special welcome to the parents and other members of the students' families. We appreciate the confidence you have expressed in WPI by entrusting us with the education of your sons and daughters. We hope that all of you will feel a membership in our community, that you will return to the campus often to visit your students, celebrate their achievements, get to know their friends and professors, and share in the rich menu of academic, cultural, and social opportunities available at WPI.

Here is a little information about the Class of 2013:

As of today, there are 943 of you, a record high enrollment of entering students, some 93 more than we had intended to enroll, reflecting WPI's increasing popularity among outstanding students seriously committed to challenging education rooted in engineering and science. Also:

  • 31% (292) of you are women, a WPI record high—please stand to be acknowledged.
  • 13% (126) are domestic students of color, also a WPI record high, and
  • 10% (97) are international students.
  • Your average SAT composite score (two exams) is 1278.
  • Your average high school GPA was 3.8.
  • 345 of you had perfect 4.0 averages in high school!
  • You include 39 valedictorians and 35 salutatorians.
  • 9 percent of you have a legacy connection to WPI.
  • And, you represent 32 states and 27 foreign countries.

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

You have chosen a very distinctive university, and I want to say just a few 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 (drafting tables, engineering tools, etc.) as well as learning things in their Boynton Hall classrooms.  Today's form of this blending of theory and practice is expressed most directly in the two major projects that are required for a WPI degree—the interactive qualifying project which focuses on the beneficial applications of technology in society, and the major qualifying project in the field of concentration, or major. And, outside of these major projects you will find a high degree of collaborative work, work that often crosses disciplinary boundaries and engages issues of vital importance, throughout our programs.

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—it will challenge you—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 one another's 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 professional practice, the world of work generally, or advanced study in graduate and professional programs.  Perhaps this is why Forbes Magazine, in a recent ranking of colleges by average annual earnings of their graduates, ranked WPI ninth in the nation and third in New England.  More importantly, it is what contributes to those habits of mind that lead to the kinds of innovation that move society forward in profound ways:

  • Robert Goddard, WPI Class of 1908, used his knowledge of science and the dynamics of flight to develop the first liquid-fuel rockets, opening the way to the exploration of space and earning him the title of "the father of modern rocketry."
  • Howard Freeman, WPI Class of 1940, did extensive research on the science of liquids to conclude that water, if sprayed in a fine-enough foam, could be used to extinguish oil fires. The spray-foam nozzle technologies he developed saved thousands of lives on battleships during World War II that otherwise would have been lost to oil fires. And the company Freeman built employed hundreds of engineers and helped drive Worcester's vibrant 20th century manufacturing economy.
  • Jason Cox, WPI Class of 2005, was on duty with the U.S. Army in Iraq when he became determined to do something about the terrible losses of limb and life due to the inability effectively to detect land mines. Using available technologies and materials, and a huge dose of his own ingenuity, he developed an alternative and highly effective means detection, thus saving many lives.
  • Judith Nitsch, WPI Class of 1975, founded Nitsch Engineering, a woman-led engineering firm that has been leading the way in sustainable development, including Judy's personal sponsorship of the green roof on our new residence hall.
  • And our alumnus Dean Kamen, best-known to many of you as the founder of the U.S. First Robotics Program and the inventor of the Segway personal transporter, has also invented a plethora of medical devices to improve human health and mobility, most recently a complete prosthetic arm with great potential to improve the functioning of soldiers and others who have lost limbs in battle or in accidents.

These are but a few of the many ways that WPI graduates have made important differences in the world, not just by what they have learned, but what they have done with that knowledge. This is the WPI difference—the active approach to learning that continually asks, "How can I use what I am learning to productive ends—to address important needs I see around me?"

And, let me plead with all of you, the need for these abilities—for your abilities--has never been greater, due to the enormous challenges we face in health and medicine, in the environment, in the economy, and in global relations.

Speaking to returning World War II veterans in the late 1940's, then-president of WPI, Admiral Wat Cluvarius, said, "I hope that this is the last time we will need to rebuild the world." He was wrong. Especially in light of the recent economic collapse, our world badly needs rebuilding, and your generation, especially those of you prepared with the knowledge, know-how, and commitment that result from a WPI education, has enormous potential to lead and sustain a comprehensive economic recovery and important progress on all of these critically important fronts. You are our best hope for the future!  As the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead said, "A few committed individuals can change the world." It only takes a few—and there are 943 of you!

Now, I have been quite heavily emphasizing the practical, and I want to assure you that 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- five international project sites, located literally around the world, from London and Copenhagen to Bangkok and Namibia. I hope you will seriously consider the possibility of extending the reach of your education, and your appreciation of our increasingly interconnected world, by an experience abroad in our Global Perspective Program.

The latest enhancements to our curriculum also include the nation's first undergraduate degree program in robotics engineering. WPI pioneered this new major in response to the great enthusiasm of our students and the increasing demand for robotics systems in areas such as defense and security, elder care, automation of household tasks, and interactive entertainment.

We are also offering a new interdisciplinary bachelor of arts degree in environmental studies, which is just one part of a university-wide commitment to addressing issues of sustainability in both our educational mission and our university operations; and students are tackling sustainability issues with characteristic WPI gusto. One project team recently helped a local high school significantly reduce energy costs by constructing a wind turbine on the school's property. Others have worked on research projects based on the green roof on our new residence hall. This is the kind of real world problem solving that you will be doing, too.

I am particularly pleased with the philosophy of our Sustainability Task Force, chaired by Provost Orr. It takes a balanced approach, emphasizing all three of the critical areas: environmental protection, economic prosperity, and social justice. This is not a forum to entertain ideologies, but rather to focus hard thinking on effective approaches to ensuring a better world for all.

Finally, to encourage you to get started on solving the world's problems as early as possible, we have launched our new Great Problems Seminars for first-year students. Led by stellar faculty, there are currently four seminars on such compelling topics as Feed the World, Power the World, Making Our World, and Heal the World.

All of these developments leave me convinced that a WPI education has never been more important than it is today. The strength 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 these fields, 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 and out-of-classroom involvement.  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.  We sponsor over 100 student activities that engage students in a variety of leadership and extra-curricular interests.  And we have a large, responsible, and community-service oriented Greek community. Membership in student organizations will give you the opportunity to emerge as a leader, become a decision maker, learn about yourself and others, develop new interests, and establish significant relationships.   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.

Now let me offer some rather more 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 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, or 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—one third 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 heroic 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.

This point about asking for help is especially important. Just last week I met with one of the nation's most successful high tech executives who has founded and led two major companies and who has become a outspoken leader in engineering education. "I never accomplished anything on my own," he claims.  "I always have depended on the assistance of others, especially when someone else, including customers, had better expertise in a particular area that we did."  We all need assistance from time to time, no matter how successful we might have been in the past acting alone. Ask for help whenever you can benefit from 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 members, including those in the provost's, dean of students, and president's offices, are eager to help you. I myself hold regular student office hours, and I am eager to meet many of you on these occasions, the first of which is on Tuesday, September 8, at 2:00 p.m.

So, 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 will carry you a long way toward success.

Work hard! And keep in mind an observation of one of America's most prominent engineers over the past half century, Norman Augustine:  "Motivation will almost always beat mere talent."

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!

Beyond the interactions in your assigned courses, I encourage you to get to know several of your faculty members personally.  Visit them during their office hours, invite them to your social 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 further 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 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 individuals will also be invaluable in their ability to provide letters of recommendation for graduate school or employment from those who know you well.

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 life 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.

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. Make every effort to use the marked cross-walks.
  • 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 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, underage drinking, and especially the danger of 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 in citizenship to the community; for your personal development, and for your education. As wonderful as the faculty, staff, 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 2013 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 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 2013, 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 23, 2009