Girls Who Code Founder Tells Class of 2016 to “Be Willing to Crash, Burn, Get Up, and Build a Better World”
Today on the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) campus quadrangle, 908 bachelor's degrees were awarded during the university’s 148th commencement ceremony.
This year's undergraduate address was given by Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, a national nonprofit organization that seeks to equip girls in grades 6 through 12 with computing skills and help close the gender gap in technology. Through its Summer Immersion Program and Clubs, Girls Who Code is a leader in a growing movement to inspire and educate young women to pursue 21st century opportunities.
Saujani urged the Class of 2016 to accept change and not be afraid of failure. "Change is an opportunity to try new things, to change your mind, to move up and down and sideways in your career." Drawing on her own background, she discussed her winding professional path, including an unsuccessful run for political office in New York. "Failure has been a huge part of my professional life. I believe that taking big risks can lead to a whole generation of young people who are willing to crash, burn, get up, and build a world we all want to live in." Highlighting WPI’s global projects, such as a safe house for women and children in Cape Town, South Africa, and sustainability efforts of a bike share program on campus, Saujani credited students with “building incredible things that are making a difference in this world.”
She told graduates her journey ultimately led her to found Girls Who Code. She spoke of noticing the lack of women in computer science while visiting schools during her run for office in 2010. Despite having a limited background in technology, she established the program, which has grown from 20 participants in 2012 to nearly 40,000 today. In addition to addressing the gender gap in high-tech fields, Saujani stressed the need for more engineers and scientists in the United States. "Our country needs you. We're all losing out because we don’t have enough engineers and technologists to solve our most pressing problems…. I'm hugely optimistic that we can solve our country's tech talent deficit. I'm optimistic because of each and every one of you."
In a surprise following Saujani's keynote address, WPI president Laurie Leshin announced a new scholarship program with Girls Who Code, committing $100,000 to establish the WPI/GWC Alumni Scholarship. The first-of-its-kind scholarship program will offer each of five young women who have graduated from a Girls Who Code program $20,000 for each academic year of their four-year undergraduate studies at WPI.
"WPI is thrilled to join Girls Who Code on this groundbreaking initiative to support up-and-coming women who are passionate about using technology for good," said Leshin. "WPI is dedicated to growing and diversifying our nation's high-tech workforce. This program illustrates our commitment to help women reach their academic and life potential and join the next generation of global technology leaders."
In her charge to the Class of 2016, Leshin challenged them to focus on the opportunities ahead. "With your education and your capabilities, we know you will do well in your career, and do well for your families…also be sure to do good — for your community, for your nation, for the planet. Your WPI education has prepared you to make an impact on a much broader stage, and, so, apply what you have learned here for good. In other words, use your WPI degree to make us proud."
Leshin also thanked Phil Ryan '65, who will retire on June 30 after serving 17 years on the board of trustees, including two years as chairman. Ryan also served as interim president of the university in the 2013–2014 academic year during a nationwide search that led to President Leshin's appointment. "I could not have asked for a better partner, mentor, and boss in my first two years at WPI, " said Leshin, "and WPI could not ask for a more devoted supporter."
During the ceremony, honorary degrees were conferred upon Saujani, who was awarded doctorate of computer science; Warner Fletcher, WPI trustee emeritus and officer of Fletcher, Tilton, Attorneys at Law, who received a doctorate of humane letters; and David Schwaber '65, retired president of Monarch Rubber Company, who was awarded a doctorate of engineering.
The 2016 Chairman's Exemplary Faculty Prize, WPI's highest honor for faculty achievement, was given to Wesley Mott, professor of literature in the Department of Humanities and Arts. Mott, a widely acclaimed scholar on the New England Transcendentalists, is the first faculty member in the humanities to win the $10,000 prize, which was established in 2007.
Board of Trustees chairman, Phil Ryan '65, was also honored during today’s ceremony. Ryan will retire on June 30 after serving 17 years on the board of trustees, including two years as chairman. He also served as interim president of the university in the 2013 - 2014 academic year during a nationwide search that led to President Leshin’s appointment. "I could not have asked for a better partner, mentor, and boss in my first two years at WPI, " said Leshin, "and WPI could not ask for a more devoted supporter."
As part of the 2016 commencement events, for the first time WPI awarded undergraduate and graduate degrees at separate spring ceremonies; 705 master's degrees and 35 PhDs were presented on Thursday, May 12. Those graduates were addressed by France Córdova, director of the National Science Foundation. Details of the event can be found here.
On Friday, 27 cadets of the Army, Navy, and Air Force ROTC programs were commissioned as officers in the U.S. military during the Worcester Consortium of Colleges Reserve Officers' Training Corps Joint Service Commissioning Ceremony. Congressional Medal of Honor awardee and Retired Navy Captain Thomas G. Kelley administered the oath of office and delivered the keynote remarks.
Today, undergraduate class speaker Rebecca Stolarczyk told her fellow graduates, "There is no denying that these have been some of the best years of our lives, but certainly they will not end today when we step foot off this campus as graduates…. I think of what an incredible honor it is to live in the time and place that we do. To have the capacity to not simply exist in this world, but to impact it … if nothing else, WPI has taught me the importance of action … it is time to leave our mark on the world."