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WPI Announces 2016 Commencement Speakers and Honorees

The Founder of Girls Who Code and the Director of the National Science Foundation will deliver addresses.

April 11, 2016
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Girls Who Code president Reshma Saujani (left) and National Science Foundation director France Córdova

Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) announced today that for the first time in its 151 year history, the university will host two commencement exercises this May.

To celebrate both undergraduate and graduate students, WPI has invited two trailblazers in their respective fields to speak to the Class of 2016:

Reshma Saujani, founder and president of Girls Who Code, will deliver the undergraduate commencement address on Saturday, May 14. Girls Who Code, a national nonprofit that aims to support and increase the number of women in computer science, has grown from 20 members in 2012 to 40,000 in 2016 under Saujani’s leadership. Saujani will also receive an honorary doctor of science degree.

France A. Córdova, director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), will deliver the graduate commencement address on Thursday, May 12. As NSF director, Córdova oversees the only government science agency charged with advancing all fields of scientific discovery, technological innovation, and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. WPI will also bestow upon Córdova an honorary doctor of science degree.

"I'm thrilled and honored that Reshma Saujani and France Córdova have accepted our invitation to speak at this year’s commencements," said WPI President Laurie A. Leshin. "These are two champions of science and technology who are making a real impact right now, while also creating paths for the future. Reshma Saujani's commitment to support females in computer science is empowering new generations of coders and engineers, and France Córdova is identifying and funding the scientific research needed to keep the United States competitive in the world. These women will provide great inspiration to our graduates as they look forward to their own careers."

Honorary degrees will also be awarded to Warner Fletcher, former chair of WPI's Board of Trustees and trustee emeritus, and David Schwaber '65, former CEO of Monarch Rubber Company.

Leshin also commended the two other honorary degree recipients, noting their excellence in business, law and community involvement, as well as their long support of WPI. "Fletcher and Schwaber have not only played instrumental roles in the university's past and present achievements but have helped secure WPI's future success."

Reshma Saujani is the Founder and CEO of Girls Who Code, a national non-profit organization working to close the gender gap in technology. Through its summer immersion programs and clubs, Girls Who Code is leading the movement to inspire, educate, and equip young women with the computing skills to pursue 21st century opportunities.

Started in 2012, the organization grew to 40,000 girls, in every state, by the end of 2016. This year, Girls Who Code will run 78 summer immersion programs and 1,500 clubs. The results speak for themselves: 90 percent of alumnae have declared or intend to declare a major or minor in computer science.

Reshma began her career as an attorney and activist. In 2010, she surged onto the political scene as the first Indian American woman to run for the United States Congress. During the race, Reshma visited local schools and saw the gender gap in computing classes firsthand, which led her to start Girls Who Code. She has also served as deputy public advocate for New York City and ran a spirited campaign for public advocate in 2013.

Reshma's TED talk, "Teach Girls, Bravery not Perfection," has more than one million views and has sparked a national conversation about how girls are raised. She is also the author of the groundbreaking new book Women Who Don’t Wait In Line. Reshma is a graduate of the University of Illinois, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and Yale Law School. She’s been named one of Fortune's World’s Greatest Leaders, Fortune’s 40 under 40, a WSJ Magazine Innovator of the Year, one of the 50 Most Powerful Women in New York by the New York Daily News, CNBC's Next List, Forbes's Most Powerful Women Changing the World, Fast Company's 100 Most Creative People, Crain’s New York 40 Under 40, Ad Age's Creativity 50, Business Insider's 50 Women Who Are Changing the World, City & State's Rising Stars, and an AOL/PBS Next MAKER.

France A. Córdova was sworn in as director of the NSF in 2014. The $7.5 billion federal agency supports research that enhances the nation's security, drives the U.S. economy, and advances knowledge to sustain global leadership. The scope of NSF research is immense and has led to everything from barcodes to Doppler radar, has catalogued languages and decoded genomes, and helped create Google and the Internet. NSF has supported 217 Nobel Prize winners and hundreds of small businesses.

Córdova is president emerita of Purdue University, a former chancellor and distinguished professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California, Riverside, vice chancellor for research and professor of physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and head of the department of astronomy and astrophysics at Pennsylvania State University.

Her other appointments include NASA's chief scientist and deputy group leader in the Earth and Space Sciences Division at Los Alamos National Laboratory, chair of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, and a member of the Mayo Clinic board of trustees. She also served as a member of the National Science Board, where she chaired the Committee on Strategy and Budget.

Córdova's scientific contributions have been in the areas of observational and experimental astrophysics, multi-spectral research on x-ray and gamma ray sources, and space-borne instrumentation. She has published more than 150 scientific papers. She is a recipient of NASA's highest honor, the Distinguished Service Medal, and has been recognized as a Kilby Laureate. She is also an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and is a National Associate of the National Academies. She is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Association for Women In Science (AWIS).

Córdova received her bachelor of arts degree from Stanford University and her doctorate in physics from the California Institute of Technology.

Warner S. Fletcher, WPI trustee emeritus, will receive an honorary doctorate of humane letters. Fletcher, an officer of Fletcher Tilton Attorneys at Law, is a civic leader, philanthropist, and longtime supporter of the Worcester community and WPI. The Fletcher family’s connections to WPI began with his father, Paris Fletcher, who served as a university trustee and trustee emeritus from 1953 to 1989. Warner Fletcher continued the legacy by being named to the WPI Board of Trustees from 1993 to 2014. During this time he helped guide the university as a member of the Advancement, Nominations and Governance, Academic and Student Affairs, Investment, and Budget and Finance Committees. He also held the position of vice chair from 2000 to 2008 and has served as interim chairman on two separate occasions. Fletcher also served as a valued member of the steering committee charged with strategic planning for WPI’s recent record-setting $252 million capital campaign. Fletcher and his wife, Mary, are also members of the university’s 1865 Society, recognizing those who have personally given $1 million or more to WPI.

Fletcher's dedicated service to WPI is just one component of his overall contributions to Worcester. He is a trustee of many charitable foundations and non-profit organizations in the region, including the George I. Alden Trust, The Stoddard Charitable Trust, the Fletcher Foundation, and the Greater Worcester Community Foundation. He has also been a tireless advocate for WPI’s Worcester Community Project Center, which sets students to work on solving real problems for the city and its residents.

David Schwaber will receive an honorary doctorate of engineering. He holds two degrees in chemical engineering: a BS from WPI, where he developed his interest in polymer chemistry, and an MS from Cornell University. He earned a PhD in polymer science at Akron University and spent most of his career at his family's business, Monarch Rubber Company, where he rose to become president. At the company, Schwaber developed the revolutionary EVA cushioning for athletic shoes, but saw its business wane when American shoe manufacturing began moving to Asia. Drawing on the problem-solving skills he learned at WPI, he helped Monarch reemerge as a manufacturer of polymeric gasketing materials.

As Monarch's president, he continually faced the challenge of recycling manufacturing waste. The experience led to his passion for the environment and environmental engineering, and his desire to inspire that passion in others. In 2008 he established the Schwaber Professor of Environmental Engineering at WPI through a $2 million endowment. He was also a major contributor to the Sports and Recreation Center through his funding of the Schwaber Dance Studio. Beyond WPI, Schwaber provides multiple scholarships to the Arava Institute for Israeli, Palestinian and Jordanian students concentrating on energy conservation and water management.