Freeman Hrabowski

Freeman Hrabowski to Deliver WPI’s Graduate Commencement Address

Renowned educator and leader reflects on STEM, social justice, and personal growth

May 6, 2019
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Freeman Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), will deliver the 2019 Graduate Commencement address on Thursday, May 9. The university will bestow an honorary doctor of arts degree on Hrabowski, who is well-known for his dedication to STEM education and for his leadership in the civil rights movement.

As a 12-year-old in Birmingham, Alabama, Hrabowski participated in the 1963 Birmingham Children’s Crusade civil rights march. Throughout the marches, police arrested the school-age and teenage demonstrators, including Hrabowski and put them in jail. It was a defining action in his life and one that established a firm path with themes of education and social justice.

As a mathematician, Hrabowski has a personal stake in STEM and believes students in these fields need to become the ambassadors for STEM. “People who have come to succeed in STEM areas are still in a minority in our country,” he says. “People are still uncomfortable with STEM because they don’t understand it. So STEM grads are going to be leaders in their field and have to think about, ‘What does it mean to be a leader and a human?’ We need to talk about why STEM is important.”

Hrabowski recently answered some questions for The Herd.

Your history with the civil rights movement and social justice goes back to your childhood when you marched in the Birmingham Children’s Crusade. How have those experiences framed your life path and how can our graduates learn from your example?

I tell part of my story because stories inspire people. We grow through adversity, and you really don’t know who you are until you face challenges and see how you react in those challenges. For me, having that experience of going to jail with Dr. King and having to think about what my future would be, allowed me to know, even as a child, that I could be empowered to shape my own future.

That experience really did allow me to come up with the idea of expecting the most of myself and of those around me. I learned the importance of community and of building a group of people around you that will give you support. And nothing takes the place of honest evaluation. I did that as a child, and I have used that approach throughout my career in preparing scientists and engineers. Being reflective helps in understanding how failure fits into one’s ultimate success. And most important is understanding the word “grit.” It’s the hard work, the perseverance, and the resilience that make such a difference.

Why is it important for today’s graduates to combine their STEM education, their social justice values, and the technological advances in the larger world to shape what is to come once they leave WPI?

It is important to put it all in perspective and prepare to lead in a world that is changing dramatically. One aspect of social justice involves recognizing that today those in the bottom quarter of our society still have a very small chance of graduating from a four-year institution. How do we help those at the bottom of our society? How can we understand their challenges, and what can we do to make a difference with that group? Part of the social justice is realizing that if someone can’t get an education, it’s very hard for them to live the kind of life every American wants to live.

There is the lifelong connection between knowledge and wisdom and using both for the greater good.  How do you continue to connect all aspects of your formal education and your life experiences to inspire students to want to help the global community we live in?

I think of the Grand Challenges and the idea that we all have so much in common. It’s thinking about the challenges like clean water and looking at each problem broadly. It’s the question of how much we appreciate people from other cultures. One of our challenges in American society is knowing the world does not revolve around us.

We should never stop learning. All my students know that for the past two years, I have been studying French language and French culture. I am speaking French all day long at UMBC. My students said to me, “Don’t you think you’re a little old?” And I said, “Bring it on!” “Bring. It. On.” The idea is to never stop learning, of course, but it’s also getting beyond your comfort zone and understanding other cultures. The more we understand other cultures, the more we understand ourselves.

What helped you make the decision to speak at WPI’s Graduate Commencement ceremony?

I personally have great respect for Laurie. I know she is a trained geochemist, but I think of her as a space scientist and admire all she did at NASA. She is one of the country’s leading examples of creative and innovative leadership.

WPI and UMBC are very similar in many ways. We focus heavily on innovation, teaching and learning, and research. I take great pride in the innovation we are doing here, and it’s always inspiring to go to other institutions known for building innovative initiatives.

What advice would you give to our graduates?

I want them to believe in themselves. We want every person to have a strong sense of self and not to let anyone else define who they are. Each person must define who he or she is. This strong sense of self is the foundation of anyone’s success.

-By Julia Quinn-Szcesuil