On Wednesday, August 30, 2017, I gave the following address to the Class of 2021 at the 2017 Convocation.
Excitement. Passion. Suspense. Intrigue.
There are a number of emotions you’re feeling right now. I know; I sat where you’re sitting a few years ago. Right now, it may seem like you’ll be here on campus for a long time, but you’re about to kick off what might be the most hectic, fast-paced, and thrilling years you’ve ever experienced.
You’ve heard many useful tips and ideas over the past few days—and you even heard from me yesterday at Welcome Fest—but I’m not here today to give you advice. I’ve sat through many great speeches about how to prepare for my four years and how to make the most of my college experience. Today, I’d like to give you a different view. I’m going to tell you about some of my friends.
But first, I’ll tell you that the years you spend here will shape who you are. Not just in terms of the classes you take or the major you study, but also in the sense of preparedness, scheduling, conflict management, and several other life skills.
Notice how I didn’t say “the four years you spend here (or five if you’re an archie).” That’s because it might not take you four. It might take you five; it could take you three. Maybe you’ll switch majors or concentrations a handful of times. Maybe you’ll decide that our coterm program fits your aspirations. Maybe you’ll even stay to pursue a Ph.D., researching something that is currently only a distant dream.
One of my friends stayed for a fifth year, in her words, “just because.” She admits it was expensive, but she’ll also tell you it was the best choice of her life. She took a light load of classes, even retaking courses she didn’t do too well in. She spent time finishing up projects she’d started for her clubs, and she passed on her knowledge to the leaders who followed her. Most importantly, it gave her a chance to spend another year with the best friends she made at RPI. Like me, she was involved in the Union, and her fifth year allowed her to refine the skills I mentioned before: preparedness, scheduling, and conflict management.
Another friend took a break from RPI in the middle of his time here. He found a new passion outside of science and engineering that he believed would set up great opportunities for his future. So, he chased after it. He stayed local, he kept connected with his friends, and, when he was ready, he came back to his home here with a warm welcome. Like the first friend I mentioned, if you ask him, he wouldn’t change it for the world.
It’s not just the experiences from courses, from clubs, or from friend circles that define a person; it’s much more than that. What did my first friend get out of spending an extra year here? Well, she learned that people need to do things for fun and sometimes important parts of your life—that is, in this case, starting a career—can wait. The second friend found out that there are no straight paths in life. Instead of his original plan, he added something he loves, and he came back to finish his RPI degree with a new perspective on how what he’s studied impacts the rest of the world.
And that is really what makes RPI incredible. Though we may find our classes very difficult at times, our professors truly teach the extrapolation of material, rather than the material itself. Sure, engineers are taught how to find the required strength of a bridge and computer scientists are taught to differentiate sorting algorithms, but it’s the manner in which problems get solved that is actually taught in the classroom.
You’ve all come from different parts of the country and even the world, and you all have different backgrounds and experiences to share with each other and the campus. By the time you walk across a stage similar to this one and receive your diploma, your persona will have changed substantially. You’ll recognize that the path you took to get there was unique, and you’ll be able to glean important life skills from your journey. Who knows, you might even find yourself on this stage with a similar hat giving a speech to a future incoming class.
Whether you finish in your standard amount of time, add time at the end to study, finish your degree ahead of schedule, or take time off to pursue another interest, your unique experience will prove greatly beneficial to both who you are and who you’ll become. Use these years to learn about yourself. Explore your strengths and weaknesses; determine what you value in your friends and what they value in you.
And, above all, find what you love.
Class of 2021, welcome to Troy, and welcome to RPI!