Having being directed all around campus yesterday by Public Safety officers and people in ponchos concerned Bwog did not have a press pass, Intrepid Underclassmen Peter Sterne finally found the press section and settled in to watch the commencement of SEAS Class Day. After a procession of old alums, professors, and administrators, KevSho took the stage, asked Prezbo for permission, and kicked off the festivities.
The first to speak was the president of SEAS 2011, Amanda Tan. Both she and valedictorian Norases Vesdapunt drew on their experiences as international students trying to fit in at Columbia. While Tan delivered heartwarming anecdotes, such as her “first immigrant holiday—Thanksgiving—spent with the family of a fellow Columbia engineer,” Vesdapunt spiced up his speech with jokes. Before coming to Columbia, he recalled, he underwent a crash-course in American culture, learning, among other things, the real meaning of “3rd base.” Once he got to Columbia, he fit it just fine, though he did have to explain to some of his peers that his home nation of Thailand is not the same place as Taiwan!
The keynote speaker, Ralph Izzo, MS ’79 PhD ’81, and current head of a company involved in green energy tech, spoke about the importance of engineering knowledge in the world. He recalled his fondest memories of Columbia, “sitting with friends around an old coffee table solving the world’s problems.” Unfortunately, he admitted, he never actually succeeded in fixing the world, which means there are still plenty of problems—chief among them the development of clean and sustainable energy—left for the Class of 2011 to solve.
Dean Feniosky Peña-Mora started his speech by making the newly minted engineers stand up and thank their families and professors, including two visiting professors from Italy nicknamed “the fancy ones” in honor of their eccentric (to American eyes, at least) graduation robes. He then moved on to advice, telling the grads they should strive to use their specialized knowledge to contribute to their communities, no matter how small their contributions may seem. Alluding to chaos theory and the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings can lead to a hurricane on the other side of the world, Peña-Mora told the Class of 2011 to “go forth, flap your wings, and make us proud!”
PrezBo, the only non-engineer to speak, began by thanking “Dean Feni” and lamenting that “I wish I knew what you know.” He went on to explain that most of the world’s problems require technological solutions, and hence engineers. But he cautioned that these “problems are not just technical problems; they’re also human problems.” If only there was an educational program that combined the technical knowledge of engineering with the humanism of the liberal arts—oh, right.
Perhaps the most interesting speech came from Joshua Gaspard, the designated “grad student speaker” who is receiving his second MA at Columbia after getting an undergrad degree at West Point. Gaspard said Columbians would change the world, and predicted that the Class of 2011 includes someone who will cure cancer, someone who will develop a clean and sustainable form of energy, and someone who will develop a financial program and make billions of dollars. “But all joking aside,” he argued, “99% of you will have no global impact on the world.” Unexpectedly, the graduates erupted in uproarious, and perhaps nervous, laughter. Taken aback, Gaspard explained that while most graduates will not make world-changing discoveries, they will have real impacts on the thousands of individuals in their neighborhoods who will rely on them to better their lives. It was a nuanced point, and one that the audience seemed to appreciate.
Finally, it was time to read off the names of the graduating undergrad and grad students, which Bwog estimates numbered about 1,200 and took a half-hour. Afterward, it was time for “Stand, Columbia,” “Roar Lion Roar,” and snacks on Hamilton Lawn. Unfortunately, Bwog did not see any Jell-O shots this year, but we did spot some adorable Blue-and-White cookies.
Congrats to the Class of 2011!
Photos by Hans Hyttinen