Commencement 2009: first class of NYU-Poly graduates; speakers give guidance for uncertain times

Commencement speakers and degree honorees

Polytechnic Institute of NYU graduated its first class as an affiliate of New York University on June 1 at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall where Congressman Anthony Weiner surprised graduates.

“The way we measure progress in the great American diaspora is that we always hope that one generation exceeds the expectations of the previous [one], and you are doing it,” said the Congressman from New York’s 9th District.

Polytechnic’s 154th commencement exercises occurred on the 11-month anniversary of Polytechnic and New York University’s history-making alliance.

“Every graduating class is special in their own right,” said NYU-Poly President Jerry Hultin, “but today we are particularly proud of the Class of 2009, the very first graduates of the Polytechnic Institute of New York University.”

Graduating in Uncertain Times, Encouragement From our Presidents

As he began his congratulatory remarks, President Hultin held up the June 8, 2009 edition of BusinessWeek magazine featuring Ursula Burns, a Polytechnic alumna (ME ‘80) who will be the first African American woman to lead a Fortune 100 corporation when she becomes CEO of Xerox on July 1.

Ms. Burns’ success is an historic triumph and a testament to the power of a NYU-Poly education. However, President Hultin didn’t shy from addressing the sobering realities the graduates of 2009 face: a severely troubled economy, high unemployment, climate and environmental concerns, and ever-rising population growth.

“I am convinced you will adapt to these new challenges and changes,” said President Hultin who quoted an excerpt from President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 Yale University commencement address. “In President Kennedy’s words, you will ‘disenthrall yourself from the truisms and stereotypes of the past.’ And to paraphrase President Obama: ‘Yes, you can!’

“I am sure you will join us to invent and innovate in Polytechnic’s spirit of i2e [invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship].”(Download President Hultin’s full speech PDF)

New York University President John Sexton echoed President Hultin’s sentiments about the challenges of the 21st century, specifically how we will create a “community of humankind” as immigrants from hundreds of different nations with countless cultural traditions and religions live side-by-side in global cities and towns.

“In addition to the technical skills you’ve [gained], it’s the human skill that you’ve mastered at this great university, now NYU-Poly,” President Sexton told the Class of 2009. “As you go forth into the world, innovate, change, make a better tomorrow, and make it a more human community for all of us.”

Honorees Give Career Advice

Dr. Mae C. Jemison, Craig G. Matthews, and Andrew James Viterbi, received Honorary Doctor of Engineering degrees. Each shared hard-earned, valuable career advice.

Dr. Jemison, the first African American woman to travel to space, an engineer, entrepreneur, and physician, emphasized the need for graduates to be conscious of how their technical skills and achievements will be used by the organizations that employee them or the companies they create.

“What do we want science and technology to accomplish?” she asked. Should minerals be used to set off fireworks displays, or to launch missiles? Should nuclear technology be used for nuclear medical treatments, or to create weapons? Dr. Jemison told the graduates to decide for themselves what their contributions to science and technology should accomplish.

Mr. Matthews, immediate past chairman of NYU-Poly’s Board of Trustees and Vice Chairman & COO (retired) of KeySpan (now part of National Grid, the second largest utility company in the U.S.), said to the Class of 2009: “there’s a whole world out there.”

“By this I mean don’t be narrow in your vision…If you don’t like what you’re doing or you think you’re not good at it, try something new. Believe in yourself like your mother does.”

Mr. Viterbi, creator of the Viterbi Algorithm, which is used in most digital cellular phones and digital satellite receivers, and co-founder of Qualcomm, the technology market leader of mobile cellular communication, gave business advise to the audience’s future inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs.

“Remember that the coolest, most elegant technology goes nowhere without a market who needs it,” he said. He also stressed flexibility. “Your product may turn out quite different than what you were striving to invent; your initial business plan may need major revisions before you achieve success.”

Degrees, Awards, and Honors

Provost Dianne Rekow and President Hultin conferred approximately 275 Bachelor of Science, 930 Master of Science, and 33 PhD degrees at the late afternoon ceremony.

Honors and awards were also given to members of the NYU-Poly community of students and faculty.

Rastislav Levicky, professor of chemistry and biological engineering, received the annual Distinguished Teacher Award. Jose Garcia, who earned a BS in computer engineering, received the First Runner-Up Outstanding Graduate Award. And Lamia Iftekhar, who earned a BS/MS in electrical engineering and minors in mathematics and psychology, was declared the winner of the Outstanding Graduate Award.

Richeng Zheng, who earned a BS/MS degree in electrical and computer engineering and a minor in mathematics, represented the Class of 2009 as its valedictorian with a grade point average of 3.98.

Like many of this year’s graduates, Mr. Zheng is an immigrant to the U.S. He moved from China to New York City in 2000. During his speech he said that he had attended the previous year’s commencement ceremony and dreamt that he would speak at his graduation. From the podium in the iconic Lincoln Center, he said: “Dreams do come true at NYU-Poly.”