Posted May 19th, 2010
Dr. Irving McPhail, president and CEO of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering and recipient of this year’s honorary doctor of engineering degree.
Yesterday the class of 2010 closed the first decade of the 21st century and entered the world as graduates of Polytechnic Institute of New York University. Friends, classmates, and family members dressed up for commencement exercises at Radio City Music Hall where they patiently endured a two-block line to the building’s entrance. Once inside they united with the graduates, who had arrived early to prepare for the event. Lights flashed as families took photos of graduates posing against the impressive backdrop of the landmark building’s interior with its lighted crystal chandeliers, grand staircases, and gold, embossed doors.
A loudspeaker invited guests to take their seats, and soon the familiar strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” greeted undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral students as they filed into the main hall. Some of their faces could be seen in the revolving gallery of photos projected onto a large screen facing attendees, who were entertained by images of students conducting lab experiments, playing soccer, or mugging for the camera with their friends.
Watching her fellow classmates enter the hall, Onicka Benfield said, “I’m really excited.” She completed a master’s degree in organizational behavior this spring and will continue as a recruiter at a staffing agency upon graduation. “It’s a foot in the door,” she said about the job, fully expecting to rise through the ranks with the aid of her degree.
On the stage, faculty and honored guests joined the proceedings, with Provost Dianne Rekow officially opening the 155th commencement ceremonies. She introduced the chair of NYU-Poly’s board of trustees, Ralph Alexander, also a graduate of the Institute who addressed the students: “You’re pretty tough. You’re pretty smart. This place is hard,” he said, describing the Institute’s academic programs. He expressed further confidence in their abilities, closing with, “I know that out there is the chairman of the board of trustees of the future.”
President Jerry M. Hultin followed Alexander, and he, too, recognized the graduates’ achievements. Recalling the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile earlier this year, President Hultin observed, “Rather than feel powerless in the face of these natural disasters, you thought of ways to mitigate damage through resilient engineering. You imagined ways to strengthen buildings and roads and to use telecommunications and technology to lessen the loss of lives.”
For President Hultin, such accomplishments proved the graduates’ potential to become “change agents,” a term he borrowed from social entrepreneur Bill Drayton, founder and CEO of global nonprofit Ashoka. “Engineers creatively using science and technology — whether solving specific problems or designing systemic solutions — are some of the best change agents in the world,” President Hultin said.
Behind every change agent are family and friends, the theme addressed by valedictorian Fnu Maheshdeep, who received in fewer than four years a combined bachelor’s and master’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science. He described how his father passed away while Maheshdeep was in the third week of his first year at NYU-Poly. Only through the encouragement of his family was Maheshdeep able to reach his goals, and he believed such support propelled the efforts of his fellow classmates. “Our education has been a collaborative effort,” he told them.
Dr. Irving McPhail, president and CEO of the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering and recipient of this year’s honorary doctor of engineering degree, chose to address another topic: diversity. He acknowledged the nation’s struggle as it tries to maintain its edge over other countries that are quickly gaining ground in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields dominated by the United States in past years. “The solution to America’s competitiveness problem,” said Dr. McPhail, “is to activate the hidden workforce of young women and men who have traditionally been underrepresented in STEM careers...that is manifested here at NYU-Poly.”
Soon afterward degrees were conferred for the approximately 380 bachelor's, 1,225 master's, and 25 doctorate degrees completed in January and May 2010. Some of those who received theirs early in the ceremony took the opportunity to duck out to the foyer before the official close of commencement. There, friends and families again requested photos, and the lobby was once more filled with flashing camera lights.
Veena Patel stood patiently by a guardrail, waiting for her nephew to emerge from the proceedings. She said he and his family relocated from India to Chicago eight years ago, and graduation was “a big event for them.” Her nephew finally joined her, and soon they were just one of the many families proudly celebrating the well-earned diploma of their graduates.