Commencement 2013: NYU-Poly Rocks the Barclays Center

On May 23, the floor of the Barclays Center was a veritable sea of purple.  No, the Brooklyn Nets haven’t gotten flashy new uniforms; that violet tide was formed by the gowns of the over 1,000 Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NYU-Poly) graduates who packed the arena for the 158th commencement ceremony.

With scenes from their time at NYU-Poly flashing on the four-sided JumboTron and the illuminated display ribbon running the perimeter of the massive space touting the Poly commitment to i2e--invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship—it wasn’t surprising that many of the grads felt like rock stars. They even had the adoring fans to prove it.

With the ceremony back in Brooklyn for the first time in years and ample seating available, throngs of family members and friends—many carrying bouquets and gifts—came out to cheer NYU-Poly’s newest alumni.

Kristin McKenzie, due to give birth to her second child in a matter of weeks, was there along with her parents and three-year-old son, Mica, to see her husband, Ruel, get his doctoral degree in chemical engineering. Tiffany and Ziante Simms were there for their older sister, Stephanie, who was earning her bachelor’s degree in computer engineering. Sunil Puranik’s aunt and uncle were celebrating his master’s in bioinformatics. They all echoed the same sentiment—extreme pride and happiness—and none could have been beaming any brighter, even if they had been holding front-row tickets to watch Jay-Z himself.

While that hip-hop star and entrepreneur wasn’t in attendance, the crowd was treated to something arguably better: President Emeritus Jerry Hultin took to the stage to lead them in a rousing chant, asking (à la Jay-Z), “Is Brooklyn in the house?” The roar intensified when he added, “Is NYU-Poly in the house?” and “Is the generation who is going to make this a better world in the house?”

Although President of NYU-Poly and Dean of Engineering Katepalli Sreenivasan did not channel any entertainment-world figures, he was equally inspiring, exhorting the graduates to take pride in their affiliation with the school, which is, as he reminded them, at the forefront of several fields, “from polymers to microwaves and from optics to hypersonics.”  He reminded them,  “While it is hard to predict the future, is clear that the challenges that face humanity will get more intense; who else but you – the alumni of this institution, whose history is enmeshed with the tradition of using technology to mitigate great societal challenges – is better suited to address these intense problems?”

Among those eager and ready to take on the challenges Sreenivasan described are the class valedictorian, Radu Iliescu, and the winner of the Polytechnic Institute Alumni Association Outstanding Graduate Award, Edward Melcer. Called upon to address his classmates, Iliescu said to raucous applause, “During our time at Poly, we learned that it is much easier to be successful when we worked collaboratively; that together, we are unstoppable.”

This year NYU-Poly awarded two honorary doctoral degrees: to Josh Weston, the honorary chairman of Automatic Data Processing (ADP), who oversaw an unprecedented period of growth during his tenure as head of the company; and to Dr. S. James Gates, Jr., the first African-American professor to hold an endowed chair in physics at a major U.S. research university. They both undeniably enjoy rock-star status--Weston in the business world and Gates in academia--and both had warm words of encouragement and advice for the graduates.

Weston recommended taking at least one hour during the work week to truly think about what you are doing during the other 39 hours and why you are doing it. “You’ll find,” he asserted, “that the sum of 39 plus 1 is much greater than the sum of 40 plus 0.”

Gates, who expressed a deep bond with NYU-Poly students because, like many of them, he was the first in his family to attend college, followed Weston’s arithmetic with a bit of a vocabulary lesson. “There’s a word, triskaidekaphobia, which means a superstitious fear of the number 13,” he said. “But no one has to worry about being in the class of 2013. You are lucky to be graduating today, and the world is very lucky to have you!”