Graduates at 161st Commencement Ceremony Urged to Make Today Count

Valedictorian, William Zhiren Peng, B.S./M.S. Mechanical Engineering

Venerable professors, high-profile dignitaries, deans and senior officials, all resplendent in academic regalia and seated sedately in rows — it’s commencement season at schools around the country. It’s probable, however, that not many of those esteemed figures got to descend from the stage to the sound of Jay-Z rapping “Empire State of Mind.” But that’s how it went here in Brooklyn on May 23, when the members of the NYU Tandon School of Engineering’s Class of 2016 walked the floor of Barclays Center to receive their degrees. And while Jay-Z sings on that track that he “bleed[s] blue” for the Yankees, violet pride was definitely the order of the day for the more than 1,100 graduates and their guests.

The soundtrack might have been less traditional than at other schools, but Tandon’s commencement ceremony had plenty of beloved traditional elements as well, including a line-up of stellar speakers who imparted words of wisdom to the grads.

Dean Katepalli Sreenivasan set the tone, exhorting the members of the class to avoid “being rigidly enslaved to a certain path, chosen a priori for you by your parents, your presumed social standing, peer pressure, and your own volition.” He continued, “The way to live is in the present, not yesterday, not tomorrow, and by being aware of each great moment that is unveiling itself right in front of you — instead of replaying the past moments, or planning too much for the future.”

Entrepreneur Steve Blank, who addressed the graduates, also touched upon the theme of making the present moment count and seizing upon serendipity. “Some of you may think you have a clear sense of where your career is headed. Others of you may still have no idea,” he said. "But either way, while the days count down, none of you should be worrying about what you will be doing 10 or 20 years from now. Because none of it will happen as you expect. While your education has prepared you to master the facts, the other half of your brain needs to learn to trust in serendipity. By the way, the engineering definition of serendipity is that life is too unpredictable to pre-compute.” He continued, “Serendipity is when it all comes together and you put all the days of your life into what becomes a heart of wisdom.”

During his speech, Dean Robert I. Grossman, who currently leads both the NYU School of Medicine and NYU Langone Health System, modestly called himself “a guy who looks at pictures for a living,” making reference to his training as a radiologist. He encouraged the graduates to think of success as a multidisciplinary function and reminded them that, as engineers, they had the opportunity to work with those in many other fields, including medicine, to solve the world’s challenges. “Approach work in a spirit of humility and collaboration,” he advised. “Don’t set up in a silo; silos are the enemy of progress.” His other advice: “Be a receiver, not a broadcaster. You can learn more by listening, so talk less, and smile more. “

Grossman and Blank each received a Polytechnic Medal, created to commemorate the values that have made the school a home to innovation and opportunity since its inception in 1854. On the medal are Latin phrases alluding to the goals of bringing technology to society and ensuring that the work of engineers respects the primacy of nature while pushing the bounds of human achievement. The impressively weighty pieces also depict the Brooklyn Bridge, which, as Dean Sreenivasan explained, “reflects the fact that engineering is a connector between technology and society, a connector among many disciplines, from medicine to the humanities.”

After bestowing medals on Blank and Grossman, Sreenivasan made a surprise presentation, placing medals around the necks of a visibly gratified Chandrika and Ranjan Tandon, whose recent act of generosity resulted in a new name for the school. It would have been easy, Sreenivasan noted, to bestow the medal in honor of the couple’s benevolence, but the reality was far deeper than that. The Tandons, he explained, appreciate the glories of the school’s past while believing in an even greater future. “They are living examples of how to integrate the material life with its spiritual side, the Eastern with the Western, the manmade with the nature-made,” he said to tumultuous applause from the audience. “This harmonious mixing of many constituents is exactly the lens through which the Tandons envisioned the future of our school of engineering — a place where technical depth is enriched by links to other fields, from art to medicine to law to business to social sciences.”

It was after the speeches and presentations were done, and the graduates had each been acknowledged by name and shaken Dean Sreenivasan’s hand that Jay-Z’s voice blasted from the sound system. The graduates filed out to meet their friends and family, some of them bearing messages taped to their mortarboards. While many featured some variation of “Thanks, Mom and Dad,” one student added a shout-out to her hardworking classmates, sporting the slogan Sí, se pudo (generally translated loosely as Yes, it can be done). And now that they’ve made it here, as the song suggests, the members of the Class of 2016 are ready to make it anywhere!

Watch the complete 2016 Commencement:

Learn more about: Katepalli R. Sreenivasan