08/30/2012 03:52 pm ET Updated Oct 30, 2012

Welcome to College

Members of the Class of 2016 and your families, I am delighted to add my welcome. I included all of you, not just students, in welcoming you to membership in the college community, for we appreciate the confidence that parents and other supporters have expressed by entrusting us with the education of these fine young adults. It is my sincere hope that you will stay connected to your child's college community in the months and years ahead, and that you will return to campus often to visit your students, celebrate their achievements, get to know their friends and professors, and share in the rich variety of academic, cultural, and social events happening regularly on campus.

In recognizing the outstanding qualities that led the Class of 2016 to college, we are mindful of the daunting time in which you are coming of age. Your entire high school years have been spent during a great recession; and you are witnessing a highly negative political climate in this country where elected officials often seem more committed to preventing advancement by the other party and discrediting opponents for office than in moving the country forward. Higher education, once revered by the likes of our second president, John Adams, as essential to the success of a democracy, is now under skeptical, daily attack in the media and in Congress over matters of cost, student debt, and practical value. And the brilliant British scientist Stephen Hawking is warning on the urgency of colonizing outer space because the planet earth is, in his view, likely to exist for only a few more centuries.

John Adams eloquently said, "People and nations are forged in the fire of adversity." In that spirit I want to encourage you that there is much to be optimistic about, and that you, the class of 2016, have all the elements required to move the nation and the world forward, rebuilding the economy, advancing human health, sustaining the planet, and shaping a more just society. Within the past month America has placed a robot on Mars, appropriately named "Curiosity," that is the next important step into outer space; and we have celebrated the Summer Olympics, where athletes from around the world came together again in the spirit of healthy competition to celebrate the human quest for the highest levels of performance and achievement. And the innovation flowing from our colleges and universities, as well as our national labs and corporations, provides enormous potential for profound progress in broad domains. So think boldly and creatively, as a Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) student named Robert Goddard did when he imagined how a liquid fuel rocket would open "the endless frontier" of outer space, and acted famously on that vision.

I want also to encourage you to think hard, not just about technological innovation and economic development, but about the kind of world you want to live in, and the leadership and hard work required to achieve it. Take inspiration and hope from the beautiful words of President Lincoln's second inaugural address, delivered near the end of the civil war, several months before his assassination which, incidentally, happened only days after WPI's founding. He pleaded with the nation, "With malice toward none, with charity for all, let us strive on to... achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

You are capable of doing amazing things. I hope you will use your time here and your great talents to the fullest, making us as proud of you as we have been of those who have preceded you.

Make no mistake about it, a college education should challenge you profoundly -- to deal with ambiguity, to identify and formulate problems properly, to marshal relevant resources and knowledge, to conceive and organize solutions, to work cooperatively in ways that complement each other's strengths and weaknesses, to accommodate differences in style and philosophy, to integrate knowledge, and to communicate what has been accomplished, in both writing and oral presentation. And you will be especially well prepared if you make the humanities and arts a treasured set of your college experiences and life-long passions. My own campus is rich with academic courses in the humanities, theatre studies, music, and visual arts, and with the associated performances by which the creativity, joy, and substance of the human spirit are reflected upon and celebrated. Yes, it's a great time to be a nerd, but fullness in a fine liberal education runs well beyond science and technology. I hope you take full advantage of all of the opportunities awaiting you, and even some that you will create all on your own.

Recently, a former colleague who had just been appointed to a distinguished university presidency replied to my congratulatory letter by saying, in part, "Universities don't build just engineers and doctors and scientists, they build citizens. What students need [in addition to their academic competence] are civic spirit, community pride, and a sense of optimism." In my reply I assured him that the values he described--civic spirit, community pride, and a sense of optimism -- are very much characteristic of WPI students and the quality of campus life. I am exceedingly proud of the work WPI students do on our campus, in the larger Worcester community, and around the world to serve and improve society through creative and collaborative problem-solving, selfless and inspired leadership, and a deep sense of civic responsibility and pride in what they accomplish together and in collaboration with those they encounter at home and abroad. I know that these will be exciting and rewarding experiences for all of you.

Now let me offer some practical advice. I asked some of our graduating seniors what advice they would have me give to such an outstanding group of entering students. Here's what they suggested:

-- First, "un-friend" your parents from your Facebook account -- right away!
-- Second, make sure to call home once a week -- not a text message or an e-mail, but a real phone call, and talk about how things are going for you, the good and the bad. And be sure to ask your parents how things are going at home, now that you are no longer there to guide them;
-- And third, remember that tattoos are permanent, so think long and hard before getting one. (BUT if you do, the word "Mom," tastefully displayed on your bicep, is a good choice.)

I also asked the parents of some of our graduating seniors what advice I might give to parents. Here's what they said:
-- First, don't be offended if your child "un-friends" you from her or his Facebook account. You'll sleep better at night, they assure you.
-- Second, if your student doesn't call home once a week, just cut off his or her discretionary spending. (NOT their tuition payments, mind you. Just any allowance you may be providing.)
-- And, finally, parents - -remember that tattoos are permanent, so think long and hard before getting one. Of course, the phrase "My Son/Daughter Goes to WPI" would make a nice tattoo, but remember, we have bumper stickers in the bookstore that convey the same sentiment.

More seriously, students, you will find your faculty eager to get to know you, to assist you with both academic and personal challenges, and to be fully supportive. Similarly, the professional staff will provide advising, personal and career counseling, social opportunities of all sorts, and general assistance. But these extensive resources will be helpful only if you take it upon yourself to engage the persons and programs that are here to assist you. How to do this is relatively simple, and I can put it in nine words -- the nine magic words for success:

Come to class.
Do the work.
Ask for help.

I do not mean to be facetious. Each of you is fully capable of succeeding here or we would not have admitted you. Students who fail to succeed for the most part do so simply because they do not go to class, keep up with the assignments, or ask for help when they need it.

This last tip, about asking for help, is especially important. Many of you are high achievers, often the highest in your class.You are not accustomed to needing help; indeed, many of you may have a highly-developed talent for meeting deadlines with heroic, last-minute effort. But now you are about to find yourself among classmates just as smart as you (well, almost as smart!); in courses that are completed, beginning to end, in just seven weeks; and with teachers who expect you not only to "learn" the material, but to master it and put it work. And let me assure you -- none of our professors will accept a video parody of "Call Me Maybe" in lieu of legitimate class assignments. It is not uncommon for even the strongest students to need help from time to time. All you need to do is ask, but you must do the asking for yourself.

Faculty post student office hours (as do I) and they welcome visits during these hours. I strongly encourage you to get to know your professors personally. Visit them during their office hours; invite them to your social, artistic, and athletic events; and accept their invitations to assist in their labs or with their research projects. I assure you they will welcome your interest. I can also assure you that these relationships will be of great value to you, not just in the courses you are taking from these special faculty, but in their capacity to guide you as academic advisors, as mentors, and as individuals to whom you can turn both in trying times and during moments of triumph. Faculty can also be invaluable to you when it comes time to provide recommendations for graduate school or employment.

Now, let me share a few words of caution:

First, know that we expect a degree of civility and respect toward all members of the campus community worthy of mature young adults. Residence halls are places where one can reasonably expect to study and to sleep, as well as to have fun. Your RAs will share the expectations we have for you concerning residence life, which have been thoughtfully developed to ensure a satisfactory living environment for all residents, and we expect and will appreciate your full compliance.

The use of illegal drugs is a pathway to personal destruction along which I hope none of you will travel during your time here. Similarly, alcohol abuse, especially binge drinking, is one of the biggest threats to student achievement, health, and safety, on campuses all across this country. Please resist the temptation to allow your newfound freedom to jeopardize your status here, or even your life, by the abuse of alcohol.

All of this advice is really just about personal responsibility -- for your safety, for your obligations to your fellow students, for your personal development, and for your education. As wonderful as the faculty, staff, and programs are, as stimulating and rewarding as your relationships with your classmates will be, as fine as the facilities and programs are -- the degree to which you find success and fulfillment in your college experience will be very much up to you -- and we have great confidence in your ability to take full advantage of the opportunity.

I end these remarks with the charge I have given to every entering class since joining WPI in 2004. It is based on the eloquent words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Speaking at a Memorial Day ceremony in 1884, reflecting on the generations of Americans who had waged our great Civil War, Justice Holmes said the following:

Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing. While we were permitted to scorn nothing but indifference, and [we] did not pretend to undervalue the worldly rewards of ambition, we have seen with our own eyes, beyond and above the golden fields, the snowy heights of honor; and it is for us to bear the report for those who come after us.

But above all, we have learned that whether [one] accepts from Fortune her spade, and will look downward and dig; or [takes] from Aspiration her axe and cord, and will scale the ice[y heights]; the one and only success which is [ours] to command is to bring to [our] work a mighty heart.

Members of the Class of 2016, I hope, as in the words of Justice Holmes, that you will bring to your work a mighty heart, that you will scorn nothing but indifference, and that in your study, your work in your community, and throughout your lives, your hearts will be touched with fire.

My very best wishes to all of you, and welcome to college.