The workforce of the future must have a broad-based education that encourages collaboration and convergence with other people passionate about their fields.
That was the message shared with approximately 4,000 graduating students Friday at Rochester Institute of Technology's 131st Academic Convocation by commencement speaker France A. Córdova, a physics Ph.D. and director of the National Science Foundation, a $7.5 billion independent federal agency.
"The grand challenges of our time - harnessing big data, ensuring access to clean water, designing and managing a technology-embedded society - these will not be solved by one disciplinary field alone. They will require the expertise of an array of disciplines, a diverse group of passionate people. They will require us to work together, to listen and learn from each other," Córdova said.
She said colleges that promote collaboration and convergence among majors, such as RIT, strengthen students' knowledge and potential.
"We are made cleverer - and better - by the richness of our diverse experiences," Córdova said.
The Academic Convocation, held in the Gordon Field House, serves as RIT's campus-wide commemoration of the conclusion of another successful academic year. RIT President Bill Destler conferred degrees on undergraduate and graduate students, including 32 doctorates. Diplomas will be distributed to graduates following the event at separate ceremonies held by each of RIT's nine colleges and two academic centers.
Córdova, who was sworn in as the 14th director of NSF in 2014 following her nomination by President Barack Obama, was a beneficiary of convergence. She studied English as an undergraduate, a subject that seemed odd to many who knew her career path was to become an astrophysicist.
"My English skills got me my first job in science: in a physics lab, where the lab director needed someone who could write so he could publish one of the first articles about the new field of x-ray astronomy," she said.
"So much of today's innovations result from convergence: blending ideas, approaches and technologies from disparate and diverse fields," she said. "Convergence merges strengths of different disciplines, different thinkers, to create something unique and strong. It is ultimately about taking a risk that everything connects and can illuminate the workings of nature."
Córdova said RIT is a perfect place for students to find, and benefit from, convergence.
"In 1891, the literary Rochester Athenaeum converged with the scientific Mechanics Institute to create the Rochester Institute of Technology, something richer and better for its students," she said. "And today, you are led by a president who is both a distinguished engineer and an accomplished banjo player. Now that's a rare convergence of talents!"
Students are now signing up for RIT's first major in digital humanities and social sciences, to be offered in the fall semester combining technical courses with subjects in the humanities.
Córdova also cited AstroDance as a good example of convergence to promote education. The project, involving RIT's National Technical Institute for the Deaf, tells the story in accessible ways of the search for gravitational waves through dance and multimedia sound and computer simulations.
"Convergences are influencing an exciting expansion beyond the traditional science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines," she said.
Córdova told the students they are now poised on an edge, "about to step, or sprint or stumble, into something new. New can be intimidating."
But when they are asked "what's next?" the answer: "It's whatever you want it to be."
RIT Provost Jeremy Haefner helped confer an honorary Doctor of Science degree upon Córdova for "her tireless efforts in advancing all fields of scientific discovery and technological innovation, for her strong advocacy for global education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and for championing the spirit of innovation and creativity."
President Destler said Córdova has dedicated her life to pursuing knowledge and applying that knowledge toward the advancement of our society. "You have advanced scientific discovery and technological innovation in ways that will impact generations to come," he said.
In his remarks, which he delivered in American Sign Language, Destler told the graduates that the world is waiting for them and summed up lessons he's learned in the past nine years as RIT president:
- Learn and grow each day, and meet new people. Change is almost always a good thing.
- Rely on your family and friends. They will be your greatest source of support.
- Make new friends at work and outside of work.
- Return to visit RIT and your friends often. They will be a source of support in good times and bad.
"I can assure you that RIT will continue to grow and prosper along with all of you," Destler said.
Student Government President Nick Giordano, who is receiving degrees in political science and management information systems, told graduates his RIT connections run nearly 100 years deep, with his great-grandfather, John Breeden, who was a maintenance worker at the Rochester Athenaeum and Mechanics Institute in downtown Rochester.
"His work, our work, and the work of all of those who pass through these halls, represents a continuum, a cumulative effort to continually advance and progress ourselves and our community," Giordano said.
"Regardless of what lies ahead, we all share that common bond forged here at RIT. That bond is what pushes us to strive for more, it is the friendships we've built and the mentors that have guided us along the way. It's the spark of hope you see in a younger student as they take the reins of leadership and the knowledge that you've helped to leave this community a better place than how you found it.
"As John swept the halls of that girls' dormitory, he became a link in our continuum, just like my mother, father and sister who've graduated before me," Giordano said. "Thank you all for allowing me to serve this community, and the best of luck to all of us who have strived to do our part in the never-ceasing effort towards progress."
Christine Whitman, chair of RIT's Board of Trustees, called commencement weekend "a time of happiness and celebration, where the focus is on our graduates and all eyes are on the future." She encouraged graduates to stay connected to RIT.
"RIT has been an important part of your life experience," she said. "You are now part of the history of RIT and RIT will forever be part of you."
To read the full text of Córdova's remarks, go to rit.edu/news/story.php?id=55834.