A pioneer of the American civil rights movement called on Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s newest graduates to use their skills to create a kinder and more equal society.
U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, delivered the message to 1,676 graduates in his commencement address Saturday. Because of the wind, rain and low temperatures, RPI’s 207th commencement was moved indoors from the East Campus Athletic Village Stadium to the Houston Field House.
“What we can learn from the history of the March on Washington is that democracy is not a state. It is an act,” said Lewis. “We will never reach a place in our democracy where we can finally sit down. We will never reach a place where we can put away our responsibility as citizens and leave our job to others. Our society requires you and me to get off the sidelines and get in the game.”
As a young man from Troy, Ala., Lewis was inspired by the activism surrounding the seminal Montgomery Bus Boycott and the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Lewis organized sit-in demonstrations at segregated lunch counters in Nashville, and during the height of the civil rights movement was named chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
He was deemed one of the “Big Six” leaders of the civil rights movement in 1963, and delivered a keynote speech at the historic March on Washington later that year.
RPI awarded a total of 1,834 degrees, including 411 master’s degrees, 163 doctoral degrees and 1,260 bachelor’s degrees. Some graduates earned more than one degree.
Per tradition, graduates received all kinds of advice at commencement.
RPI President Shirley Ann Jackson told graduates to use the tools offered by new technologies for their highest purpose: answering the world’s greatest challenges and building communities. At the same time, she said, work to develop a greater degree of humanity as technology continues to become more powerful and advanced.
“I urge you to take the most expansive possible view of the work you will do in future,” she said. “I hope you do work to improve humanity itself — and help the rest of us to find new ways to teach, to heal, to amuse, to protect and ultimately to understand each other. Just remember, the arc of one’s career follows the arc of one’s character.”
The graduates also heard from honorary degree recipients Admiral Michael Mullen, retired Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman; Ursula Burns, Xerox chairman and CEO; and Patricia Stonesifer, Microsoft pioneer and founding CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
“If you’re building vaccines, if you’re creating solutions to global warming, if you’re leading a foundation — you need to get out of the lab, out of the office, out of the theory — and take the chance to live your work,” said Stonesifer. “Put yourself in the shoes of the person or community you aim to serve and really attempt to understand what they need, why that is the case and how you can stand with them to create the change you both seek.”
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