President encourages ‘face-to-face’ interaction

A handshake, a pat on the back, and breaking bread together may seem a little old-fashioned in a world of texting, blogging, and tweeting, but interacting face-to-face is the oldest kind of social networking, and it really has not gone out of style.

Rensselaer certainly takes online relationships seriously. In fact, our leadership in developing the Semantic Web, which will connect people with knowledge more effectively by including the meaning of data, has gotten a lot of attention lately. Tetherless World Senior Constellation Professor James Hendler, in particular, has been recognized for his contributions to data.gov.

But face-to-face social networking—bringing together our talented people to share their knowledge and understanding of different disciplines, to work together on new ideas and to have fun—is an area of intense interest and investment within Rensselaer. If you look across the student body, you will find people from 42 states and 60 different countries. We put an emphasis on diversity here because it expands the horizons of our community. Our Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center provides a platform for working in an interdisciplinary manner, because it is in these border regions that some of the best innovations and insights come to life.

As you stroll across our campus, you will find many spaces that are designed to bring together people who have different talents, skills, and interests in an ad hoc manner. Most notably the Atrium in the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies attracts a variety of people from our community in a way that encourages conversations that I believe will become the basis for the next generation of world-shaping ideas.

Students know their classes are apt to encourage them to work in teams that, because they deal with real world problems, draw upon people with different capabilities and forge unexpected and valuable new social networks. One of our students pointed out that this is captured in an immediate way by our clubs. On any given weekend you can walk across campus and be welcomed by clubs that are doing a variety of things—the Pakistani Students Association sharing its music, Black Student Alliance holding a fashion show, or members of our fraternities or sororities engaged in philanthropic activities, such as fundraising or community service.

The first-year students who just joined us already know the efforts we put in to develop ways for people to get to know each other. They will find it moves to a higher level as building community continues during the academic year through the First-Year Experience. Resident faculty, peer help, and organized activities are just part of how their class will be supported.

This year, our sophomores will see their relationships continue to build as they become our first class to engage in the Sophomore-Year Experience—with 100 percent of the students either living on campus or in one of our signatory greek houses. Our retention rates are already strong, but we believe this added commitment to supporting face-to-face community within Rensselaer will pay off for our students in myriad ways as they go through the years here—certainly academically, but also because they can get the help they need, and they are appreciated within a caring community.

The friendships our students make and the relationships they nurture will stay with them long after they have graduated. But even more important—and this is a priority and a value with Rensselaer—our students get opportunities every day to listen to, to learn about, and to come to understand people with very different backgrounds and worldviews. They develop skills in establishing trust across cultures—skills that are essential both for exploring new domains of knowledge and for building camaraderie and friendship.

Our kind of social networking is only enhanced by the new tools that everyone is so excited about. They are reinvigorating face-to-face community building so that connections at Rensselaer are just as innovative and productive as the latest application on the Internet. We are excited about what this will mean in terms of this new year and all we do together. We welcome back those who are already part of our community, and we embrace those joining us from the Class of 2014.