On November 9, I had the great privilege of speaking with the student leaders of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute over brunch.
This was just a day after Typhoon Haiyan had made landfall in the Philippines—a stark reminder of how much the world needs Rensselaer graduates: to engineer houses that can withstand the most intense tropical storms, to model the evacuation of cities in the aftermath of natural disasters, and to design a resilient transportation infrastructure that allows relief workers and supplies to reach areas affected by climatic events.
Of course, the student leaders involved in RPI Relief already were thinking about raising funds for the Philippines. However, it was an important moment to ask all of our leaders—including club presidents, athletic team captains, members of student government, and Residence Life staffers—a broader question: everyone at Rensselaer is challenged to change the world for the better. Twenty years from now, how will they have done it?
The answers were fascinating, ranging from changing highly specific processes and devices, to changing minds. For example, one student wants to increase the number of women in computational fields. Another hopes to lead an organization such as Doctors Without Borders. There are many who aspire to public or community service. And there is one student who fully intends to have my job in twenty years!
What impressed me most was the thoughtfulness of the answers. Clearly, our student leaders understand that the Rensselaer motto, “why not change the world?” is not merely rhetorical, but the expression of a real opportunity afforded by their Rensselaer education.
Their thoughtfulness highlights the importance of imagination in fostering achievement. We are more likely to make a mark on the world if we have been dreaming of that mark for a long time. Of course, over a lifetime, many of us wind up achieving something quite different than we envisioned as students. But it is good to develop aspirations, focus, and confidence early on.
Clearly, our student leaders are courageous people by definition. To step into the limelight and to subject yourself to the scrutiny of your peers requires bravery at any age, but particularly when you are young. However, there also are components of leadership that are not as obvious as volunteering for a position—such as tact, discretion, tolerance, and curiosity about people who are different from you.
Our student leaders are a microcosm of Rensselaer in that their talents are expressed in very different places, from the dance floor, to the hockey rink, to the Student Senate, to the communities within developing countries helped by the Engineers for a Sustainable World. Any school that has over 175 different clubs and organizations, as Rensselaer does, clearly encourages a multiplicity of abilities and interests.
Yet, in this globally interconnected world, our graduates will be influential only to the degree to which they can convene colleagues across all kinds of borders—whether experiential, disciplinary, or national.
So we brought all of our student leaders together for a meal and a football game on a Saturday to thank them, and to encourage them to get to know each other better. As role models in many different arenas, they can promote a few universal qualities within our broader student body.
We want all of our students to develop the ambition to solve big problems. We intend them to view the world’s great challenges—encompassing food, water, and energy security; national and global security; climate impacts, human health, and the allocation of scarce natural resources—as their own personal challenges.
Finally, we expect our students to see that answering those challenges requires reaching out to people who are equally bold and imaginative—but in very different settings—and forging new connections and coalitions.
Their fellow Rensselaer students, a richly diverse group united by their intelligence, offer a great place to start.