Purdue president tells graduates 'what you make will move the world forward'

August 6, 2011

Purdue University President France A. Córdova made these comments during commencement ceremonies on Aug. 6, 2011

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — This is a day of celebration. Today, 600 of you are receiving Purdue diplomas. You had 600 different reasons for choosing Purdue and 600 different sets of experiences while here.

Each of you will take things from your Purdue experience that will shape your future and inform the decisions you make.

Some of you are the first in your families to earn a college degree; others are carrying on the multi-generational tradition of a Boilermaker household. Whatever brings you here, I know you appreciate the love and support you've received from your parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and friends.

Let's take a moment right now and thank them. Give them a big hand.

My own parents met on the dance floor at West Point. My father was studying engineering at the Military Academy and my mother was a student at an all-girls high school in New York.

As soon as my father received his degree, he and my mother married and moved to Paris, France. That was the year World War II ended … and that's where I was born.

I was the eldest of 12 children, which led to some of my early leadership skills. I was chief babysitter, chief diaper-folder, chief dishwasher, and chief negotiator. In a noisy family, I learned to focus.

Through my father's work, we traveled a great deal. From an early age, I was used to being uprooted, living among other cultures, starting new things. These were defining experiences ... and I wrote about them. I penned poetry in Italy; published a short story about the women of an Indian pueblo in Mexico, and wrote an article for a national magazine in Israel.

Today, as your president, I still carry the value of these experiences and I am dedicated to helping students study abroad. Since I came to Purdue four years ago, student participation in study abroad programs has increased by 40 percent. Thousands of Boilermakers are getting to know other cultures and sharing our culture around the world. To those of you who are international students: Thank you for choosing Purdue and enlarging our perspective.

Although every individual who graduates from a university might describe his or her college life differently, each generation of graduates shares a common experience.

I went to college during the Vietnam War. Every student on every campus in the country was affected. Some students volunteered for service, many were drafted. Some marched to protest the war. Other students tried to hunker down, ignore the disruption, and earn their diplomas. I listened and took mental notes that still affect me.

We were trying to understand the seemingly arbitrary choices being made for us, without our input. Why is there a student on Purdue's Board of Trustees today? Because my generation sought to have a role in decision-making.

From a restless era, my generation earned a voice. Your generation has spread that voice around the world. Through the power of the Internet and social media, you can see and speak with your peers – in real time – at nearly any university on every continent.

You are able to think critically and creatively, and to solve complex problems that call for multiple inputs. You are the best forecasters of our future - because you are the leaders of our future. We need to listen to what you have to teach us.

To help you become leaders we tried to give you free reign to achieve success and make mistakes, to encourage you to take risks. The college experience is about more than academics - it is also about self-awareness, self-discipline, and self-confidence.

By the time I was admitted to graduate school, I’d made the decision to switch from a career in writing to a career as an astrophysicist.

I tried to absorb all I could from classes, teachers and fellow graduate students. Along the way I failed some exams, destroyed expensive equipment by accident, and had serious self-doubt. 

But one day, while examining new data from a satellite experiment, I came upon something no one had ever seen before; in that moment of discovery I understood what drives a scientist.

My teachers and mentors put their faith in me as a young student and allowed me to open a new window on the universe. I have never let go of the notion that every student is worth this investment; every student can envision that he or she can discover something never seen before, or make something that is unique, or do something that makes a difference.

Today is your day, students. All of you are closing a chapter on your lives and beginning a new chapter.

Shaped by your experiences at Purdue, your friends, your teachers, your mentors, your books, your research, your service and, yes, a bit of luck - you leave this institution with memories, learning and skills that are uniquely yours.

My hope for each of you is that you are unafraid, that you embrace everything that lies before you with energy, confidence, and a little impatience. Don’t wait for anything. You define your own path, whose twists and turns will reflect the choices you make along the way. Starting today, what you make will move the world forward.

Good luck, Boilermakers. Godspeed, and Hail Purdue!