President tells graduates Purdue experience positions them to pursue passions

December 18, 2011

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - This is a day to celebrate!

Today we are graduating 2,600 Purdue students.

Each one of you has a personal narrative that brings you to the Elliott Hall of Music before family and friends to accept your diploma as the newest alumni of this great institution.

I know you appreciate the love and support you've received from your parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends.

Let's give them a big hand.

Your successes and challenges are the chapters that make up your personal narratives. Good and bad, funny and dramatic, serene and suspenseful; bound together, they tell the stories of your lives … and we are happy that Purdue University has been a prominent chapter.

I am also proud that my personal story has included Purdue. My narrative has included welcoming many of you to Purdue during the past five years. It has included joining you in this hall for Boiler Gold Rush, eating with you in the residence halls, sledding down Slayter Hill, attending dance marathons for the Riley Hospital for Children, hosting student forums, joining you at Memorial Mall for Boiler Blast kickoffs, high-fiving you at football games, conducting the All-American Marching Band, working out at the T-Rec with you, and even running through a fountain.

I have enjoyed working with you on student-led policy changes. I have witnessed your generous responses to an earthquake in Haiti and a tsunami in Japan, and your commitment to the Greater Lafayette community. And like you, I have acquired the latest communication devices and have taken advantage of an increasingly wireless world.

Some of you will remain with us as you pursue graduate studies. We are happy that you will stay with Purdue. You will be the renowned teachers and researchers of the future, and perhaps one day sit in the seats in Elliott Hall where your faculty are sitting now.

Many of you will move on to pursue other goals. My hope for you is that when you discover your passion, when you know what you want to do above all else, don't let anything hold you back.

I'm speaking about this from personal experience. I had an early interest in science, but was discouraged in high school and college from pursuing studies in that field, mostly because no one could see women in the role of a scientist. I lacked the confidence to make a new path, and I could not clearly envision what the path would look like.

For young women interested in the sciences today, the landscape has changed. At Purdue, we have strong role models - a woman dean leads the College of Engineering. A former woman dean has a ship named in her honor, and two female students have become astronauts. A young female faculty member is our first Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. Four other women in the College of Science have earned the rank of Distinguished Professor. Several women lead large research projects that promise to transform education, science and engineering, making better products and processes.

And unlike in my college era, young women today are pursuing degrees in the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. In fall 2011, we enrolled the highest number of women in engineering in Purdue's history, an increase of 31 percent over last year.

As many of you know, I did find my way back to science and eventually earned a Ph.D. in physics.

In retrospect, my decision to add another credential in a new field was bold. It took time and I had few resources - but I knew what I wanted to do. As you begin the next chapter of your lives, I urge you to follow your instincts and pursue what you truly want to do. Your story is yours to live, and no one else can write your narrative for you.

As you live out your personal story, be aware that the plot can change! I was working as a department head in astronomy and astrophysics when the head of NASA offered me a position as chief scientist of the agency; I would be the youngest and first female chief scientist of NASA.

I thought things were going well where I was, and I wasn't sure I wanted to uproot the family. So I spoke with a close friend and mentor, who said, "Why wouldn't you do this? It's an opportunity to make a difference!" I took the NASA job.

I hadn't planned this. I kept an open mind when the offer came, and I sought advice. And that's my advice to you. Say "yes" to opportunities. You write the chapters.

As you sit here today, waiting for your turn to walk across this stage, it is impossible for you to imagine the twists that your career path will take. You will have many choices. I know this because you will have a Purdue degree and the strong reputation and high value that comes with it.

I have traveled across the United States and on international trips to China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and India to meet with alumni and form partnerships for Purdue. I can assure you, the reputation of this institution is strong and growing. Wherever you go, you will be proud to be a Boilermaker for the rest of your life.

As you turn a page today in your personal narrative, remember that you will never fully close the chapter on Purdue.

It has been a privilege being with you during your time here. I have gotten to know many of you personally, and I treasure my memories of you.

I know you will move the world forward. You already have begun.

Godspeed and Hail Purdue!