RPI Builds Bridges to the Future During Bicentennial Commencement Weekend

May 21, 2024

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute graduates

From building the Brooklyn Bridge to sending humans to the moon, much has changed in the world since Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute was founded 200 years ago in 1824. 

RPI honored its two centuries of driving technological progress during its Bicentennial Commencement Weekend. The celebration featured astronaut and Artemis II Commander Reid Wiseman as Commencement speaker and Emily Warren Roebling, who was instrumental in the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge and received a posthumous honorary degree from RPI. 

Rensselaer President Martin A. Schmidt ’81, Ph.D. compared RPI’s first graduating class of 10 students with the Class of 2024.

“The Erie Canal, often called the internet of its day, had opened just before they graduated, revealing vast new opportunities for Rensselaer graduates to shape revolutions for an industrializing nation,” Schmidt said. “Today, you are graduating into a world poised to be transformed by emerging technologies like AI and quantum, and you, too, are going to be shaping revolutions. Like those first graduates, you are armed with a rigorous education that has emphasized experimentation and creativity.”

This experimentation and creativity was on full display as Rensselaer awarded its first-ever posthumous degree to Emily Warren Roebling. At a time when women were expected to stay at home, Emily oversaw the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge after her husband and Rensselaer alumnus, Washington Roebling, fell ill. Rensselaer awarded her the honorary degree of Doctor of Engineering for her “exceptional leadership and acumen… mastery of complex engineering principles with no formal training… and advocacy for gender equality in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.” Liz Wisan, who played Roebling on the HBO series The Gilded Age, accepted the degree in character and delivered remarks generated by artificial intelligence, with the help of archival materials and input from Roebling’s descendants.

“As you venture forth, let your actions be guided by an unwavering dedication to the betterment of humankind,” she said. “Be bold in your aspirations, diligent in your endeavors, and gracious in your successes. May you always strive to build bridges, literal and metaphorical…. May you find strength in the knowledge that you are part of a grand continuum of thinkers, makers, and dreamers who have left indelible marks on the world.”

Rensselaer’s Bicentennial Commencement speaker was Reid Wiseman, RPI Class of 1997, commander of the Artemis II mission, which will be the first crewed mission to deep space since 1972. Wiseman was selected to be a NASA astronaut in 2009. In 2014, he spent 165 days on the International Space Station, where he and his crewmates conducted more than 300 experiments. He connected with RPI live from the International Space Station, answering questions and doing backflips. 

Wiseman received an honorary Doctor of Engineering for “service to (his) country in a spirit of international cooperation for the benefit of mankind, for (his) leadership and courage in opening up the final and infinite frontier, for (his) vision of a future in which the dream of deep space travel becomes a reality.” 

Wiseman reflected on the life lessons he learned at Rensselaer, in his personal life, and as an astronaut. “Minimize regret,” he said. “That is the one thing that I’d like to… bestow upon you as you venture out into the world. You should be a good person. You should be kind to others. You should be out there daring to dream, exploring the unknown, changing the world, finding your passion. If you are not on the right path, step off that path and try another path. That takes a tremendous amount of courage. 200 years. Knowledge and thoroughness. You are all now part of this legacy. Be proud and go forth and change the world!”

Wiseman and Wisan participated in a Bicentennial Colloquy the day prior, during which the two reflected on their roles as bridge builders, literally and figuratively.

At the Bicentennial Commencement, Jacob Croce was awarded the J. Erik Jonsson Prize as the senior with the highest academic record. He was followed by Kristoff McIntosh, who was the graduate student speaker.

“As we embark on a new journey, I ask that you always remember the paths that you have walked, the people who have helped guide you, and the experiences that have shaped you here at Rensselaer,” McIntosh said. “Never forget the lessons you have learned, the ways that you have grown, and the ways that you have yet to grow still.”

Talulah Patch, the president of the Class of 2024, was the undergraduate speaker. She reflected on COVID-related challenges.

“We have had every excuse to be a separated and lonely class,” she said. “Instead, these challenges actually brought us closer together, forging bonds through our shared goal to have a normal college experience… My community at RPI has challenged me to be the best version of myself for four years, and I know that we will continue to uplift, support, and celebrate each other… Today we should celebrate everything we have accomplished together. Tomorrow we will join the rest of the graduates of 2024 and we will go build a future that makes us proud.”

The Class of 2024 is paying it forward by establishing the Course Material Assistance Fund to provide Rensselaer students in need with financial assistance for course materials such as books and digital learning tools.

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute awarded 1,774 degrees at its Bicentennial Commencement in Troy, New York, on Saturday. They included 114 doctoral degrees, 342 master’s degrees, 77 graduate certificates, and 1,241 bachelor’s degrees.

To learn more about the Class of 2024, read Commencement profiles at https://everydaymatters.rpi.edu

Commencement photos: https://rpi.box.com/s/xeh5hsver3sv5hy5lzxtfk3mspraol10

Colloquy photos and video: https://www.apmultimedianewsroom.com/multimedia-newsroom/rensselaer-polytechnic-institute-bicentennial-commencement-speaker-first-posthumous-honorary-degree

Written By Katie Malatino
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