Rensselaer Graduates Recognized for Resilience, Perseverance at 217th Commencement

May 20, 2023


Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute President Martin A. Schmidt ’81 presided over the 217th Commencement Ceremony, his first as president. During the ceremony, which was held at the East Campus Athletic Village, Rensselaer awarded a total of 1,988 degrees — 152 doctoral degrees, 390 master’s degrees, and 1,446 bachelor’s degrees — to 1,957 students, some of whom earned multiple degrees. Approximately 1,500 students attended the ceremony.

President Schmidt acknowledged the impact of the COVID pandemic on the graduates’ experience, but learned from students that the challenge brought them together. He quoted Hannah Price ’23, co-captain of the women’s hockey team this year: “Connected by hardship, RPI feels more like a community now than when we originally arrived.”

He compared this sense of community on campus with the polarization our country is experiencing and urged graduates to continue their kindness and understanding moving forward. President Schmidt said, “Your resilience and persistence in the face of enormous odds is a lesson to all of us. So is the kindness you’ve shown to your peers. My request: make that your superpower! Make that your brand. Make that the badge you’ve earned and the badge you’ll wear with pride. As president of RPI, you are my first graduating class. I could not be more proud to know you. I could not be more excited to see a future that you can shape with your new superpower!”

Attendees heard from two student speakers. Neha Keshan, who graduated with a Ph.D. in computer science, thanked the community and reflected on the significance of her accomplishments.

“Standing here does feel like living my childhood dream,” Keshan said. “Without all of your support, coming from a business family, I may not have become the first Ph.D. holder in my family. A first-generation graduate student and, that too, in a science field, and living in a foreign country feels surreal… So, keep dreaming! It’s the most powerful tool one has.”

Class President Faizah Rabbye, who received a B.S. in electrical engineering with a dual degree in science, technology, and society, shared her lessons learned at Rensselaer.

“One: lean on people that care about you for support and let them do the same... Two: while changing the world starts with one person, it takes a group to implement that change… Three: remember to take a moment to savor each experience.”

Rensselaer awarded two honorary degrees. Dr. Marilyn Simons was presented a doctorate of humane letters for her “support of research that takes risks and crosses boundaries.” Dr. Simons is co-founder and co-chair of the board of trustees of the Simons Foundation, one of the most important philanthropic organizations funding research in basic science and mathematics in the United States.

“I hope you take what you’ve learned at Rensselaer and bring it with you on your journey,” Simons said. “I don’t just mean the coursework… but the values that have guided your time on campus. Friendship, collaboration, and creativity are essential to research and discovery, but they are also essential to fostering community.”

For her dedication to biomedical research and mentorship of students, Dr. Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic received an honorary doctorate of engineering. Vunjak-Novakovic is University Professor and Mikati Foundation Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Columbia University. She has done groundbreaking work in tissue engineering, both for regenerative medicine and for drug testing customized to the patient. Vunjak-Novakovic stressed the importance of finding one’s passion.

“Dream big and try hard and work on something that you’re really passionate about,” she said. “It is okay to be uncertain and try various options… Some of the best things happen to us without a plan…Go find your challenge. Go change the world!”

Dr. Shayla Sawyer, professor of Electrical, Computer, and Systems Engineering and director of the Douglas A. Mercer ’77 Innovation and Exploration Laboratory (The Mercer XLab), received the David M. Darrin ’40 Counseling Award for her contributions in the counseling of undergraduate students. Ge Wang, the John A. Clark and Edward T. Crossan Chair of Engineering and director of the Biomedical Imaging Center, received the William H. Wiley 1866 Distinguished Faculty Award for excellence in teaching, productive research, and interest in the totality of the educational process. Jacob Gardiner Harris received the JErik Jonsson Prize for the graduate with the highest academic record, achieving a perfect 4.0 GPA.

To learn more about the Class of 2023, read commencement profiles at

Commencement b-roll is available is here:

Commencement photos are available here:

Written By Katie Malatino
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