Skip to main content

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

U.S. Surgeon General and Vice Admiral Regina M. Benjamin Emphasizes the Importance of Service at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute 205th Commencement

May 28, 2011

U.S. Surgeon General and Vice Admiral Regina M. Benjamin Emphasizes the Importance of Service at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute 205th Commencement

U.S. Surgeon General and Vice Admiral Regina M. Benjamin

U.S. Surgeon General and Vice Admiral Regina M. Benjamin Addresses 1,700 Graduates at Rensselaer Polytechnic institute’s 205th Commencement; President Shirley Ann Jackson Urges Graduates To Become “Architects of Change”

U.S. Surgeon General and Vice Admiral Regina M. Benjamin – who began her medical career as director of a nonprofit medical clinic in a poor community of rural Alabama – stressed the importance of service and the power of an individual to effect change in her address to the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Class of 2011.

“People are going to trust you and respect you because you have a prestigious college degree. They’re going to look to you as a leader and with that comes a responsibility: The responsibility to be a leader,” Benjamin said.

Dr. Benjamin, one of the world’s leading experts on public health and a key figure in the national debate on health care reform, addressed 1,700 graduates and their families at Rensselaer’s 205th Commencement today, held in the stadium at the Institute’s East Campus Athletic Village.

Regardless of the chosen profession, no matter the path, Benjamin said, graduates will achieve the greatest success if they give back to their community.

Drawing from her own chosen profession, Benjamin spoke about the many victories of public health – vaccination, pasteurization, air bags, and bike helmets – and the many challenges that lie ahead. She recalled an early revelation she had about the power of the individual when, as a medical intern, she attended an annual meeting of the Medical Association of Georgia. There she listened to the debate on a resolution calling for inclusion of sexually transmitted diseases in medical school curriculum. She stood and testified that such teaching would be important to young doctors who had never seen many diseases outside of a textbook. The resolution passed, she said, and within six months, every medical school in the country had included sexually transmitted diseases in the core curriculum. She learned that one person really can make a difference.

“What I really want you to take away today is that service is so important. It’s often said that you make a living with what you get, but you make a life by what you do,” Benjamin said.

At Rensselaer, she noted, students are already heavily involved in service, through fundraising, tutoring, and community service projects. Benjamin highlighted the recent Relay for Life event that drew more than 1,400 students, faculty, staff, and members of the community to raise awareness and funds for cancer research.

Citing many of the research projects under way at Rensselaer – credit-card sized water filters, solar-powered lighting for undeveloped countries, and research in biotechnology and nanotechnology – Benjamin said that Rensselaer students have an enormous power to effect individual change. You never know, she said, who may be affected by these innovations and how they may change the world.

“It’s important to understand that ... you’re leaders even if you don’t think it yourself,” Benjamin said.

President Jackson Urges graduates to become “architects of change”

Pointing to the uncertainty pervading current events – with reference to the economy, recent natural disasters, and the high cost of energy – Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute President Shirley Ann Jackson said it is clear we face challenges “of both national and global dimensions.” Rensselaer graduates, she continued, must rise to meet those challenges.

“We need new solutions to the challenges of our times, and we also need to implement the solutions, often in the face of resistance. In other words, we need people of courage to become architects of change and agents of change. People like you,” said Jackson.” Many would like for things to stay the way they are, but the challenges we see in the world demand renewal.”

While change is critical, Jackson continued, the best change will “build upon our traditions and cultures, drawing what is best about them, sharing them with others, in order to adapt to a changing world.”

“It is up to the change agent to help society transform itself, and I hope that many of the Class of 2011, given their responsibility as future leaders, will take on the role of change agent,” Jackson said.

Jackson enumerated some of the characteristics of an effective change agent as keen perception, empathy, and persistence in the face of adversity. By providing students with a rigorous grounding in knowledge and skills, and opportunities to build leadership abilities, Rensselaer – she continued – has prepared the Class of 2011 well for this role.

“President Barack Obama has said, ‘Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time.  We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek,’ ” said Jackson. “Graduates, you are the ones we have been waiting for.”

Class president tells classmates to be heroes in daily life

Class President Jeremie Carlson, who majored in biology, recounted for his classmates the stages of a heroic adventure as outlined in the book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell. In the final stage the hero – having been called to adventure and survived a succession of trial – returns to home with a gift, which the hero may then use to improve the world. Carlson told his classmates that their gift is an education, which enables them to be heroes in their daily lives.

“To be heroes in our own daily lives, I urge you to seek your own passion, to follow what you love, and to continue to fight for what you stand for and believe in,” Carlson said. “Someone once told me that people who became famous for changing the world did not get there by going out looking for fame, but instead searched out ways their own actions can impact the world.” 

While the gift of their first trial is an education, Carlson continued, the adventure is not over.

“A new journey is ahead. Today we depart, knowing there will be times of trial but assured of the gift we will share with the world,” Carlson said. “Remember the handprints that have been left on your hearts by friends during your years at RPI and know that you’ll never walk alone in the future.  May we become heroes whose fervor and folly, tragedies and triumphs, inspire and thrill the world.”

Carlson, a Schenectady, N.Y., native, participated in the undergraduate research program, and worked in the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies lab of Douglas Swank, assistant professor of biology. The group studies how muscles have evolved to power many different functions including locomotion and pumping blood. His experience extended to working with doctors and fellow researchers at the Bone and Joint Center in Albany, N.Y, which sparked an interest in medicine. Following graduation, Carlson will travel to Europe for most of the summer. He then plans to work in a clinical or research environment, and then apply to medical school. 

Celebrated guests awarded honorary degrees

Dr. Benjamin received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree during the ceremony.

G. Wayne Clough, the 12th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, who leads the world’s largest museum and research complex, received an honorary Doctor of Engineering degree. Clough has envisioned a new era for the Smithsonian, expanding its global relevance and helping the nation shape its future through research, education, and scientific discovery on major topics of the day. To ensure its vast collection is accessible and available, he is leading the effort to digitize much of the 137 million objects in the collection and use the World Wide Web and Smithsonian experts and scholars to reach out to new audiences in the United States and around the world. Before his appointment to the Smithsonian, Clough was president of the Georgia Institute of Technology for 14 years, where he completed a building program of more than $1 billion that incorporated sustainable design. Clough is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Samuel F. Heffner Jr. ’56, who launched a career in the real estate development business that has spanned nearly 50 years, received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree. Heffner is the founder and president of Dickinson-Heffner Inc., a building and land development firm that has developed several million square feet of office and industrial space in the Baltimore region, primarily in the vicinity of Baltimore-Washington International (BWI) Airport. He has served on numerous civic boards and is a founder and former chair of the BWI Business Partnership Inc., devoted to the fostering of economic development and transportation interests by businesses in the BWI area. Heffner was a member of the Rensselaer Board of Trustees for 33 years and served as board chair for 15 years, retiring in December 2010.

For more information about the Commencement speaker and honorands, visit:

For information regarding Commencement, visit:

Follow us on Twitter at

For more story ideas, visit the Rensselaer research and discovery blog at:

Please Note: All degree numbers include both August and December 2010 graduated students as well as Troy and Distance applicants that are not ‘ceremony only’ students. All numbers cited are as of May 18, 2011, and are subject to change.

Contact: Mary L. Martialay
Phone: (518) 276-2146