Lee Pearson Commencement Speech 2008

May 19, 2008

Welcome mothers and happy Mother's Day, thank you for all that you do. Welcome fathers thanks for your part in making Mother's Day possible.

Welcome Pratt Class of 2008. It has been a long road and we have reached the end of this journey in what seems like much less time than anticipated. Although our parents were certainly focused on getting to the destination on time and on budget, we were more focused on what interesting scenery we could spot along the way. The paths we took shaped who we have become and at the precipice of the unknown before us, the mental home video of the last 4 years has certainly been replaying in my mind in the past few weeks.

My parents and I drove out to Duke from Spokane, Washington in a RV freshman year. For those of you from New York, an RV is essentially a mobile shack, complete with a stove, a table that can turn into a bed with a fair amount of effort, and sun shades for everything except the back of your neck. I won't bore you with the details of the journey—trust me they are called the fly-over states for a reason—but it is easy to recall the sordid mix of emotions and questions that I felt with each mile ticking off the odometer as we inched towards Durham, NC: would I fit in? Would I have friends? And, I think the overwhelming question in most of our minds was, could we 'cut it' here?

On that hot day of August four years ago, we all arrived, moved-in in a FAC bright T-shirt flurry, and settled into our new home away from home. And after a few days, it wasn't so bad. Some questions still remained, like: would the woman at the Marketplace with the permanent scowl ever smile at me? but for the most part I felt pretty confident. By the end of that first week, we had become masters of the Facebook friending and poking game, had started at least one successful Facebook group, refined the "my interests" section to match those of attractive members of the opposite sex [Oh my god, Love Actually is one of my favorite movies too! We have sooo much in common…], and outside of the computer, we could meet random people when we wanted and had mastered the I'm-listening-to-my-Ipod technique for when we didn't have the courage. And while we had 17 friends with actual names, we had chocked up at least 78 phone numbers of people described based on location and scenario under which we met. For myself, I was feeling a master at camp Duke. My self-worth as measured by wall posts and number of friends with cars was climbing steadily. However, when the snow cone machine turned off, the quad cleared, and the bouncy castle deflated, it turned out that classes were also a part of this $40,000 experience.

And all jesting aside, it was in the classroom and academic activities outside the classroom where the experience of Pratt came to life. For some it was a design project in BME, where the recipient of the final product actually needed your help and ingenuity. For others, it was that feeling you get after hours of coding and wiring when it finally 'just works'. For all of us, the weekly E-socials brought us together, despite the fight for fruit snacks and gushers (you know what I mean Dr. Needham). Not to mention E-ball, E-softball, and E-picnic. For me, like others, it wasn't a certain class, but student groups and finding mentors and friends in the faculty here. Faculty who, counter to what the stereotypes suggest, actually put their time into teaching and undergraduates with equal importance to their research and graduate students; even when all academic career incentives are stacked against it. The CEEs in the room certainly can thank Dr. Schaad, Medina, Nadeau, and Dr. Gavin who was this year's Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Teacher, the first engineering professor to ever win this award. These professors and their counterparts in every major made the Pratt experience unique and uniquely satisfying. They have taught us what it is to be an engineer both in their classes and, in some cases, in the field over 7,000 miles away on engineering projects overseas.

This past summer engineering students in the Duke Smart Home Program and Duke EWB traveled to Uganda and put their ideas to the test in a real world scenario. They successfully installed two solar powered computers and introduced a concrete, hand-powered, nut sheller which allows farmers to add value to their coffee before it is brought to market. On the other side of Kampala, several Pratt seniors in this room designed and constructed a 10,000 L concrete cistern to harvest rainwater and provide a much needed water source to a small university and town of Kaska. I had the opportunity this year to invite Ignitius Bwoogi, the leader of the NGO we worked with, to Duke with the help of Duke Conversations. Ignitius started the Rural Agency for Sustainable Development to help fight extreme poverty within his home district. This was his first trip outside of East Africa. He stayed on my futon in Smart Home for a month while we coordinated with Duke Engage and the 13 students who will travel this summer to Uganda to work on various engineering projects. It was quite an experience for all of us. On the drive back to the airport, we asked him what the most interesting or amazing thing he saw while in the US. While we expected to laugh about the ridiculous products in the Smart Home, or the 16 pillows on the bed at the Washington Duke Hotel his first night, or perhaps that we cook hamburgers at cookouts instead of killing and roasting a goat. His answer was instead "you have good roads here." And the most impressive device, "a drinking fountain."

While we hear over and over again about the severe challenges facing our generation in terms of energy, the environment, and continued development, it is easy to forget how basic some of our needs are and how relevant engineers are to solving these issues. Class of 2008, we are now engineers, which means that for the rest of our lives non-engineers will assume we can fix random broken office equipment and are adept at changing light bulbs, but it also means we can do something to solve the problems of our time. As Pratt graduates we cannot solve these problems tomorrow, but we now hold a powerful degree and an awareness of the issues at hand. We must act. And I am not talking just about developing world issues. The US currently has 300-500 billion dollars of needed investment in water infrastructure, we have 73,000 sewage leaks per year around the country due to failures and cracks, and the American Society of Civil Engineers consistently gives our nation's infrastructure grades that we would not be happy with, even as second semester seniors.

Off we go into the real world where not everything can be modeled as a sphere of uniform density, accelerations are not always constant, and flow is not always laminar. However, I am confident we are ready for the challenge. As I head out tomorrow back across the country with my parents, this time in a fuel efficient small diesel car, I cannot help but think about the paths we will all take once leaving this place. Regardless of the direction, Pratt has prepared us well. We have good roads ahead.