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Commencement Address - 2013

"Making a Wonderful Life"

Caltech Commencement Address by Mary Sue Coleman

Friday, June 14, 2013

A complete video recording of the ceremony can be viewed on Ustream.

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Good morning.

I want to thank President Chameau and the Board of Trustees for the honor and privilege of addressing the Class of 2013.

Thank you, also, to the families, for supporting these students emotionally, spiritually and—ever important—financially throughout their Caltech careers. 

And a special thank you to the graduates, for believing in yourselves and believing in our collective future.

I realize I’m the only thing standing between you and that future, so I will take just a little of your time to muse about what your achievements here might portend.

You are entering the next chapter of your lives with an incredible advantage: a degree from one of the world’s great universities, one with an outsized reputation for excellence—one that can claim Nobel laureates, JPL and the “Big Bang Theory.”

As president of the University of Michigan, I can report that Caltech alumni make a significant impact at our institution. Nearly 50 members of our faculty have Caltech ties, with one-third holding Michigan’s most distinguished professorships in research and teaching.

That includes chemist Melanie Sanford, truly one of our star professors, who has won numerous prizes for undergraduate teaching, is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a MacArthur Foundation “genius”—all before the age of 40.

And James Duderstadt, a nuclear engineer who served as Michigan’s 11th president, who continues to think and act on the future of higher education.

And mathematician Philip Hanlon, who concluded a distinguished 27-year career at Michigan to this week begin a new assignment: president of Dartmouth College.

We cannot talk about Caltech at Michigan and not mention Charles Munger, whose philanthropy is transforming graduate and professional education on our campus.

Now this is just the world of Caltech in Ann Arbor. Multiply this influence nationally and globally, and you have every reason to be proud of a university that today becomes your alma mater.

With this reputation comes obligation. It’s one thing to be smart—which you are. You know that, and Caltech knew it when they admitted you.

It’s quite another achievement to make a lasting impression with your intellect.

One of the great graduates of this institute was Frank Capra. He was the Steven Spielberg of his generation. Given that we’re in the backyard of Hollywood, I think Capra’s remarkable career provides worthy life lessons—lessons about creativity, humanity and impact—some 95 years after his commencement.

He left this campus in 1918, armed with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. He joined the Army, and planned to make a name for himself on the front lines of France. The Army had other plans and sent him only as far as San Francisco and a classroom, where he taught math to GIs.

Shortly thereafter, the end of the war brought a glut of veterans and no job prospects.

So he spent three years being, in effect, a bum. Those are his words, not mine. He hopped trains throughout the Southwest, played poker, hustled a bit as a salesman, and crashed in flophouses.

I realize this is probably not the best scene to paint for newly minted graduates, and certainly not one your parents want to see become reality.

But know that young Frank Capra answered a newspaper ad from a man who wanted to build a movie studio. What the heck, he thought, leaning on a Caltech class where he studied emulsions and learned a few things about cameras and film.

He talked himself into his first real job—one that involved the science of entertaining people.

“Odd,” he said years later, “how many ways an education—any kind of education—comes in handy.”

So this is the close of the first scene, where our hero—a bit down and out, but drawing on his Caltech education—shows a flair for innovation and creativity.

Do not be afraid to take yourself in an unknown direction. A little ingenuity—and the critical thinking skills of your college education—will set you on a path of discovery. And you may never look back.

Scene two: Frank Capra loved making movies. Loved telling a story and focusing on people, exploring their dreams and disappointments.

He called this new filmmaking experience “the hashish of creativity,” and he was hopelessly addicted. Fifty years after first walking into that makeshift movie studio, he said he still felt goose bumps looking through the camera’s viewfinder.

It’s magical.

There is a power in film, and stories, and human emotion that should always inform your work as scientists, doctors and engineers, no matter how clinical or technical.

At Michigan we recently hosted a national conference on the role of the humanities at research universities. Authors, historians, filmmakers and artists sometimes feel they are on the academic sidelines when there is so much emphasis on—and need for—innovation and entrepreneurship at places like Caltech, Michigan, Stanford and beyond.

But the truth is, the humanities are at the core of creativity. The world’s thorniest problems turn on the human condition, and the humanities equip us to explore that very state.

I studied chemistry at a small liberal arts college, but my degree was a B.A., not a B.S., because I wanted to sample a broader range of subjects.

I assure you I didn’t suffer one bit from not taking another chemistry course. And I learned to see the world in interesting new ways because of independent studies in metalsmithing and design. It made such an impression that I designed and made the wedding rings my husband and I wear, nearly 48 years after we graduated and married.

I can honestly say I could not do what I do today—lead a major university steeped in research—without a liberal arts background.

Every undergraduate here took humanities courses, along with plasma physics, fluid dynamics and polymer chemistry. You leave today with degrees in engineering, math, science and more, but the humanities—art, literature, history and more—will allow you to fully experience the world.

Always let the human story—what Capra called the worth of the individual—be part of your life work. You will be richer for it.

We now come to the third and final scene.

Frank Capra has just finished filming It’s a Wonderful Life. By now he is famous, having directed It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and other Oscar winners.

But he believes this movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, is his best work. In fact, he thinks it is the greatest film anybody has made.

He did not lack for confidence.

The critics liked the movie, but didn’t love it. It lost money at the box office. And despite five Academy Award nominations, there were no Oscar statuettes for the movie.

But Frank Capra was right. It’s a Wonderful Life is his best work because of its powerful message that each of us touches more people than we can appreciate. And that the loss of anyone—with their talent, their enthusiasm—cripples our progress as a global community.

That has never been truer than with your generation.

Our world is about to experience the ramifications, good and bad, of a youth bulge—the largest wave of young people in human history.

Half of the world’s population is 30 and younger. In Africa, the number is almost 70 percent.

Eighty-five percent of the world's young people live in developing countries.

These are the workers, the citizens, and the decision-makers of tomorrow. These are people who will want and need decent housing, clean water, access to health care, and outlets for their ideas and creativity.

Yet unlike you, most of these young people—your global peers—have little or no connection to higher education or decent-paying jobs. Unemployed and undereducated, they have taken their angst and anger to the streets, from Egypt and Libya to Syria and Turkey.

Let me share this observation from experts at the World Bank:

“Such large numbers of young people living in developing countries present great opportunities, but also risks. These young people must be well-prepared in order to create and find good jobs.”

This is the world you must now understand and navigate, as scientists, astronomers, professors and entrepreneurs.

This is the world you must change, and for the better.

It is a place that, of course, has seen immense progress since Frank Capra and 1918, with the spread of democracy and the advancements of science.

But today’s challenges are no less daunting. There is the growing dilemma of personal privacy versus national security. One nation wrestles with childhood obesity, while others face food insecurity. And the pressure to build sustainable, green-friendly communities is immense.

Some of these challenges will be solved with science and engineering. But technology cannot fix everything, and this is where you must—absolutely must—keep the human dimensions in full accord.

This is where the worth, and the impact, of every individual is essential.

Frank Capra made such a difference in society that today we define something that is positive and socially uplifting as “Capraesque.” It is an immense legacy, and one you—as fellow alumni—must carry forward in your careers.

Follow his script, which went like this: “I always felt the world cannot fall apart as long as free men see the rainbow, feel the rain and hear the laugh of a child.”

See the rainbow: the unexpected vista that comes with following new paths, answering an unusual job posting, or applying your talent in completely different ways.

Feel the rain: the emotion of a Monet painting, the reality of a Steinbeck novel, and the brilliance of a Shakespeare comedy.

And hear the laughter: of tomorrow’s citizens, living in a world made better because of science, technology and the compassion of educated young people like the Caltech Class of 2013.

Congratulations, and thank you again for letting me share such a special day with you.


DISCLAIMER: This transcript is not guaranteed nor intended to be strictly verbatim. This is not a certified document and is not acceptable for use in any legal matter. This is a rough-edited transcript.