The Journey's Just Begun

—Photo by Chris Taggart

Alongside faculty, alumni, family, and friends, Columbia Engineering’s Class of 2016 marked the end of one chapter and the beginning of another at Class Day May 16. Gathered on a breezy afternoon at Morningside Campus’ South Lawn, outgoing students looked back on their remarkable journeys so far and anticipated greater accomplishments yet to come, with remarks and reflections from peers, professors, keynote speaker Jon Steinberg ’03BUS, Dean Mary C. Boyce, and Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger.

After a warm welcome from Dean Boyce, Class President Michelle Yeun Lee reminisced on the institution and classmates who became a formative “home away from home,” urging everyone to stay connected. Then, she introduced Steinberg, founder and CEO of media startup Cheddar, and former president and COO at Buzzfeed.

“The blank space between pages doesn’t happen too often, so it’s a privilege to address you at this time in your lives,” Steinberg said, promising he’d do his best not to dispense advice. “I’m going to tell you my life story in under an hour.”

At age 15, Steinberg fulfilled a long-standing dream by becoming a Disney imagineer, the youngest in the company’s history, helping to create unique theme park experiences. Yet by the age of 30, despite a world-class education, he found himself depressed in a bleak Virginia office park with the gnawing sense that his best days were behind him. Taking a leap of faith to follow his own interests and intuition, and learning from many painful disappointments, he became president of Buzzfeed, building the company from 15 employees to over 500, and later the highly successful CEO of DailyMail.com North America before launching his present endeavor.

“I’ve never had a good idea that everybody thought was a good idea,” he said. “Judgments are the reaction of consensus thinking and hindsight, pollution in the atmosphere of your mind… Wake up each day doing what you want, and brush the haters off your shoulders.”

In her remarks, Dean Boyce underscored the incredible relevance and impact of engineering. “Engineering has become a foundational field now, preparing for all other fields, and shaping solutions to global challenges. Your Columbia education has prepared you for a bold future—stay true to your signature, and find your way to make an impact on the world.”

President Bollinger echoed this in his speech, noting the increasing centrality of engineering at the University and highlighting the countless collaborations between fields and disciplines on campus each year.

In his valedictory address, Illig Prize recipient Linxi Fan said, “When people ask me what Columbia labs cover, I tell them everything from the earth all the way to heaven.” Fan will pursue a PhD in artificial intelligence. He continued, “The ability to transform this generation and all generations to come—that is the Columbia magic.”

Senior Fund Chair Andelyn Marie Russell took the stage to present Dean Boyce with the largest-ever class gift in SEAS history, totaling over $48,000 in student and matching contributions from alumni.

Professor Emeritus Rene B. Testa MS’60, EngScD’63, president of the Columbia Engineering Alumni Association, presented the Distinguished Faculty Teaching Awards to Lecturer Jae Woo Lee and Professor of Professional Practice Robert Farrauto, who were both nominated by their students. Professor Jeffrey T. Koberstein received the Edward and Carole Kim Award for Faculty Involvement and Senior Lecturer Aaron Matthew Kyle this year received the Janette and Armen Avanessians Diversity Award.

On Wednesday, May 18, at the University-wide Commencement, Dean Boyce will officially congratulate and honor the graduating class in a ceremony led annually by Bollinger. This year, more than 15,000 graduates from Columbia’s 18 schools and affiliates earned bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in multiple disciplines. They include some 1,800 international students from more than 100 countries, ranging from Afghanistan to Zambia.

—by Jesse Adams

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