Engineering Class Day and Commencement 2013

Columbia Engineering Class Day inevitably marks the end to a student’s time at SEAS but can also—for many—mean the start of a new journey. More than once, Class Day speakers fittingly quoted Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, referring to the endless opportunities the new graduates now face armed with their Columbia Engineering degrees.

More than 800 students were honored at the School’s Class Day ceremony held May 20 on the Morningside Campus. Featured speakers included Class Day keynote, Robert Bakish BS’85, ’89BUS; Interim Dean Donald Goldfarb; University President Lee C. Bollinger; Valedictorian Joseph DelPreto; Senior Class President Mary Byers; and Graduate Student Speaker Keenan Bashour.

In his remarks, President Bollinger stressed that while SEAS students receive a far-reaching education, combining their chosen engineering and applied science courses with liberal arts and humanities as part of Columbia’s Core Curriculum, those, like himself, whose expertise lie in different fields, continue to lack knowledge in engineering and technology. Engineering and technology are not part of the Core, and it is time for this to change, he expressed.

“The older I grow and the more problems of human society I see either solved or hope to be solved by engineering and technology, the more I feel my own lack of knowledge in these critically important fields,” said Bollinger. “I want to say to you at this very significant, celebratory moment in your education and lives, congratulations on having achieved a uniquely broad education across the broad spectrum of human knowledge and please help the rest of us develop a course in the Core Curriculum on engineering and technology.”

This theme of increased importance and diversity of the engineering, science, and technology fields carried throughout Class Day.

Bakish, who is president and chief executive officer of Viacom International Media Networks, talked about his own unique career trajectory after graduating from the School in 1985 as an example of how diverse the engineering field has become: from working with product managers and a sales force at AT&T Labs to entering the consulting business at Booz Allen Hamilton to where he is today at Viacom, leading the cable giant’s multiple media networks and associated businesses internationally.

Columbia Engineering was “grueling,” he said, but it taught him how to think and how to solve problems. Referring to the old saying, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime,” Bakish said, “Well, Columbia didn’t give me a fish. It taught me how to fish.”

Goldfarb congratulated the Class of 2013 and expressed how proud he is of their achievements. He also urged them to stay in touch after they graduate, to volunteer where they can, and give back to the students who will follow them.

“I want to say to you at this very significant, celebratory moment in your education and lives, congratulations on having achieved a uniquely broad education across the broad spectrum of human knowledge and please help the rest of us develop a course in the Core Curriculum on engineering and technology.”
—President Lee C. Bollinger

Goldfarb also talked about the School’s upcoming 150th anniversary and gave examples of some of the outstanding engineers that made their marks here. “Early Columbia engineers were educated to be more than just engineers and applied scientists. Your academic predecessors developed steamboats, subways, FM radio, robotics, methodologies to fix the Hubble space telescope, etc.,” said Goldfarb. “Columbia Engineering has prepared its graduates of every era for the world in which they live.”

During Class Day, the School acknowledged several outstanding students and faculty, including the recipients of three major faculty awards given annually by the School. Goldfarb presented Mechanical Engineering Assistant Professor Kristin Myers with the Edward and Carole Kim Award for Faculty Involvement; Computer Science Associate Professor Tal Malkin with the Janette and Armen Avanessians Diversity Award; and Computer Science Assistant Professor Martha Kim with the Rodriguez Family Junior Faculty Development Award.

The Columbia Engineering Alumni Association bestowed the Distinguished Faculty Teaching Awards this year on Martin Haugh, lecturer in the Department of Industrial Engineering and Operations Research, and David Vallancourt, senior lecturer in the Department of Electrical Engineering. Vallancourt also received Columbia’s Presidential Teaching Award, a top teaching honor given by the University to just five recipients each year at Commencement. Computer Science Associate Professor Rocco Servedio was also one of the five recipients this year. (Read: Servedio, Vallancourt Receive Top Teaching Awards)

Also during the University’s main Commencement ceremony held May 22, two Engineering alumni were honored. Recognized for his dedication to Columbia, University Trustee Armen Avanessians MS’83 received an alumni medal. Avanessians is the global head of Goldman Sachs Asset Management’s quantitative, rules-based, and indexing businesses, and has been a longtime donor to Columbia. He currently chairs the audit committee and Columbia Campaign for Engineering. Alicia Abella MS’93, assistant vice president of Cloud Services Research at AT&T Labs, was awarded the University Medal for Excellence—an honor given to an outstanding Columbia graduate under the age of 45.

Joseph DelPreto was the School’s class valedictorian and received the Illig Medal, the highest honor awarded to an engineering graduate. Claire Duvallet, who was recently named a Luce Scholar, was recognized at Class Day as this year’s salutatorian. This prestigious academic honor is bestowed on the student who shows the second highest academic record, has superior academic achievements, and reflects leadership, excellence, and impact on Columbia.

Echoing comments made about the diversity of engineering, DelPreto acknowledged the diverse talents of his fellow classmates and their “willingness to teach others.” Also stressing the breadth and depth of his engineering education from Columbia, he said, “Even if you avoided [the Core] and LitHum like the plague, Columbia has still managed to infuse your education of science and technology with some liberal arts and a broader understanding of the world in which we work. It has not only taught us how to build things, it’s taught us how to decide what to build and how to influence other people with the results.”

The first among the Class Day speakers to pay homage to Dr. Seuss, DelPreto ended his speech with an appropriate quote from Oh, The Places You’ll Go!. “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And you are the one who’ll decide where to go.”

—by Melanie A. Farmer

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