2011 Convocation Address

Professor P.V. (Sundar) Balakrishnan
September 27, 2011

Thank you for the introduction, Chancellor Chan! I am here to merely represent ourBalakrishnan terrific faculty who are engaged in exciting scholarship and love to share their knowledge every day with our amazing students.

To the class of 2015! Welcome. You look radiant! Your brilliance is blinding.

At my first student orientation, there were five faculty, multiple members of the advisory board; but only four students. Look around you today:  Perhaps it is not surprising that as I walked in I thought that this was a flash mob!

Two decades ago there were probably 30 students. Today there are over 3,500! Twelve years ago there was nothing here but farmland. Today we are on the verge of being the destination center for many of the region’s high-tech firms, their executives and employees; the better students from the best high schools are here and a faculty who have been handpicked from all the best PhD programs, each of whom is dedicated to knowing his or her students in loco parentis.

Brief Note to Parents: This is an especially poignant moment in your lives. It is the birth of the butterfly and bereavement at the passing of the pupae or chrysalis. At this campus, your ward, child, grandchild or spouse will be attending school at a special place. As Chancellor Chan said: Everyone here knows their name and the faculty and staff are always glad they came. If your child wants to hide and be reasonably anonymous, this is not the right place. Faculty compare notes and actually discuss the progress of your ward.  Our faculty doors are more open than at any school in the world that I have    seen – and  I have been to more than a few.

I completely echo the sentiments of our Chancellor: This does require that your ward take the steps and walk through the door. Let them know that there is support. Encourage them not to stew in their juices silently and alone.

To you our new students in words you can comprehend: As Professor Dumbledore says in book 2, page 267, “You will always find that help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it.”

Class of 2015: You are extraordinary in your accomplishments. Each of you has a special story that brought you here. Each year’s class is different and each one to our surprise is always a little better than the prior one.

Class of 2015: You are special: You are the first full Hogwarts generation. You began pre-school with Harry, Hermione, and Ron. And as you completed high school they graduated too! They destroyed evil. We know what happened to them in the future: we don’t yet know what you will make of your life. We do however know that you are destined for great things in the Muggle world. You have taken that first step on this next new journey!

Here, as at Hogwarts, something magical seems to happen. Here it happens, for sure, at the end of every 10 weeks. Light bulbs go off; spectacular flashes of brilliance illuminate discussions and laboratories; businesses are born; and new knowledge is created. You will leave with the tools to acquire wisdom in life.

For that alchemy to work, you should reject the model that you are a customer.  This is not a restaurant.  Knowledge cannot be served or fed to you. You are embarking on a voyage of discovery as partners with your fellow students. This transformational process requires your professor and our student to be co-creators. The instructors will chart out the end point of the trip. They may guide and even coach you on the navigational techniques. But, it is expected that you will row hard.

However even that may not be enough.  In discussion & project oriented classes, you will also be required to exhort your colleagues to pull the oar harder and to figure out ways to navigate smarter. Together you will be co-beneficiaries!

A corollary to this is the Rule of 7-2: This is something I adapted from my mentor. It is not enough to complete your course of study with merely the best grades.  Yes, merely. By the time you leave this program, you should have assembled a network of lifelong friends and mentors.

By the time you graduate there should be at least two Professors that you can turn to in some distant future – you will certainly need this recommendation for employers and graduate school. Parallel to this rule about creating a special bond with at least two teachers, I expect you to emerge from his program with seven special peers. I’m talking about the type of peer who would hire you, or who would quit their jobs to work for you. This you will carry with you till you are 72!

Graduates of the University of Washington Bothell have gone on to do amazing things.  There is surely something in the water here (salmon in November; bald eagle in the trees). Our graduates have gone on to the very best graduate schools (Harvard and Boalt Law among others). Others have gone on to great jobs with prestigious firms (Amazon, & Microsoft).  Still other have become entrepreneurs and started up some of the most amazing companies (Synapse Product Development; MangoSpring).

This week serendipitously I received an email from a former undergraduate. Jason is one of the few kids in the world who went straight from an undergraduate program straight to the PhD program of Duke University’s Fuqua school (a top five program).  If that alone were the story (not too many schools can boast of such a one) then we would have done well.  Today Jason is being interviewed for a professorship at some of the best universities in the world including Yale University!

A major part of the reason for these successes is the small size of the campus. You will note that we don’t have a large graduate program. We are more like Brown in the Ivy League than a Yale or a Harvard. As a result, the faculty here will notice you. Our faculty will be delighted to involve you in their research. I encourage you to knock on the doors of your professors.  Go talk to them about their research. Volunteer to work with them. Years from now it will pay off in spades.

Another is that we are a young institution. This makes you pioneers. Most mature schools & campuses have 200 clubs. We may have 20. But the difference is this. Here you don’t just get to join a club; you get to be the one that starts a new club!  Just yesterday, the campus chartered the new UW Bothell Debate Society.  What will be your legacy?

I get to conclude with the same advice that I would give my own children. In this economy you can’t put all your eggs in one basket.  Do a Double Major or even better still if you have the stamina Triple major.  No doubt, Hermione Granger had something that you don’t – a Time-Turner. Despite her stellar academic record even she had to get special dispensation to have one. Unfortunately as you are aware the entire stock of Time-Turners was destroyed during the Battle of the Department of Mysteries!

You do have a secret weapon here — your own friend, philosopher and guide. It is your academic advisor. He/She will help you pack your schedule to accomplish your goals of taking C# and Finance; History and Math; Marketing, Psychology and Poetry. Our motto is “Access to Excellence.”  But that does not mean “convenience.”  Take every class you can. Be hungry and soak up knowledge like a sponge. Once you get to your senior year, there is no turning back the time.

I note that even in this economy there is hiring by the bucket loads but for the special person.  Not the average historian, engineer or sales graduates of yore. No the world is looking for a computer scientist who understands business; salesperson who can engage in the rocket science of data analytics; a historian who knows neuroscience; a sociologist who knows physics. People who can both imagine the future and weave a dream. More than ever today, our economy needs the double or better still the triple threat.

I can’t wait to see what future holds for you and this campus. Even if you felt pressured to come here, remember this, “The Sorting Hat takes your choice into account.” Reassure your parents that you made a wise choice. In ten years many of you may not be able to get in to this program!  It is my expectation that in a short time we will soon be recognized internationally as an elite campus by most measures. Not just as the most hi-tech or the safest or the prettiest. You will say proudly that you attended the Crown Jewel of the University of Washington. And much more importantly that it was through your pioneering spirit and efforts that you helped to make it the preeminent place! Good luck and God speed.