Note: As the 2011 senior class president of the Duke Engineering Student Government, I had the distinct honor of delivering the Pratt School of Engineering student graduation speech. It sounds kind of awkward when read, because it was written to be spoken. =/

Dear Pratt Class of 2011, we’ve made it. After four years of hazing by Epsilon Gamma Rho, taming the beast that is MATLAB, and eventually succumbing to senioritis, we are here. To family and friends attending today, thank you for your support. We couldn’t have done it without you or your money. Just kidding; checking to see that you’re awake!

I figured a lot of exclusive awards are going to be handed out today, so I’d like to share a personal story that reminded me of a substantial achievement that every one of us can claim as our own.

So, last semester, I was on a plane to Durham coming back from a job interview. Everybody is already seated, and the flight attendant is moving through the cabin to shut the overhead bins. But… one of the bins at the front won’t close. She rearranges the luggage so it’s not obstructing the door, then tries again and again to slam the bin shut, but it just won’t close.

Now, at this point, a really built, muscular man–who I later find out is a fireman–stands up to give it a try. He puts his muscle to the bin. We’re holding our breaths, hoping he’ll succeed. But it still won’t close. It seems the latch is broken. So the flight attendant calls maintenance for help. She announces to the whole plane it’s going to take 20 to 30 minutes for them to come and fix it. The whole plane groans. People are visibly frustrated.

All the while, I’m sitting in my aisle chair craning my neck to look at the latch mechanism. My base Pratt instinct has me itching to find out what’s wrong and see if it can be fixed, but I’m worried about making a fool of myself. I debate, should I stand up and give it a try, and risk failing like the muscular fireman had? Who was I to think I could fix this, where more experienced and stronger people had failed?

I twist in my seat and scan the plane. My engineering brain kicks in: there are about 100 passengers. 100 times 30 minutes per passenger equals 50 man-hours, or 2 man-days, or about a full man- (or woman-)-work week. Hmmm… It’s worth it. I have to try, because the nervous anticipation is killing me. I unbuckle my seatbelt and stand up.

The whole plane is looking at me. I go to the broken bin and examine the latch, trying to close it. Hmm, interesting. Then, I look at the bin next to it and see how it opens and closes. Aha… I notice that a piece is stuck in the broken latch.

A thought occurs to me. I turn to the plane, and ask, “Does anyone have a pen?” A woman jumps up. “I… have a pen!” I take the pen from her and say, “Thank you, Woman!”

I go to the overhead bin, and insert the pen. A satisfying click. The moment of truth. I slam the bin shut… The entire plane erupts into applause. People are patting me on the back. It’s nuts.

(Well, actually, only a few people clapped, and I only got a couple of “nice job”s, but it was still really affirming.)

They ask me, so what you do for a living? What’s your job?

I say, I’m a student.

They say, what school? What’s your major?

I say, I go to Duke University, and I… am an engineer.

And then the flight attendant comes over and gives me my glorious reward: a free sandwich. Mmm hmm!

I think this story tells us two things: First, as Duke engineers, we can solve real-life problems. Second, when we solve real-life problems we get real-life free food.

Okay, okay, so… this experience is not epic or anything extraordinary. Every one of my peers in this stadium can close an overhead bin and win a free sandwich, and has done much more besides. But I think it reveals an attitude of empowerment that every one of us has internalized over the course of the past four years. That is an accomplishment we all share and should recognize today.

What does empowerment mean? To me, it’s about feeling capable and in control of our lives. As engineers, we are not intimidated by a difficult problem. Instead, we are driven by an irresistible urge to solve it. We analyze; we break it down into smaller parts and tackle those.

So how did we get here? We didn’t all come to Duke this way. Through four years struggling and supporting each other, this has become our instinct.

Each of us has had an experience, whether it be designing circuits for medical instruments in BME 153 and 4, optimizing a water supply system in CE 130, developing a control system for an elevator in ME 125, or building a vending machine controller in ECE 52… where we have been tempted to give up. At times it has been miserable. There have been sleepless nights in lab, lost opportunities to party, tears in Teer.

But we have persevered and come through with victory and pride. We have patience and tenacity. And that’s what it takes to solve really hard problems.

As a famous 21st century poet once said, “That, that, that, that don’t kill me, can only make me stronger. I need you to hurry up now…” Okay, uh… you get the idea.

So, although we may be tempted to bask in our resume-worthy achievements, our most important gain has been the attitude of empowerment we have cultivated here.

With it, we can find the courage to pursue our biggest dreams, and attempt things no one has succeeded at before. When we are doing so, we will encounter daunting problems. We may make fools of ourselves, put ourselves at risk for very public, embarrassing failures. We may feel we are up against the impossible. We may want to give up. But let’s not forget that the biggest risks underlie the biggest successes. And let’s not forget that we have struggled against difficult odds and we have succeeded before. We can and will do it again.

It’s been an honor knowing you, and I am excited for all of us, wherever our futures take us. Thank you, and once again, congratulations to the Pratt Class of 2011!