commencement speech 2014

When you listen to a typical commencement speech, it is full of clichés. You know why, because most of the time the clichés are clichés because they are true.

So I’ll be brief and start with one: Follow your passion. Whatever you do in life, find something that makes your heart sing: whether it’s writing equations (I know, I know, but this is mine), or building gadgets, or even finding satisfaction that your work has helped someone. When you are standing at a crossroad and have to make a decision, try to visualize what that decision will produce in your daily life; say you are choosing between two jobs (nice problem to have, right?), think of not the more prestigious one, or the one that would look better on your business card, but of that job that you will happily get up in the morning to go to. I can tell you this is how I feel with my job. I always thought I’d end up in academia, but instead after graduating with a PhD, I went to Bell Labs, and instead of staying 2-3 years as planned, I stayed for 11 years. When I came to CMU to interview, too many things already went wrong. I came off another interview the day before, came home late, and wanted to check my slides. My computer died. My husband and I were up till 4 in the morning to get it working, I got up at 5 and came here. My first meeting (out of two days full of half-hour meetings) was in Mellon Institute; for those of you who haven’t been there, it is that silo-like building on Bellefield without windows. I get taken into the bowels of it with the smell of chemicals all around me. I’m thinking “How am I going to survive two days of this?” At the end of the second day, I’m sitting in the back of the cab and now I’m thinking “What do I need to do to get here?” This place makes my heart sing; you all make my heart sing. Every time I step foot on campus, I feel a little flutter of excitement; is it possible that someone is actually paying me to do what I would do for fun anyhow?

My second cliché of the day is: don’t be afraid to make mistakes because you will make them. They will make you a better and stronger person; you will learn from those mistakes. When you are faced with the same problem again, as an engineer, you’ll recognize the pattern and not repeat the same mistake. To add another personal story: I went to a math high school in Belgrade, which was then in Yugoslavia. Lots of math, and we all loved it (math geeks!). This was a school that produced the team for the Mathematical Olympiad. We go to university, and most of us ended up doing EE. They form a special math class for us because we were so advanced. We were taught by the best professors and followed a different schedule than the rest of the students. The first exam (sort of like midterm), I go in confident, cocky even. I’m from Math High School. I don’t really need to study. Guess what, I failed that exam, and they kick me out of the special class. That was a rude awakening. I was used to math being easy, and then everything else being easy. So I worked, and I worked, and I worked, that entire year, worked harder than ever. I aced the final exam (year’s worth of material). Believe me, from then on, whenever I would feel that surge of arrogance, I would at least question it. Nothing wrong with confidence, just don’t let it derail you.

The final cliché is: people are what matter most. Look around you. Really, look. You are surrounded by your loved ones who helped you get here, who listened when you were overwhelmed, who babied you when you needed it, who had to agree with you when you said professors are out to get you. You are surrounded by your friends who helped you keep your sanity through homeworks, exams, projects, deadlines, late nights, chocolate cravings, meltdowns, and every other college student problem you might have encountered. You are surrounded by us, your teachers, who helped you learn something new, expand your minds, and, most importantly, challenge yourselves. You are surrounded by all those like Janet and Shauntae and Samantha and Leona and Dave and Susan, and many, many others, who were there to lend a hand, give you a “de-stress with ECE” ball, and listen to you. You are surrounded by people who will be there, no matter how many more you meet later, for the rest of your lives. This is your network; these are the people you can turn to for advice and help on almost anything: from career to matters of the heart.

I promised I would be brief, so I end here before the awarding of the diplomas. CMU ECE Class of 2014, go out there and make us proud: Go be inspired and inspire someone else. Be involved citizens of the world and help others get involved. Be passionate and now go share that passion!

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