Freshmen Inauguration Ceremony 2017 Speech by Professor Thomas L Magnanti, President, SUTD

18 May 2017

In the Beginning,
Advice from the Old Guy

SUTD faculty and staff and, most importantly, today, students in the class of 2020.  
On behalf of the entire faculty and staff of SUTD, we are so pleased to have our new Freshmore class of 2017-2018 as part of our community.
In my prior inauguration speeches, I have spoken broadly about the joy of learning and reflected a bit about why I believe you are here, why at a university at all, and why in particular at SUTD.  My comments today might be a bit more pragmatic. I entitle my remarks, “In the Beginning, Advice from the Old Guy.”

As you enter SUTD, this month is one of the most significant, and most anticipated, time of your young lives. You, and likely your parents, have prepared for this month for years. You have now left the sanctity of your home and, for the first time in many of your lives, will be living for a long time on your own. Perhaps I can offer some advice concerning how to make this experience as meaningful and joyful as possible.
But perhaps first a few words about the environment you are joining, some words that will be familiar to most of you.
You are entering a new type of university, whose aim in education is to teach and nurture future technically-grounded leaders and innovators to serve societal needs. The university has a multidisciplinary focus on education, research, and service. It has no schools, such as engineering, and no departments such as mechanical or electrical engineering. It permits much engagement among students, faculty and staff and is somewhat less formal than traditional universities. In fact, from today on, please call me Tom, rather than Professor or President Magnanti.
The structure is quite fluid with no deans or vice presidents, and the university encourages collaboration across all boundaries.
We teach in a new way, with much active learning. For example, for your first three semesters, you will be with 50 or so other students in a 200-250 square meter cohort-based learning classroom. The university rejects the teaching of basic courses in large, passive lectures such as those in an auditorium like this. Instead you will be receiving shorter modes of instruction often in your cohort classrooms and will be spending much of your time working with fellow students on solving problems or working on design projects.
You will receive strong grounding in mathematics, science, technology, design, and humanities, arts, and social science, as well as breadth and depth in your pillars.  Though some of you already have an idea of your pillar of choice, you will have up to three semesters to learn more about them and make an informed choice.  But be aware of possible changes in your aspirations. I entered university as a chemical engineering student, but then for graduate school switched to operations research and applied mathematics. This for me was a very good decision.  Find yours.
Throughout your stay you will be creating and building things that are physical, are digital, and/or are systems.   
You will often be asked, frequently in teams, to solve a problem or create an artifact, often with only gentle guidance from the faculty and staff.   You will have to use your own wits, and those of your fellow students, to decide what to build and how to build it.
As I noted before, I believe that much of what I have just said is known to most of you.
The Roman philosopher Seneca once said,
“Every new beginning comes from another beginning‘s end.”

You are beginning a new phase in your life. You have just concluded another important component.  Realize that for most of you the environment at SUTD will be much different than what you have experienced in your primary and secondary educations, where typically you were listening to lectures and solving well-defined problems posed for you.
Many web sites list ten’s or dozens of advice on how to succeed in a university. I won’t try to do that, but let me offer some thoughts that are related to what you will be doing at SUTD.

  1. Learn, Learn, Learn. Perhaps this goes without saying, as you are at a university to learn, to learn about the topics you will be studying, but also learn about yourself as a person, and learn how to be part of a team, communicate ideas, and interact with others. Take advantage of this opportunity.  Don’t seek grades, but instead find out how best to learn at a pace that works for you.
  1. Enjoy the Living and Learning community you will be joining.  All of you will be on campus for the first three semesters and some of you longer. You will be no more than about a ten-minute walk from your hostel rooms to your classes. As such, you won’t be commuting back and forth from your home an hour or two every day. Thus your day-to-day personal lives will be intertwined with your academic studies.  Profit from this. Bond with your fellow students in the hostels and classrooms. View your living away from home as an opportunity to grow personally. 

As Jezamine Chua, a graduate last year said,
“What is unique is that projects in SUTD never failed to revolve around people. “
Enjoy the environment including the people and your interactions with them.

  1. Enjoy Being Challenged and Rewarded. You are joining a community that will challenge you. One with an MIT curriculum and with much active learning. You will be completing twenty or more design projects and often building things, typically in teams. Some of you will find some of the introductory curriculum or your humanities, arts and social sciences to be challenging and some others of you might find active learning or designing and building things to be challenging.  But these are opportunities to learn and grow and also opportunities to do things you have never done before. You will also be rewarded, either from yourself or your student colleagues or from the faculty and staff.
  1. Embrace Each Other, Your Senior Students and the Faculty and Staff. SUTD is probably one of the few places where you will meet many people with strong views, myriad interests and dreams and diverse skills and knowledge. Do not shy away from people who are different or who have different opinions as it is only through these interactions where you will discover new viewpoints and ideas. Do not also feel that you are not good enough. Meet and engage with new people and speak up.

SUTD is designed to provide many opportunities to interact, in your classes, in your design projects, and in the hostels and in many social activities.  Exploit this. Seek advice from your fellow students, perhaps especially from your senior classmates. They have experienced many of the issues you will be facing and can provide much advice. So can the faculty and staff.  With this small community, you should have many opportunities to form deep, long lasting friendships.

As Henry Ford once noted:
Coming together is a BEGINNING.
Staying together is PROGRESS.
Working together is SUCCESS.

  1. Seek Help if Needed. At times you will find your time here putting pressure on you. Could be a class that you find to be difficult, or a team experience or an interaction with another student that isn’t going well. You have many human resources to draw upon: the faculty and staff and your fellow students.   Please take advantage of these resources. Go see a faculty or staff member if you need help. They are at the university because they want you to flourish and be successful, and they want to help you. Don’t let any concerns or troubles fester, but instead reach out to those who are here to help and support you. This is the beauty of our small, closed-knit, SUTD family.
  1. Experiment, Explore but be Safe. Through your courses, your design projects, and your living in the hostels, you will have opportunities to experiment and explore, to draw upon and challenge your creativity, or even your stamina. Through your Fifth Row co-curricular activities, you can learn and enjoy performances, study culture or art, build things like drones or robots, and learn and be engaged in athletics. Use these opportunities to do something new and different. However, always remember that your safety and the safety of others in the community is of utmost importance, as it is only when everyone is safe that you can continue to experiment and explore.
  1. Take Advantage of Many Available Resources. SUTD is filled with great resources, cohort-based classrooms, outstanding fabrication facilities and maker space, great hostels and sports facilities, and much exciting research.  In addition, as already noted, there are many human resources to draw upon. Use all these resources effectively. Go to the Fabrication Lab and work on a prototype when you have an idea. Use the sporting facilities to maintain your fitness or relieve your stress. Sleep the additional half-hour because you are staying on campus. Make an appointment with the Writing Centre to get help for improving your presentations and reports. Get advice from the Career Development Centre on how to craft your resume and prepare yourself to land your dream job. Look at the incubation space when planning for your start up. The SUTD campus is set up and developed to support you and help you fuel your passion and achieve your dreams.
  1. Make the Most of the Opportunities. Your life at university is for you to learn, and to make and create. Develop your class project into a start-up. Participate in a research project and present your paper at an international conference as an undergraduate. Take part in a design competition or hackathon to test your limits and ideas. Spend some time overseas on exchange to discover another culture and way of life. Go on an internship to confirm if a particular profession or industry is right for you. Create a portfolio of your activities and projects to use for securing a job or a place in graduate school. I could go on and on, but what I want to tell you is that whether you have an engaging, exciting and meaningful time or just cruise through your time here and not create memories, is really up to you. 
  1. Balance Studying and Personal Time. There are only 24 hours in each day, 7 days a week, 16 weeks per term and just 8 terms to complete your undergraduate programme. At times, especially, during the term, you will face heavy demands to absorb new knowledge and complete your assignments and projects. You also have Fifth Row commitments such as training, planning of activities, participating in competitions, performing, etc. I am often struck by students telling me that they don’t have time for social activities, but instead must study or build things all the time. Studying and learning can be enjoyable, indeed we very much hope that it is, but also find time to go out occasionally, on evenings or weekends. Spend time with your family and friends and catch a meal or movie together. It is critical to manage your time to give you room to focus on what’s most important to you. Enjoy it all.    

I hope that you will keep these points in mind and reflect upon them throughout your time at SUTD and that they will be a form of encouragement and comfort for you. Do not be overwhelmed. Take a step at a time.  As Lao Tzu said, “Do the difficult things while they are easy and do the great things while they are small. A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” Take many steps and you will succeed.
Perhaps we can conclude this speech by our new Freshmore students repeating the following after me.
We, the Freshmore class of 2017-2018, hereby pledge our commitment to studying, and to ourselves, and to our fellow SUTD students, the faculty and staff. We look forward to the challenges and rewards of a caring and engaging learning and living community that will permit us to learn, have fun, and grow as people. Yea, us and SUTD.  Even louder, Yea, us and SUTD. And louder yet, Yea, us and SUTD!
Thank you.