Moving On Up: Class of 2017 Celebrates Class Day

May 23 2017

Columbia Engineering’s talented Class of 2017 will help lead humanity through an age of accelerating transformation, distinguished speakers predicted at Class Day on May 15 to graduates-in-waiting, faculty, family, and friends assembled on the university’s south lawn.  Marking the end of one chapter and the beginning of another, the new graduates looked back on their journeys and anticipated accomplishments yet to come, with remarks and reflections from peers, keynote speaker Kai-Fu Lee CC’83, Dean Mary C. Boyce, and Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger.

Dean Boyce addresses the Class of 2017.

After the traditional procession to “Pomp and Circumstance” and a warm welcome from Dean Boyce, Class President Cosmas Sibindi recalled his journey from Zimbabwe to SEAS and recounted how the interdisciplinary Columbia experience has taught him to consider “the full context of the problem, not just the problem itself.” Then, he introduced Lee, Chairman and CEO of Sinovation Ventures, a leading early-stage investment company focused on China, and formerly Vice President of Google and President of Google China.

An expert in artificial intelligence, Lee projected that data-driven AI will spur tremendous opportunities and upheaval over the next decade, disrupting tens of millions of jobs and reshaping every facet of human life. Yet for all the power of machines, he said, they will still require the human element.

“AI is great at optimizing, not inventing new things,” Lee said. “AI will beat us on tasks with definite answers, but they are not human. They cannot love. They don’t have feelings or self-consciousness.”

It is not so much machines but the symbiotic relationships between humans and machines, he argued, that are unleashing revolutionary potentialities.

“The most important part of the human body is not the brain but the heart,” Lee said. “Approach problems with all the brains you have and all the heart you can muster.”

In her remarks, Dean Boyce highlighted her special relationship with the Class of 2017, most of whom arrived at SEAS the same year she did, and heralded the transformative impact of engineering on every discipline. Whatever future they choose to pursue, she said, they have acquired the tools to make a difference.

“You are graduating at a moment in history when engineering has never been more central to society, more needed to address the pressing challenges facing humanity,” Boyce said. “Your path may be engineering and technology-focused, in industry or through an entrepreneurial startup, or it may be in academia, law, finance, medicine, business, or even in the fine arts. Whatever your path, your engineering and applied science foundation and your broader Columbia experience will inform everything you do.”

President Bollinger encouraged the Class of 2017 to always consider the moral, social, and political implications of their work, and to continue cultivating lives of the mind. Illig Prize recipient Noah Jacob Zweben delivered the valedictory address, emphasizing “the responsibility not just to create but to create good,” while Yifan Wang spoke on behalf of outgoing graduate students. Senior Fund Chair Kaushik K. Tiwari then presented Dean Boyce with a class gift exceeding $13,000 in student donations.

Additionally, Senior Vice Dean Soulaymane Kachani gave the Morton. B. Friedman Memorial Prize for Excellence to Jelena Diakonikolas and Graduate Student Life Awards to Joan Guillermo London Lozano and Pratyush Nalam. Professor Emeritus Rene B. Testa MS’60, EngScD’63, president of the Columbia Engineering Association, presented Distinguished Student Leadership Awards to Caroline Chiu and Deborah Adetoun Temitop Owolabi.

Nominated by their students, Lecturer Julius Chang and Assistant Professor John W. Paisley accepted Distinguished Faculty Teaching Awards. Also honored were Professor Katayun Barmak Vaziri, who received the Edward and Carole Kim Award for Faculty Involvement, and Professor Ah-Hyung Alissa Park, who received the Janette and Armen Avanessians Diversity Award.

“Take a moment to look around, to thank each other, to congratulate each other,” Boyce said. “You will always look back proudly on this day, the day you became part of the Columbia legacy.”