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Keeping the Connection

by
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Albany Chapter — Founders Day Event
Albany, New York

Saturday, March 20, 2004


Thank you, Mrs. [Lillian] Tillman-DeWitt — and, John Reeves — for that kind introduction. I shall have more to say about the Creative Expression Contest in a few moments.

But first, I would like to express my appreciation to all of you for inviting me to join your chapter in celebrating the founding of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority on January 13, 1913. Being a Delta myself, I am especially pleased to be here. I was President of Iota Chapter for two years, when I was an undergraduate at M.I.T.

The over-arching theme for our national organization is "Keeping the Connection, Building on the Past, Focusing on the Future." I am pleased, therefore, to see young people here today, because recalling the contributions of those who have gone before us is most meaningful when viewed in the context of our aspirations for the future.

This afternoon we commemorate a day 91 years ago, when 22 young women at Howard University in Washington, D.C., banded together to "promote academic excellence and to provide assistance to persons in need." It should come as no surprise — considering the time and their sense of civic responsibility — that our founders' first public act was to participate in the Women's Suffrage March of March 1913.

The world was quite a different place then. Women did not have the vote — hence the importance of marching for women's suffrage. Slavery had been outlawed by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution only 48 years earlier, and for many African Americans, not only was civil rights a seemingly impossible dream, slavery had been an all-too- personal experience.

Since that day, the sisters of Delta Sigma Theta — now more than 200,000 strong, in 900-plus chapters worldwide — have had a profound and lasting impact on every aspect of our society.

One of those Delta sisters — Dorothy I. Height, Ph.D., the 10th national president of our sorority and "one of the preeminent social and civil rights activists of [our] time" — will be honored by our nation next Wednesday.

On March 24, 2004, in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, Dr. Height will be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor conferred by the Congress.

It will be her 92nd birthday.

Born in 1912, one year before the birth of her sorority, Dr. Height studied educational psychology at New York University. Her work as an advocate for the civil rights and social well-being of women and minorities stretches from the early 1930s to the present. The third African American woman (along with Marian Anderson and Rosa Parks) to be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, she joins the company of such giants as George Washington, the medal's first recipient. Dr. Height was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor bestowed by the Executive Branch in 1994.

There are several important reasons for remembering pioneering women such as Dr. Height. She was one of Eleanor Roosevelt's most valued advisors, and she was — and I quote from a Delta Sigma Theta press release of last fall — "the only woman at the table when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others made plans for the civil rights movement."

But more than that, we all know that any success we achieve is not ours alone. Each of us stands upon the shoulders of those who went before us. Just as our sorority's founders stood on the shoulders of Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, we stand on the shoulders of Dr. Dorothy Height, and our daughters will stand upon our shoulders.

As we celebrate Founders Day, I am proud to acknowledge my debt to such a notable Delta. And, I am proud to share with her the two-fold Delta heritage of promoting academic excellence and helping others.

Some of the greatest lessons of life, which I learned while attending MIT, happened outside of the classroom. I treasure the experiences and associations I established, first as a member and then as president of my Delta Sigma Theta chapter. And, I place great value on the innumerable lessons I learned when I was volunteering in the pediatric ward at Boston City Hospital, or tutoring at the Roxbury YMCA. Those lessons helped me to become a better human being, and consequently, contributed to the success, understanding, and leadership which I have attained.

Another reason to acknowledge our forebears is to gain a clearer perspective of our world today. Looking back at our history we can see that, although progress has been slow, progress nevertheless has been made. Much remains to be done, but each decade brings a wider range of opportunities for African American woman.

Imagine the obstacles faced by those first Deltas — African American women pursuing a college education in 1913.

I chose to attend MIT in the early 1960s, and even then it was not easy. I was one of only two African American women in a class of 900 students. I endured — and ignored — many examples of prejudice and misunderstanding, and eventually formed enduring friendships with some of the individuals who came to recognize and admire my drive to excel. I chose to earn a Ph.D. in theoretical elementary particle physics, even though no African American woman had preceded me down that path.

Being first did not mean, however, that I was without role models. I found inspiration in the example set by Ruth E. Moore, the first African American woman to earn a Ph.D. in bacteriology, in 1933, and Evelyn Boyd Granville, one of the first two African American women to earn a doctorate in mathematics at Yale in 1948.

Because women like Dr. Height worked tirelessly for equality and equal opportunity, new vistas are opening for Black women and the number of exemplars is increasing rapidly. We dishonor the women who went before us if we fail to take full advantage of the legacy they struggled to bequeath to us.

And yet, young African American women are still seldom urged to pursue careers in science and mathematics. As a result, Black women continue to be underrepresented in the science and engineering disciplines.

For me, a scientist and an educator, this is an issue that strikes very close to home.

Our nation is facing a critical shortage of scientists and engineers. But, far too few of our girls are choosing — or, are prepared to choose — to study in engineering and the physical sciences.

It is, therefore, of the utmost importance that we create new models of success for young Black women. How do we go about doing that? By harnessing all of the sources of inspiration — including ourselves — we can.

I commend Delta Sigma Theta women for all that they are doing today on their campuses, and in their communities, to create these new models to inspire and encourage the next generation.

Since 1967, your chapter has been enriching the Capital District with your commitment to service and with your professional expertise. I note, in particular, the exceptional programs this chapter undertakes with girls as young as six years old, and with educational initiatives such as the annual Black History Month Creative Expression Contest.

I am pleased to note that not only do you take students to the Rensselaer Black Family Technology Awareness Day every year, but that for the past two years, one of "your" girls has won the grand prize give-away — a personal computer.

We who are in leadership positions must embrace not just the concept of mentoring and role modeling, but also the actuality. We must be there, physically, for our youth, and we must set personal examples of commitment, hard work, and adherence to high ethical standards.

That is why I was so honored to learn that I was the subject of student John Reeves' winning essay in the Black History Month Creative Expression Contest. It is a wonderful thing to know that you are helping to shape a young person's future — to hear someone say, "If she can do that, so can I."

Our task, as business and technological leaders, educators, parents, and concerned citizens, must be to develop strategies to discover, and then, to nurture new talent — particularly in those segments of the population which remain stubbornly underrepresented in technological fields.

We must engage students early in their school years, spark their imaginations, train their minds, teach them a love of learning and excellent performance, instill in them self-discipline, mentor them, and find and showcase a wide array of role models for them to emulate.

You Deltas are to be commended for your willingness to provide experiences that will broaden the horizons of young people, for your commitment to mentor them, and to provide living role models from whom they may learn.

You honor the goal set by those 22 young women in 1913 who, despite what must have been prodigious obstacles, set out with hope and fortitude to "promote academic excellence and to provide assistance to persons in need."

Before I close, I would like to address a few words to the girls who are here today.

First, thank you for coming. By attending events such as this, you are already setting important priorities and expectations for yourself. Good for you.

Second, I hope you are learning to set your sights high and to develop a sense of responsibility that extends beyond yourselves. Generations of women have worked to give you unprecedented opportunities to realize your own unique talents. I urge you to stay the course and to work hard — for your own sake, and for the sake of all those younger who will come after you.

When the going gets difficult — and, it will at times — look for the women who have blazed trails for you in science, business, the arts, government service — every avenue of endeavor. Take your inspiration from women like Dr. Mae Jemison, physician, educator, and former astronaut; Paula Banks, vice president for global social investment at BP, one of the world's top three oil, gas, and petrochemical companies; Toni Morrison, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature; Brigadier General Hazel Johnson Brown, Ph.D., the first African American woman general in the U.S. Army; Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to win a seat in Congress and the first woman to run as a major party candidate for the presidency of the United States.

Soon it will be your turn to share your time and expertise with the next generation. You, too, will have the privilege and, yes, the obligation to use your education, your preparation, and your influence for others. What new trail will you mark for those who follow?

One day, it will be your turn to model success for a young woman and, perhaps, to hear someone say, "If she can do it, so can I." That is how you will be "Keeping the Connection, Building on the Past, Focusing on the Future."

Thank you.


Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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