2017 Coe College Commencement Address

Sandeep Giri '04

Young Alum Award
Coe College
Sandeep Giri ’04

Presented by B.D. Silliman Professor of Physics Steve Feller
May 7, 2017

I want to start by warmly welcoming Sonia Giri and the Giri twins to Coe College. Barbara and I met Sonia at Victoria Station in London in 2006 and we met the whole family in their home in Mountain View, California.  There, we enjoyed two scrumptious home-cooked meals prepared by Sonia.  Sonia please join me on the podium and bring your sons while I say a few things about your husband.  This is a celebration of the entire Giri family.

Now, I welcome Sandeep Giri back to his alma mater as our commencement speaker.  He has had a remarkable career that begin with his arrival at Coe from Kolcata in 2000. He came full of intellect, brimming with energy, and ready to argue ideas in a strange new land.  He was very good in mathematics and science but had not done research.  Coe made that possible and he made it happen and by the time he went out from Coe he coauthored two journal papers in the refereed literature. Thus, introduced to science, he graduated in 2004 and went on to Stanford for graduate school.  A teacher teaches for a student such as Sandeep.

At Stanford, he earned his master’s degree in materials science and engineering where he did pivotal work on platinum nanocatalysts. Imagine the shock his advisor felt, when at the peak of his progress and success, Sandeep chose to go directly into industry; in nearby Silicon Valley.  There at Qualcomm he learned to build factories in various countries to produce useful silicon.  This led to a leadership position at Google, specifically Google X, know known simply as X labs, the so-called moonshot part of Google. Part of the currency of his Silicon Valley world is patents.  He now has 19 patent filings and 12 issued patents in about a decade. That is not bad Sandeep!

He has long given back to our college. In addition to financial gifts, he has arranged annually for a Coe College physics student to intern at Google.  What opportunity!  He has given more.

I last saw Sandeep last Fall in California.  There, Sandeep helped with a conference I helped organize for undergraduates.  As is my custom I frequently ask for help from alums and Sandeep personally arranged for a first-class tour of X Labs-for 200 undergraduates. After that meeting, he taught Barbara and me to appreciate nature for a few treasured days at Yosemite National Park.

A few years ago I was asked to nominate someone to serve on a panel of distinguished scientists and educators who were charged with instructing physics professors on what industry wants from physics majors.  Sandeep was my candidate and his panel from the American Physical Society and the American Association of Physics teachers has just published “Phys21: Preparing Physics Students for 21st-Century Careers.” He made seminal contributions to that report by shaking the system up. He is dangerous to the status quo; may he always be so.

Throughout his pursuit of true excellence at all levels we have remained in contact. In many conversations over the past 17 years I learned of his true sense of humanity as we discussed many issues during this time.  He is a person of the highest character. I am honored that we have become close friends.

I am deeply proud of Sandeep and the Giri family. It is altogether fitting that Coe College awards Sandeep K. Giri its 2017 Young Alumni Award. Congratulations, Sandeep.  Now let us listen for I’m sure we will learn. 

Commencement Address
Sandeep Giri '04

Sandeep Giri '04
Sandeep Giri '04

Good morning everybody. It is very much an honor to be here today. My heartiest congratulations to all the new graduates.

First I would like to thank Coe College for providing me this opportunity to speak to all of you. When I told my wife that I was asked to speak, she immediately said “You can’t even get our 6-year old kids to listen to you, how will you make an impact on 22-year olds?” I said, “You make a good point but, let me give it a try”. If you want to hear the real speech, meet me later at the bar across the street.

I must mention that this is the very first graduation that I am attending at Coe. I had missed my own graduation, I had already moved to Tennessee for my summer internship and the $200 flight ticket back to Iowa was too much for my broke pockets. I’m going to learn how it all goes down.

I must thank my mentors at Coe: Deanna Jobe, Pat Cook, Judi Dirks for putting up with a out of place student with a very thick accent, who took years to finally understand the Iowa slang - trust me there is such a thing. And regarding humor, I’m still learning to understand the Iowa sense of humor! Thanks to then president, Jim Phifer, for not throwing me out of college when my fees were terribly overdue. This by the way was an annual occurrence. Thanks to Bob Drexler for the chance meeting and buying me coffee some 18-years ago in Kolkata, India that eventually brought me to Coe. Thanks to the Physics department for helping kickstart my career and teaching me the importance of hands-on research and free ice cream on Fridays. Steve Feller, thanks for being the ideal and most compassionate mentor I could ask for. Special thanks for not getting offended with my never ending arguments on politics, culture, and my attempts to question the status quo. Actually, he did make me pay him back in the form of free labor - lots of it.

Now to you students: I do not think that I am in any position to give you much advice. Ask my wife and she’ll tell you I’m still growing up myself.  I will however leave you with three recommendations that I would like to share derived from my experiences.

As a student when I came to Coe, I had no idea where Cedar Rapids was on a map. To be fully honest, I still do not know. Whoever told me it’d be close to Chicago - you lied to me! Little did I know at the time that the biggest benefit of Coe would be that it would introduce me to liberal arts education, a concept of which I had no idea. Liberal arts was not practiced much in my home country. I would like to congratulate you students for getting intimate exposure to a unique style of education which unfortunately is being lost worldwide, in an age increasingly being defined by technology. I would not underestimate what it has given you. It teaches you to read critically, analyze data, and formulate ideas. Even though I’m an engineer, what I do on a daily basis is verbalize ideas and negotiate decisions. William Deresiewicz, who coined the phrase excellent sheep - which he claims what elite skill based schools have been churning. He defines excellent sheep as “They’re excellent because they have fulfilled all the requirements for getting into an elite college, but it’s very narrow excellence. These are kids who will perform to the specifications you define, and they will do that without particularly thinking about why they’re doing it. They’re hoop jumpers, who just know that they need to jump the next hoop.” Defending the liberal arts education he goes on to say “Humanities are a record of the ways in which people have come to terms with being human. The most important aspect of college is that it teaches students how to think, develop a sense of self, and determine a purpose or direction and the best place to do so is at smaller to mid-sized liberal arts colleges.” I would argue a Coe education does just that to you and as an added bonus gives you access to lots of cheap beer.

This brings me to my first recommendation: never stop seeking until you have a career that aligns with your core values. Just as I was, I know a lot of you must be obsessing about where you are with your next chapter, the search for graduate school or search for employment. I ask you to seriously consider another search - the search inside yourself. That was the title of one of the most influential courses I took at Google. Ask yourself: What do I wish to be remembered as? What is really important to me?  Who do I admire and what do they do that so appeals to me? For your next thing after Coe, I recommend, is to surround yourself with folks who will help direct you to the answers to those questions. If you ever feel deep conflict in your career, you likely are on a path that does not align with your values. Do not be afraid to seek another path. True greatness, in my opinion, lies in being able to search your true purpose.

My wife (who is is here today) and I met when I was 18. Me wanting to be with her pitched me against an unforgiving system that did not allow me to marry someone outside my own religion. She was born into a sikh family and I was into a hindu family - which we soon realized was a major problem. We took on the fight, kept pushing respectfully each year, and after painful 9-years we convinced the system that we should have our way. We eventually had permission to get married in 2009.

This brings me to my second recommendation: never be afraid to challenge the authority or system, when a situation presents itself that conflicts with your highest values. In my case that value was seeing other humans through the lens of equality, irrespective of their religion, nationality, or ethnicity. On a broader scale, the rapid rise of identity politics globally, the question of equality will linger into the foreseeable future. If equality means a lot to you (as it does to me) we should ask ourselves together: Do we wish to live in a country with cultural monotony or cultural diversity? How will we answer our grandchildren when they quiz us decades later on what did we do for the weak in society when circumstances unjustly came after them? Almost always, change happens when folks not affected by the issue rise against it. I would like to sincerely applaud Coe College for letting an immigrant (like me) to take this stage today. It does convey a strong message of equality.

As mentioned I am originally from Kolkata, India (a small town of 20-million people). When I came to Cedar Rapids, Iowa some 17-years ago, I was like fish out of water. I had just taken my first plane ride ever to get to Iowa. This also happened to be the first time I left my culture and my native country, India.  Very quickly I was terribly homesick. I would ask, “Doc where are the people, I don’t see them on the streets?” His simple answer would be “it’s cold and they’re probably asleep”. My first semester at Coe, I made many naive mistakes. Judi jokes even today that I would wear sweaters in the August heat, like a clueless tropical boy. In the cafeteria, I was adding ketchup to my casserole and nacho cheese to my bowl of salad. I feel like an idiot just thinking about it. I had never seen or even touched snow. And of course, my first winter was the worst the mid-west had seen in 80-years. I recall my freshman roommate asking me if I had a winter jacket, “sure I do”, I answered. When he looked at my closet, and the thin piece of clothing, he went “are you mad? let’s go get you a real winter jacket”. The American experience back then felt like suffering, however, years later as I look back, even if I could, I would never erase that experience.

This brings me to my third recommendation: make valiant attempts to put yourself in other cultures or experiences that make you feel like that fish out of water. I request you to travel at the earliest opportunity you might have. Take a year off, if you can.  The experience of putting yourself in a place where you do not speak the local language, understand the strange food on your plate, or relate to local traditions, will take you far along the path of empathy for one’s different from you and in turn give you new set of eyes to view your own culture. Who are we to claim that our way is the right way? This very much applies to me as I raise twin boys in a culture very different from mine. There are various ways to be and one must respect them all.  I learned to respect and eventually fall in love with the mid-western culture of Iowa. Still today, I miss the hospitality of Iowans, the laid-back pace of life, delicious corn dipped in butter, and of course the free ice cream on Fridays.

I must leave you with some hope from my story. You see when I was growing up, I did not have any role models to show me the way, my parents had little education, and I certainly did not have any economic support. This meant I had to go carve my own path, pay for my Coe education by working long hours at Coe. My siblings are here today as well. They remember that childhood for us wasn’t as easy as it is for our kids.  We were almost always one of the poorest kids in our classrooms. I almost quit Coe twice and quit my Ph.D. to financially help my parents. The odds were in the favor that I do not get much education, do not acquire social mobility in another country, and certainly not be standing in front of all of you here. In conclusion, what I would like you to really understand is that, if against all odds I can be here, so can each one of you. Please never underestimate or squander the blessings you have been bestowed with. You have loving parents and role models who truly want you to succeed. Your motivation will take you much further than your intellect ever can. Along your path you will find strangers who will help you and you must give back. Here’s a counterintuitive lesson - giving feels awesome! In my case, one of those strangers (in a strange land to me) was Steve Feller.

Additionally, do not be afraid if life temporarily misses your expectations. True happiness always lies in seeing the positive side of each experience, even the ones that are perceived as failures.

I apologize for not talking about Google and its technologies - because I know that you can just Google it.

I shall leave you with one of my favorite Oscar Wilde quotations that has taken me through through the best and also not so good of times “Everything is going to be fine in the end. If it's not fine, it must not be the end.”

Congratulations again! Thank you for your time today.

2017 Coe College Commencement

Senior Speaker
Teaierra Curry '17

Teaierra Curry '17
Teaierra Curry '17

Hello, family, friends, faculty, staff and fellow students. My name is Teaierra Curry and I am the student speaker for the Commencement program today.

Because you’re all here, I’m guessing that you know a bit about yourselves, your close friends, and maybe that classmate who shared her stories a little too loudly while waiting for the professor to arrive. But, I’d like to share a bit about the class of 2017 as a whole. When we entered Coe, we were the largest and most diverse class that Coe had ever seen consisting of 389 students. Collectively we had a 25.7 average ACT score and an average GPA of 3.63. We were a pretty extraordinary group.

We took people from all walks of life, big cities, small towns, different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and dumped them together inside of the Coe bubble. We left our homes, our families, our pets, and our friends and embarked on this journey called college.

We flew the coop ready to take on the world with all the zeal and gumption our little 18-year-old hearts could handle.

We met our roommates for the first time. We rang the Victory Bell signifying the start of this adventure. We made friends with our CAP group members and the people on our floor, many of them becoming our permanent cafeteria buddies. We even complained about orientation, when on the inside we all secretly enjoyed it. By the end of dragon boat races, the hypnotists and everything else, we had finally found our Coe “squad”. The hard part was over, right? Wrong!

We celebrated syllabus Sunday a little too hard, running rampant around campus. We crawled into bed at 1, 2 maybe 3 in the morning, ’cause ya’ know it’s our first time away from home and our moms can’t wait up for us to make sure we’re in by curfew. Then we got to class that next day and discovered that going over the syllabus only takes 15 maybe 20 minutes if you’re lucky and lecture starts right after that.

And if we were lucky enough to start college with Dr. Christensen as a professor, we learned that as of day one, we were already behind because chapters are to be read before each class.

Despite all of the trials that we faced as first years - homesickness, balancing social life, work, sleep, classes, extracurricular activities, and sports - we made it through. Then we did it again three more times pressing forward and never giving up on the pursuit of our futures.

Things didn’t get any easier as the years went by. Tests got harder, but we still shot for that 4.0, reassuring ourselves that if we don’t make it, that’s fine because “C’s get degrees”.

We gained a few (or maybe more than a few) pounds after eating the food in the cafeteria, because let’s be honest, who didn’t have a bowl of cereal with every meal?

We dealt with 4 wonderful yet challenging years of sleepless nights spent cramming for exams, wishing you could just be done already, heartbreaks, accomplishments, unforgettable memories, laughing uncontrollably with our friends until we cried, and predicting Flunk Day, and being wrong every single time. Then, we arrived at the last week of our senior year, wishing we could stay forever.  

We rang the Victory Bell again today signifying that this part of our journey is over. We reminisced on the last four years, how we’ve grown and changed and all the things we’ve learned, the most important being who we are.

Our 18-year-old selves could never imagine just how wonderful this experience would be. We have prepared well for everything this world has to offer, both the wonderful and the challenging things.

Now we move out of our precious safe haven and into the hustle-bustle, fun, freedom, and excitement that is life after college, ready to show the world just how great we are. We’re prepared to face our challenges, whether they be racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia or simply meeting deadlines while fighting our own personal battles.

Coe has equipped us with the tools to look adversity in the face and walk right through it with determination and grace. Don’t believe me? Let’s not forget, so far our track record for getting through tough days is 100% and I’d say that’s pretty impressive.

I mean, c’mon guys, college was hard and if the physics majors survived that program, the bio majors made it through genetics and the music majors survived recital hours, we can do anything.

So with that being said, I want to leave you with a quote that has been instrumental in carrying me through hard times. Hopefully it will be just as helpful to you.

“If you can’t fly, then run. If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl. But, whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward. – Martin Luther King Jr”.

So, Kohawks, it’s time for us to fly and move forward just as we’ve done together for the past four years!

Thank you and enjoy your graduation day!