The Road Ahead

A Commencement Address to Harvey Mudd College, Class of 2017
By Dr. Richard A. Tapia

Delivering the commencement address at Harvey Mudd College in 2017 — photo credit: Harvey Mudd College (https://www.hmc.edu/about-hmc/2017/05/19/patocka-tapia-receive-honorary-doctorates/)

President Klawe, Harvey Mudd administration, faculty, staff , graduating students, family and friends it is a pleasure and an honor to share this special day with you. We are proud of you, the graduating students, and congratulate you on your accomplishments. By graduating from Harvey Mudd, one of the finest educational institutions in the country, you have lived a part of the American dream,

In our few minutes together I will share with you things that I have learned from my own life, and hope that they will help you navigate your road ahead.

My parents came from Mexico to Los Angles in search of education. Times were hard , they had to support themselves, and were not able to obtain the education that they sought.

My mother and father: Mrs. and Mr. Tapia — Los Angeles circa 1950

However, their educational dreams were fulfilled through their children, out of five, four of us have undergraduate degrees and three of us have graduate degrees, albeit, two of us are lawyers.

I am a product of these Mexican parents, the city of Los Angeles and the time period of the 1960s. As such I am not only Mexican American , I am proudly Chicano.

My father taught the value of inclusion — he loved everyone and they loved him. My mother taught us that pride, hard work, and education can take you to the end of the rainbow, and there at the end was a pot of gold. I used to think that she was rather naïve with this belief, but I have learned that she was right. I tell you today on this very special Mother’s Day that mothers are always right. Please, a large applause for all the mothers with us here today.

You are here today in part because of your support system; your family, your friends, and the faculty. Graduation is an important opportunity to formally acknowledge this support system and let them share with you the joy and satisfaction of your accomplishments. Formal ceremonies and celebration are wonderful parts of life. Many years ago when I received the doctorate degree from UCLA, it was the late 60s with much unrest and confusion and some of us thought that we should forego graduation ceremonies and I did. I was very wrong, as my wife has been telling me for all these years. So, it is with great pride that my Harvey Mudd honorary doctorate allows me to be an honorary member of the Harvey Mudd class of 2017.

My own commencement day at University of California, Los Angeles.

The Road Ahead

You must realize by now that your entire life consists of a sequence of tasks, one right after the other — high school, undergraduate school , graduate school, and career development. Moreover, each subsequent task is much less structured and therefore offers more challenge and requires more original thought and creativity . Yet with each step comes the opportunity for a broader impact.

I emphasize that contrary to popular opinion success is rarely the consequence of taking a single large step. Instead success is most often the consequence of taking small steps with perseverance and in a coherent perhaps even obstinate manner.

As you move through these tasks of life, do not expect the balance of good and bad, or success and adversity, to be uniformly distributed across the population. The statement –I have had my bad, now comes my good — is at the very best, wishful thinking.

Yes, I have lived the American dream, from Los Angeles to the White House and the National Medal of Science, the highest award given by the United States government to a scientist or engineer. The United States is truly a great country.

However, my rainbow path has been quite trying with many ups and many downs. On one hand I can list successes and on the other failures and adversities , both lists are quite impressive.

My wife Jean and I were married while I was a sophomore at UCLA.

Jean and I on our wedding day.

She had just graduated from Gardena High School. Our daughter, Circee, was born when I was a junior. Our dreams were simple. Jean’s passion was dance and mine was mathematics. I received a PhD from UCLA the same year that our son Richard was born. The four of us went off to the University of Wisconsin Madison and then to Rice University in Houston to follow the rainbow path and search for our pot of gold.

We had more than our share of successes in Houston. Jean had a very successful dance studio, I received tenure in record time, Circee was a dance and academic star. We were making good progress along the rainbow path. However, in 1977 Jean was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. In 1979 she was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis. She had to give up her studio and navigate the rainbow path from a wheelchair, no longer could she skip and dance along the trail ; yet we kept traveling . Three years later, Circee was killed in an automobile accident. She was a student at Rice at the time and had just returned from dancing with a company in New York. Jean said that these were three strikes for her and she was out — her life was over. Finally, I convinced her that she still had much to contribute and we continued, we kept traveling on, for we really had no other choice. However, I no longer had Circee to help me push Jean’s wheelchair along the rainbow path.

Our beautiful Circee at 21.

Jean started an exercise program for people with multiple sclerosis and people in wheelchairs called “Coming Back” and won national recognition for her work.

I was the first Hispanic elected to the National Academy of Engineering, I was the first Hispanic awarded the status of University Professor at Rice University and only the sixth such selection in the history of the school, I received the prestigious Vannevar Bush Award from the National Science Board, and the National Medal of Science from the President of the United States, again in both cases the first Hispanic so honored. I would trade my numerous awards and honors, and Jean would suffer multiple sclerosis many times over, just to have Circee back with us. But we do not have that choice. Our only choice is to give up or play the hand that we were dealt. The choice is easy. Life has its strange twists. I am now on expert on things that I really never wanted to know about, like wheelchairs and how to travel with a person in a wheelchair.

I share this personal story to tell you this: when you encounter obstacles and adversity, learn to look both ways. Your challenge is to handle adversity. Prosperity is quite easy to handle. Realize that tragedy and failure are as much a part of life as are triumph and success. Failure is a part of every successful person’s life. You must learn to grow from your failures and to develop compassion and sensitivity from your tragedies. At each stage of your life and career, continue to dream and work to make your dreams come true, but learn to cope and still enjoy life if they do not all come true.

The National Medal of Science

How can I belong to a class that consists of so many of my great mathematical heroes for example Norbert Weiner, Paul J. Cohen, John Tukey, and Peter Lax?

At the 2011National Medal Award ceremony at the White House President Obama said,

“All seven of you have performed excellent research, but Richard Tapia has given to the nation in the critically important areas of improving ethnic representation and gender equity. I wish the other six of you would emulate his success.”

I then said to myself “Thank you President Obama for showing me that I do belong.”

Receiving the National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama.

I have now been on the Rice faculty for more than four decades and have been involved in addressing inequities, both for women and underrepresented minorities at all levels — university, state and nation — for literally all of those years. I did not plan on doing this-it was just something that had to be done, and I knew that I could help. Nowhere does the job description of a Rice mathematician include these activities. And for most of you, your job description won’t say, “make the world a better place”. Yet I implore you to care about this and do a part to solve current critical societal and educational problems. Realize that we, the United States, no longer set the bar on national well being including , protection of the environment, health care, and public K-12 education; indeed we share the bottom with a host of third world nations .

Violence today is at a frightening level. Drugs, disrespect, anger, and hate are the characteristics of the times. Little by little we have let TV, the media, and the internet define the value system for today’s youth. As a nation we cannot let this continue. Yes, you will be the leaders of tomorrow, but this youth will be the leaders of the day after tomorrow.

To not care, to not speak out , to not reach back would be the most unpatriotic action you could perpetrate upon your country.

You may say that we have left you with these problems, and I would answer that this is true. But we can’t re-deal the hand, your challenge is to play well what you have been dealt. The future of the world’s scientific and societal health is in your hands.

Many of you will distinguish yourselves with prestigious awards and recognition, including a possible Nobel or Pulitzer Prize, or a Field’s Medal. This will be of significant value to America’s health and bring you great prestige, but this alone will not be enough. It will not bring you the satisfaction of helping those less privileged to live better lives, and improving the health of the nation.

It is not someone else’s job, it is now your job.

I share with you several reflections that have guided me.

Guidelines

  • Race and ethnicity should not dictate educational destiny.
  • I may not be the best, but I am good enough.
  • If you sit on the porch with the big dogs and occasionally bark like a big dog, the world will view you as a big dog.
  • Significant change is possible: A few years before I accepted a position at Rice University in 1970, The Rice Constitution said “for whites only.” Yet under my leadership, Rice University has produced more underrepresented minority PhD’s in the mathematical sciences than any other university. We proudly count Harvey Mudd’s Mathematics Professor Talithia Williams as one of these doctoral students.
  • My successes as an underrepresented minority allow me to serve as a role model in two distinct manners. One, to those underrepresented I represent feasibility , yes it can be done, si se puede. And to the majority community, at a time which is so critical , I demonstrate that excellence comes in all flavors. We can and must sit at the leadership table with you.
  • Finally, life and people around you are beautiful, reach for them. They need you and you need them.

I wish you all the best of luck. Thank you.

About the author: Dr. Richard Tapia is a mathematician and professor in the Department of Computational and Applied Mathematics at Rice University in Houston, Texas. He is internationally known for his research in the computational and mathematical sciences and is a national leader in education and outreach programs. Visit his website.