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Federal Judge Robert Wilkins Calls Upon Class of 2017 to Retain Hope, Tackle the Problems of Today

Saturday, May 27, 2017
Judge Robert Wilkins

U.S. judge Robert Wilkins, a 1986 alumnus, urged the Class of 2017 to look past cynicism to create a better world in his commencement address.

Robert L. Wilkins, a Rose-Hulman alumnus and judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, returned to his alma mater to urge the 571 members of the institute’s Class of 2017 to look past cynicism and pessimism to address today’s problems and, in the process, create a better world.

Thirty-one years earlier at his own Commencement, Wilkins received the Herman A. Moench Commendation as the outstanding senior of his 1986 graduating class. The chemical engineering alumnus was ready to begin law school at Harvard University, but his outlook on life had become, by his own omission, jaded and cynical.

“As I viewed the world, and particularly the injustices that I perceived within it, my engineering mind told me that the only logical explanation was that fear, greed and flawed individuals were to blame. But I took it a step further. I concluded that negative forces dominated practically everything and everyone,” said Wilkins in addressing the 509 students earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the institute.

“My message to you today is ‘don’t be that guy.’ If you don’t remember anything else from my speech, remember that: ‘Don’t be the 1986 Robert Wilkins.’”

The Muncie, Ind., native had a fellowship in South Africa in the summer of 1988, during the height of the country’s Apartheid regime; experienced racial discrimination from an illegal stop and search by the Maryland State Police; and for 10 years saw the effects of poverty, violence and drug abuse on a daily basis as a public defender in Washington, D.C.

“It’s a lot easier to say everything is hopeless and give up, rather than it is to have hope, because when hope is sincere, it comes with an obligation to do the work to make those hopes and dreams come true,” Wilkins said. “You can’t give into cynicism. You have to learn to do whatever you can, however you can, whenever you can. You may not save the world. You may not eradicate the problem. But you can be part of the solution. You have a duty to yourself, to others, and to God, to keep the faith.”

For his part, Wilkins was instrumental in the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. He also contributed more than 1,000 pro bono hours to clients in cases involving civil rights, child custody and social security benefits. He was named the Pro Bono Attorney of the Year in 2001 by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, one of the 40 most successful litigators under 40 years old by the National Law Journal and one of the 90 Greatest Washington Lawyers of the Last 30 Years in 2008 by Legal Times.   

President Jim Conwell speaking at commencement in 2017

President Jim Conwell speaks at the 2017 commencement.

In separate remarks, President Jim Conwell told the graduates that their skills as engineers, scientists and mathematicians are in great demand to meet the challenges of an ever-changing, technological-based world. He noted that in one recent edition of the New York Times in there were at least seven stories about grand challenges facing the world, from climate change to big data to economic disparity.

“The question is: Who is going to address these challenges? Is it you, the 2017 graduates of Rose-Hulman? If it’s not you, then who?” he asked.

Conwell noted that he joined the Class of 2017 in entering Rose-Hulman four years ago and, like the students, has grown to appreciate the excellence of the institute’s faculty and staff, the rigorous academic standards, and special family-oriented campus culture.

“You and I have all made it successfully through this part of the journey that began four years ago. I trust that it has been as exciting, challenging and inspiring for you as it has been for me,” he said.

Approximately 86 percent of Rose-Hulman’s new graduates already have accepted full-time employment, are planning to attend graduate school, or will be commissioned military officers, according to the Office of Career Services. Top hiring companies for the Class of 2017 include Eli Lilly and Company, Rockwell Collins, Google, Arcelor Mittal, International Paper and Space X.

During the ceremony, civil engineering alumnus Gregory L. Gibson, president of ReTec Corporation, received an honorary doctorate of engineering for his success in business and role as a civic leader in his hometown of Terre Haute. He also is secretary of the Rose-Hulman Board of Trustees.

In addition to the awarding of diplomas, the ceremony recognized select members of the Class of 2017 for academic, leadership, extracurricular activities, and helping make Rose-Hulman a better place. Two faculty members and one staff member were honored for their teaching, research, and service to the institute. Honored were:

The 2017 Heminway Award Winners

Top of Their Class: (From left to right) 2017 Heminway Award winners Katina Volitich, Christian Schultz, Ian Ludden, Nicolae Iovanac, and James Edwards all graduated with 4.0 grade-point averages.

Heminway Gold Medal (top academic achievement—all completing RHIT careers with 4.0 grade-point averages)

  • James H. Edwards, an international computer science graduate from Greenfield, Ind.
  • Christine E. Harper, a biomedical engineering graduate from Swayzee, Ind.
  • Nicolae C. Iovanac, a chemical engineering graduate from Robinson, Ill.
  • Ian G. Ludden, a computer engineering and mathematics double-major graduate from Brandon, Fla.
  • Christian C. Schultz, a computer science and mathematics double-major graduate from Bolingbrook, Ill.
  • Katina Volitich, a biomedical engineering graduate from Aliquippa, Pa.

Herman A. Moench Outstanding Senior Commendation

Thomas Janssen at commencement in 2017

Thomas Janssen receives the Herman A. Moench Oustanding Senior commendation.

  • Thomas L. Janssen, a mechanical engineering and computational science double-major graduate from Martinsville, Ind.

John T. Royse Award (honoring student leadership/campus involvement)

Katina Volitich

Katina Volitich wins the John T. Royse award honoring student leadership and campus involvement.

  • Katina Volitich, a senior biomedical engineering graduate from Aliquippa, Pa. 

Outstanding Graduate Thesis Award

  • Kang-min Lee, a master’s degree recipient in optical engineering from South Korea 

Dean’s Outstanding Teacher Award

  • Don Richards, professor, mechanical engineering (retiring after 29 years on faculty)

Board of Trustees Outstanding Scholar Award

  • Ella Ingram, professor, biology and biomedical engineering

President’s Outstanding Service Award

  • Keith Royer, technician, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering 

Make a Difference Award

  • Brian Tovey, Facilities, Hatfield Hall

Excellence in Service Award

  • College & Life Skills Curriculum Committee

Shining Star Award

  • Mike Gioia, Information Security Officer, Department of Enterprise Information Technology

Can't get enough of Commencement 2017? Check out this behind-the-scenes video.