On Wednesday, March 15, 2017, Neumont University Alumnus and Oppenheimer Fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory Dr. Ludmil B. Alexandrov gave the speech below at the Commencement Ceremony celebrating the Class of 2017.
Dear graduates, dear members of the faculty and staff, dear parents, family, and loved ones – we have gathered today to share and to celebrate an important, dare I say, a milestone achievement.
To those of you graduating on this day, I offer my most sincere congratulations for successfully completing this stage of your formal education. I know that the past few years at Neumont have not been easy. I am sure that for many of you there have been numerous sleepless nights trying to finish a homework assignment, or attempting to meet a project deadline, or preparing for an important presentation. Now, it is the time to relax! It is the time to celebrate! You made it – you have finished your degree and moved to that ever elusive next level. Give yourself a round of applause! You really deserve it!
It is really an honor to be back at Neumont and to address this newly minted group of alumni. I have to confess that when Aaron Reed called me and invited me to present this commencement address, I was deeply flattered and I was completely overwhelmed. Without any hesitation, and with little thought about the task at hand, I accepted this honor. As time passed and the date for the speech came closer, I started realizing that I do not really know what to talk to you about. Of course, I did the most natural thing for a computer scientist – I went on the internet and I googled “how to write a great commencement speech”. As I learned from Google, the goal of a commencement speech is to plant a seed that will inspire the graduates towards a better path forward. This is indeed a daunting task and I am not quite sure whether I will be able to live up to this expectation.
In fact, I decided that the best approach is to tell you a story. To tell you a story of a fellow Neumont graduate. To tell you my story. And by telling you my story, I hope that I will be able to show you two things. First, that your education at Neumont will be invaluable in your future jobs, whatever these jobs might be and wherever these jobs might take you. And, second, I want to challenge you to not be afraid to follow your dreams, no matter how crazy these dreams might be and no matter where these dreams might take you.
It was almost exactly 10 years ago when I was in your position. I have just completed my education at Neumont and I was looking forward to going to my first serious job. I remember looking at a piece of paper. That same piece of paper many of you got today – your degree, your diploma. I also remember reflecting on my decision to come to Neumont for my bachelor’s degree.
At the time of my graduation, I did not know whether I have made the right choice. Whether the education at Neumont has been sufficient for paving the way towards a successful future career. Now, a decade later, I have absolutely no doubt. I know for sure. The foundation that Neumont gave me was not only sufficient to make me an exceptional employee of a fortune 500 company but this education also gave me the necessary courage and vision to apply what I have learned at Neumont into completely different fields. Indeed, I was able to take the project-oriented mentality and use it in all parts of my life including in my education and my scientific research.
I can still clearly remember my decision to become a student at Neumont University. I remember receiving a brochure in the mail, looking at it, and thinking – this place seems great for a person like me.
And what do I mean by a person like me? I have been passionate about programming since a very early age and I am sure that many of you share this early adoration for computers. My passion was first expressed in regards to playing computer games-a habit that still persists to this very day. As timed passed, I found it much more fascinating to program computers and to create my own games and my own tools. I deeply enjoyed programming and savored every moment of it.
During my time in high school, in all honesty, I was super nerdy.
At that time, I constantly participated in competitions for mathematics and informatics. Not only did I compete but I also deeply enjoyed being part of these competitions! When it came time to decide where to go for college, I knew that I wanted to go to a place of like-minded people. A place full with “nerds just like me”. A place that could educate me in cutting edge technologies. I understood the value of knowing mathematics, theory, and algorithms but I was more thirsty for learning hands-on technology skills necessary to solve the problems relevant today rather than solving the problems of yesterday.
I do clearly recall my very first day at Neumont’s campus – everyone around me was excited about various aspects of computer science and everyone was eager to learn. Indeed, it was a great place; it was almost a perfect place.
During my years at Neumont, its students, its staff, and its administration became like a family for me. The numerous hours spent developing projects brought us, the student at that time, together creating friendships that have endured the test of time. The projects we all worked on were not simply college assignments, rather, these projects became voyages that we took on together as teams, in some cases, these projects even became battles that we fought together.
The staff and administration of Neumont were ever present and always there to help and guide us throughout these journeys, making everyone’s time at the University truly unforgettable.
A few months after graduating from Neumont, I started my very first job as a business technology consultant at Deloitte Consulting. I was justifiably worried, as I did not know what would be expected from my first job. After my first week on the job, I was not worried any more. Not even the slightest bit.
The job as a consultant at Deloitte was so very similar to the many projects that I have done at Neumont and I knew exactly what I should do and when I should do it. In fact, I recall thinking that one of my enterprise projects was much more complicated than my current job as a consultant. To my surprise, the situation was rather different with my colleagues at Deloitte who came from other colleges. Many of them were indeed quite smart and they have completed their education at top universities across the country. However, what they lacked was the exposure to the rigorous project-based education and the type of thinking that Neumont has given me, and has also given you.
Most of my Deloitte colleagues were experiencing projects for the very first time and, naturally, they were struggling with this first encounter. After the first six months on the job, my manager came to me, he looked me in eye, and told me, “Ludmil, you really know what you are doing. You are operating on the next level we keep talking about. I think we should promote you as soon as possible."
Indeed, I got this first promotion by the end of that fiscal year. In contrast, it took several years for most people from other universities to achieve this career step since they first needed to learn the rules of the game. The rules that I knew and you know from your time at Neumont. I should confess that this was not only my experience; many of my friends and classmates from Neumont were also excelling at their jobs with remarkable pace: getting promoted faster and receiving significant salary raises.
Indeed, what you probably do not realize at this moment but you will almost surely know within a few years is that your education at Neumont has provided you the necessary road map and experience to steer through the turbulent waters of corporate America. The completion of this rigorous education has given you both the necessary knowledge and the know-how to shine in your new jobs and to be more successful than you have ever imagined.
But going back to my story. After working for some time as a consultant, I discovered that I am extremely passionate about understanding scientific problems and, more specifically, about solving biological conundrums. It was an unexpected personal discovery and, in fact, it was a scary discovery. I felt valued and appreciated in my current job as a consultant. I also felt that my career was moving forward and I was being well compensated and promoted. In contrast, I was unsure whether I will be any good as a scientist, especially in a new field like biology. At that time, I remember thinking that while there is a good chance that I will fail as a scientist, if I do not try to be one, I will regret it for the rest of my life. Indeed, in parallel with my day job as a consultant, I started using my computational skills and training at Neumont to help scientists at Harvard with the analysis of large biological data sets. As time progressed, I found myself enjoying biological research more and more and I eventually I applied for a master’s program in Computational Biology at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.
I was very blunt in my application essay – I wrote that I have limited knowledge in regards to biology and that I have a strong project-based computational education from Neumont. To my surprise, I was not only accepted at Cambridge but I was also given full funding to support my master and subsequently my doctorate studies.
I would later learn that my diverse academic background and education was an essential reason to get these scholarships. Nevertheless, going to a place like Cambridge was intimidating. Cambridge is a university that is more that 800 years old, it is older than most countries that currently exist. Cambridge has educated a big proportion of Nobel prizes winner and it has effectively created most of the modern fields of biology, physics, economics, and literature. To my dismay, completing my master's, and later my Ph.D., was much easier than I expected. Without realizing, the hands-on learning at Neumont has prepared me to educate myself on my own.
I was not reliant on lectures, rather, I looked at each class as a project and I developed a set of tools around it. For example, instead of simply readying and comprehending lectures in neuroscience, I developed various programs simulating neural networks, synaptic plasticity, single-neuron models, and many others. The ability to learn on my own and build projects from any topic allowed me to successfully complete my graduate studies and to develop a thread of science which has been novel and unique and has set the standard for future work in an important area of cancer research.
Ten years ago, I graduated from Neumont University and during the past decade I managed to go from a successful consultant to a respected scientist who is currently a co-investigator on one of the largest cancer research projects in the world. Reflecting on the past ten years, I can clearly appreciate that the education and foundation, which I received at Neumont, have been essential for my personal and my professional development. You may or you may not realize it today, but the education you have received will allow you to shoot for the stars. Ten years from now, many of you will be on the top of the world and I hope that you will be able to look back and to grasp the fundamental importance of completing this very first step. Of completing your education at Neumont!
Again, congratulations! Congratulations on finishing this phase of your life. I wish you all the best in your future endeavors and do not be afraid to change the world.
Thank you and good luck!