Yesterday I stood in the center of the Round in the Spark as one of four faculty to address 270 of our incoming freshman engineers.

I’ve thought about this moment for years — going way back to my time as an undergrad. What would I tell a freshman on their first day as an engineer? What was I told on my first day?

Flashback – briefly – my first day on campus as an undergrad was the start of football camp. The first night of which drunken seniors rounded up the freshman and shaved all of our heads — some better than others. — I’ve never been one to blindly follow traditions.

So, in need of a story, I asked the HYPER lab members “Your first meeting with the dean and your peers as a freshman, what do you wish someone would’ve said?”

“If you came to the university, and we did not change you, you did not get your money’s worth.”

“There’s a limit on credits for a reason.”

“You should never build your life around the resume and that if you do work meaningful to you the resume will come.”

“There seemed to be this collective understanding that everyone was there to work and get things done.”

“The opportunities don’t just end at the University level. Collaborating and putting yourself out there in all sectors is the best way to see the full breadth of the field.”

“College (unlike our valued trade or conservatory colleagues) can be about discovering a whole life.”

“Slow down.”

“It’s going to be the hardest you’ve worked in your life.”

Dean Rezac primed the four of us faculty immediately before that we were to describe the basics of our specific School. And with all of these thoughts swirling in my head, the mic was handed to me and I had my two minutes. What was said is between me and those freshman. But I had to be Professional — honest, credible, and reliably deliver.

Engineering is one of the original three “professional” disciplines with lawyers and doctors. Professionalism can be thought of as the experienced exercise of judgement and discretion towards the practice and promotion of your chosen discipline. What I’ve learned over the years is that despite all of your efforts to learn the standards, prepare for the worst, and practice proficiency with your craft, there will be times when the standards don’t apply, the worst anyone envisioned is not the worst, and you could not have practiced or prepared.

There are many examples of this form of professionalism from engineering, but as par for the field, are often not captured in real time or in public. An analogous case of professionalism, which I’m presenting here due to her death yesterday, is Aretha Franklin’s stand in for Luciano Pavaratti’s famous aria “Nessun Dorma,” in which she agreed to do the piece with only 20 minutes notice, no rehearsal, and no ability to speak Italian.

Respect is earned.

Make no mistake, we faculty will do our best through the standard coursework, mentoring, and research experiences; but ultimately we cannot force you, nor can you pay, to become a professional. We cannot teach you to follow your passions and interests. We cannot assign you the extra effort outside the lines. We cannot prepare you for everything you need to be prepared for. And when the time for you comes, we cannot be the professional that the world needs you to be.

This is the start of a lifelong journey. Welcome Cougs to becoming professionals.

At the end…

I went back to this post at the end of the school year considering it’s use for The Order of the Engineer ceremony. For those unfamiliar, The Order of the Engineer is a ceremony where engineers entering the profession recite ‘The Obligation of an Engineer‘ after which they are given a steel ring that sits on the smallest finger of their writing hand. The purpose of the ring is to drag across the paper an engineer is signing, reminding them of their oath to the profession. The story behind creation of The Order of the Engineer ceremony and the ring itself is almost as interesting as the ceremony itself.

The Quebec Bridge disaster.

The 1907 disaster is on the left and the 1916 collapse is on the right.