Tech grads go forward into the future

HOUGHTON – Thousands of people packed the John MacInnes Student Ice Arena Saturday morning to hear how a dish washer became a strategist for a $104 billion technology company and watch almost 1,000 Michigan Technological University students become alumni.

IBM Program Director of Strategy and Emerging Internet Technologies David Barnes was the guest speaker at Saturday’s Spring Commencement, and he drew on his fascinating journey to challenge 739 graduating undergraduate and 229 graduate students in pursuit of their dreams.

Instead of reiterating the 12 steps to success, which he noted students could Google for themselves, or describing how to survive a zombie apocalypse – “Good luck,” Barnes said – “All I could really do is step back and tell you what worked for me and what I wish I had known when I started out.”

The Traverse City, Mich., native got his start washing dishes, making pizza, hauling ice and pumping gas.

“Then one day my big break came. Someone came and said, ‘You know a lot about electronics, IBM is hiring.’ I thought, ‘Wow, this is cool. Who’s IBM?'”

After carrying a toolbox and oscilloscope while fixing mainframe computers for a while, he was asked to give a presentation on a new IBM product to a customer executive. He loved it, and he’s never stopped since, working his way up to being the lead spokesperson for IBM’s Watson, the supercomputer that won on “Jeopardy!”

He’s traveled more than 4 million miles, to 38 countries, and he runs strategy for IBM, a $104 billion company with more than 440,000 employees.

“There’s a lot of awesome things I got to experience, all because I found my passion,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was looking for. I didn’t know I was looking for the big tingle. You now know to look for that big tingle. Find the thing that makes you passionate.”

He challenged graduates to find their passion, make it go viral and to always remember “these are the good old days.” He said every generation has said that line about their time, which means …

“If those are the good old days, before them those were the good old days, and those were the good old days, therefore every single day of our lives is the good old days,” he said. “… Especially you graduates remember that every day of our lives is the good old days, especially today – I congratulate you.”

Student speaker Katherine Price, an environmental engineering graduate, reflected on some of her good old days at Tech, challenging other graduates to share their experiences with others.

“It’s more than a college degree, but a college experience I’m going to cherish the rest of my life,” said Price, whose grandparents, father and other siblings have also attended Tech.

Before the three-hour ceremony, several other graduates reflected with fondness on their years at Tech as well.

Grand Rapids native Anne Francois came a long way from nervous freshman to Homecoming queen.

“I was so scared to leave (home) and be so far away, but now that I’m here, I can’t imagine leaving. I’m not ready to leave yet. It really has become home for me,” she said.

She will soon be making her home with her soon-to-be-husband Kyle Ahonen, who graduated Saturday with his Masters in Business Administration and will be going to medical school.

Mechanical engineering grad Tyler Losinski will be getting married to his fiance and December 2012 Tech alum Lindsey Licht soon, too – he proposed just on Friday. At least he won’t have to keep that secret any longer like he did his four years as a Blizzard T. Husky mascot.

“I’m coming out the doghouse today,” he joked. “… When you graduate you wear the paws and the pants to let people know. They say ‘Oh, I knew it,’ or ‘I had no idea.’ … It was a great experience and for the most part it is pretty secretive (Licht knew; his roommates didn’t).”

Exercise Science and Biological Sciences graduate Melanie Hoffman wasn’t part of any so-called “secret societies” at Tech, but she did participate in varsity soccer – a program that didn’t exist yet when she started at Tech – varsity Nordic skiing and varsity track and field. In fact, she got back at 5 a.m. Saturday from competing at the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Track and Field Championships in Ohio.

“It takes a lot of commitment and perseverance, and sometimes I wouldn’t get much sleep,” Hoffman said, “but I think just organization and staying on top of things was key. Play hard, work hard.”

She’ll now be heading down to dental school for four years at Marquette University in Milwaukee.

“I feel that Tech has really prepared me,” she said.

Later on, as commencement came to a close, Tech President Glenn Mroz reflected not only on how Tech had prepared the graduates, but on how the graduates impacted Tech.

“You brought your talents, your intelligence, hard work, creativity and service to our campus and our community. You enhanced our lives,” he said. “We thank you for choosing to come to Michigan Tech. Now as you go on to make your mark in the world, know that we are proud of you, we have the confidence in you, we wish you the best always.”