Princeton dean returns to Central High to share life lessons

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comMarch 28, 2014 

He graduated from Central High School the year the first man walked on the Moon. Forty-five years later, Vincent Poor was back at his alma mater Friday, sharing life lessons with students growing up in a world, he noted, in which more folks have cellphones than electricity.

Sure, he said, a bit of luck has helped him go from Phenix City to Princeton University, where Poor has been the dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science the past eight years. But he outlined several keys to take advantage of that serendipity - and becoming an expert on the wireless technology that makes those cellphones possible.

Interim superintendent Rod Hinton set up Poor's visit to inspire the teenagers to set their goals high and motivate the adults to set up the Phenix City Public Schools Hall of Fame, which the Phenix City Education Foundation would run.

"The foundation wants to adopt the program," Hinton said. "We're going to get a group together and define how we're going to do it."

Phenix City Mayor Eddie Lowe, who presented Poor a proclamation, said, "He has not forgotten where he's from."

Indeed, Poor gave Central High and the Phenix City community credit for being the springboard he needed to succeed at Auburn University for his bachelor's and master's degrees, then Princeton for his doctorate. Among his numerous recognitions, he has received the National Science Foundation's highest honor, the Director's Award for Distinguished Teaching Scholars.

Here are highlights of the life lessons from Poor's speech to Central students in the school's auditorium:

Think big

"You really need to think big. Take chances. Trust in yourself and that you'll find a way to succeed. This is what happened to me when I went to Princeton. I was perfectly happy at Auburn. I had great professors at the university, great friends in the town. Connie (his wife) loved being there. Auburn is a great place, but we were young and it was a time in life to be bold, and going to Princeton was a big step. I could have failed miserably. It turned out that I didn't, but if I had, the experience still would have been worth it. I would have seen something different, and undoubtedly it would have led to another interesting path in life."

Take risks

"Behind almost every new thing that comes along and benefits society, there's somebody who took the risk."

Poor gave examples of two Princeton engineering students who succeeded in areas outside their original scope.

Jeff Bezos, who graduated in the 1980s, was an investment banker before he started Amazon.com.

"At the time, when the Web was new and e-commerce was not at all a sure thing, he could have easily failed like so many other dot.com companies did. But, instead, he created a completely new way for people to shop and has become a billionaire a many times over in the process."

Bob Kahn, who graduated in the 1960s, "had a nice academic job at MIT, but he decided to quit that job and move into industry in order to get involved in a new job that eventually led to the Internet. As a consequence, he's had an amazing impact on society."

Don't fear failure

"You really should be thinking out of the box your whole life and not be afraid to make changes. Sometimes you might fail, but trying new things is really part of growing as a human being. When you fail, you can still learn something."

Find mentors

"People you work with will be the most important resource you have in your career. So you should always build relationships with people who can help you sort through your opportunities and give you the benefit of their experience. Don't be afraid to ask people for help. If you see someone doing something you think you'd like to do someday, ask them how they got where they are. Even though people are busy, in my experience, they're never too busy to help young people. In every step of my education and career, there's always been people like that. Even today, I still rely on my colleagues, the even more senior colleagues, to help me with their advice and insight when I have a tough decision to make."

Capitalize on luck

"You can't really predict where life will take you or what opportunities will present themselves to you. The future is always uncertain. I've been lucky in most stages of my life. I met and married the right woman. I found the right mentors. I went to Illinois and happened into a new field (wireless technology) that was in its infancy but turned out to be an important one. At Princeton, I was in the right place when the dean's job opened up. So these things are largely luck. They of course have some element of individual determination. But without luck, that determination would not have been relevant."

Don't sweat college cost

"Almost every university has some resources to help students who need financial aid to attend. So even if you think you can't afford to get a higher education, you might be surprised."

Broaden your education

"Even if you study a specialized field like engineering, which of course I think is a great idea, you can still get a broad education. American universities are designed to broaden your mind and educate you for life."

Take the first step

"I realize it's very hard to know what you want to do with your life. I've been where you are today. But the fact is, you don't need to know everything about what you're going to do in life. You really only need to know where to start. In other words, you just need to take the first step. You don't even have to know what you want to be - but just that you want to be something. This is what everybody does. … They take the first step, then the next step and they just keep going. They aren't really sure what they're doing, but they prepare for opportunities. And when they come along, they take them. So this is really the best advice I can give you."

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