Student Address

Investiture 2023 student address by MEM candidate Vanessa Pinney '21 Th'22:


Introduction by Dean Alexis Abramson:

It is now my pleasure to introduce Vanessa Pinney, who will deliver our student address.

Vanessa's passions for energy and the environment have spanned her entire journey at Dartmouth, where she has earned both her Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Engineering degrees—and soon, her Master of Engineering Management.

As an undergraduate research assistant during her freshman and sophomore years, Vanessa developed an algorithm to help identify trends in freshwater cyanobacteria blooms across New England using Google Earth satellite imagery and presented findings at American Geophysical Union's fall meeting.

She was named Baum International Intern by Dartmouth's John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding in 2020 in support of her research and policy internship at the Washington DC-based Wilson Center, where she contributed to a major report on climate change in Latin America. And in recognition of her outstanding work as an engineering sciences major at Dartmouth, she earned the Ralph James Brown Fellowship to support her Bachelor of Engineering studies.

As a graduate student, she founded the Thayer Energy Club to encourage students and the wider community discourse and engagement around topics of renewable energy technology.

After graduation, she will join the NorthBridge Group, an energy consulting firm focused on renewable energy economics and strategy.

Please welcome Vanessa Pinney.

Remarks by Vanessa Pinney '21 Th'22:

Vanessa Pinney '21 Th'22
(Photo by Mark Washburn)

Thank you, Dean Abramson!

To President Hanlon, Provost Kotz, President Barabino, Dartmouth Board of Trustees, Thayer Board of Advisors, and distinguished guests, welcome! To all the families and friends that have joined us today, thank you. We could not have made it here without you.

And to all the Thayer graduates of 2023, congratulations! You made it! BEs, you made it through ENGS 23! MEMs, you made it through Accounting and Finance! PhDs, you made it through four whole terms of the Jones Seminar! Now that's hard.

But if you think finding parking closer than A-Lot is hard, just wait. We are about to face larger challenges in the real world that will require us to ask ourselves far deeper questions: "Am I satisfied with what I’m doing? ... Am I having enough impact? ... How can I be happy?” It's a level of abstraction that can be hard to wrap one's head around.

Fortunately, as Thayer engineers, we have been trained on how to address abstract, seemingly unsolvable problems. That's right! It's design thinking time! For all the non-engineers in the crowd, design thinking is a methodology for solving abstract problems in six steps:

  • First, quantify the needs of the user.
  • Second, define the parameters for the solution.
  • Third, ideate on potential solutions, the wackier the better.
  • Fourth, build prototypes of your best ideas.
  • Fifth, test your prototypes.
  • Sixth, iterate, iterate, iterate until a prototype adequately addresses the problem.

There is already literature on how to apply design thinking to your life, and I want to focus on specific lessons we can glean from viewing life through that lens. Design thinking tells us that the needs of the user—in this case, you—are paramount. Whether that means achieving financial stability, finding work with meaning, having enough time to take care of loved ones or just getting your parents off your back, it's important to figure out for yourself what your core needs are—and to set specific, realistic, and measurable goals for ourselves.

But design thinking's most important lesson is how crucial failure is in our eventual success. Here's a practical example: Last year, I founded the Thayer Energy Club, TEC for short, a student-run club that plans social events for Thayer's energy community and represents student interests around energy topics to Thayer. We're doing pretty well these days; we host multiple events per term, collaborate regularly with the Irving Institute, and brought, among others, a US Congressperson and Google's former Director of Climate Change to campus. Anyone who has ever talked to me even once will know, I will NOT shut up about this energy club. What I don't talk as much about is that the TEC is the sixth organization I started or led throughout high school and college, but the only one to last more than a couple months.

From one perspective, maybe I'm just not very good at leading clubs. Fair. But I'd argue that the TEC's success was only possible because of these earlier failures. From the high school debate club I couldn't even convince myself to put time into, I learned the importance of internal motivation. From the Rube Goldberg team where neither the pieces nor the people fell into place, but which I still included on my college applications, I realized the importance of effective delegation. From the dorm floor I oversaw where my freshman residents were more on-time than me, a sophomore, I learned the importance of planning ahead. From the friend's start-up I quit senior fall due self-doubt, I realized the importance of cultivating self-trust. From the prankster's group that may one day rise again, I realized that delegation means nothing if not accompanied by inspiration. By the time I started the TEC, I'd failed so many times that I knew what to look out for.

That's not to say that failure was easy. If you've ever poured your entire soul into something only to have it fail, you'll know that. Those moments make you question yourself, especially if you are in an environment where you are the outsider, where the majority of people don't look, act, or think like you.

I had a moment this past winter, when I started to wonder if there was a path forward for the TEC. When you fail at something again and again and again, and you are the common denominator, you naturally start to wonder if the problem is you. In my case, my tendency towards disorganization has sabotaged me a million times. Whenever I find myself unprepared for a meeting or late for a deadline, old anxieties return. "Will I ever be able to overcome my own tendencies towards disorganization? ... Am I even capable of change?"

And maybe I'm not. Maybe I'm destined to repeat all my failures. Maybe the root cause is baked into my genes, my soul, my identity. In the face of these questions, I reflect on something a friend once told me. Our identities are just stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. We take these stories of our pasts and assume that what has happened will repeat itself into the future. But this discounts our own ability to learn from the past to adapt, to grow.

If I'd tried to start an energy club my first year of college, I would've burnt out, run out of power, short-circuited. Freshman me would've been shocked to see me now. But, ala steps five and six of the design process, I tested, failed miserably, and iterated, learning from trial and error until I finally got it right. Sure, I had some self-doubt but I still made it! We all still made it.

We have a whole world waiting for us, and we are going to fail. Isn't that kinda exciting? Take risks. Fail. Learn. And let us be kind to ourselves when we do. Remember step one: The user's needs are paramount. At the end of the day, you are worth it if you tell yourself that you are worth it. So let me start that narrative: You are worth it, each and every one of you. While at Thayer, I've met some of the most incredible and inspirational people, and most of them don't even know it yet. We all have a world of potential within us. It just takes a little trial, error, and iteration to make it show through.

Thank you and congratulations!