Honorary doctorates encourage new alumni to live boldly

Friday, July 5, 2024

At the recent spring convocation, the University of Waterloo awarded David J. Cornfield and Linda Archer Cornfield with honorary doctorates.  

Following successful careers at Microsoft, David (BASc, ‘85, systems design engineering) and Linda chose to pursue their shared interests and passion for systems thinking to find pragmatic, sustainable approaches to better stewardship of the earth. 

They have since executive produced 23 documentaries to date, including the award-winning Chasing Ice and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? During their visit to Waterloo Engineering, they screened one of their upcoming films for a packed audience. During a Q&A following the film they shared how they hope the mix of scientific rigor and heartfelt storytelling will move the hearts and minds of viewers to understand and care more about the climate crisis. 

At the convocation, the Cornfields addressed the newest alumni with a message of possibility and boldness, to go out and use the hard-won knowledge gained earning their degrees to design a life that is both personally fulfilling and leaves a positive impact.  

Linda Archer Cornfield and David J. Cornfield accepting their honorary doctorates on stage with President Vivek Goel.

Linda Archer Cornfield and David J. Cornfield accepting their honorary doctorates on stage with President Vivek Goel.

Here are four takeaway messages the Cornfields left for the class of 2024 and their supporters.   

Design your projects, and your life: Linda reminded the alumni to remember that the design skills they learned as engineers can also be applied to their personal lives. “In fact, your most significant design project is your life,” she said. “You all know that the first step of design is to clearly set goals. Honestly evaluating your outcomes and then modifying your personal and professional goals is essential to an iterative design process. These design skills are timeless. You have the agency, and you have the skills to shape your future.” 

The world needs your talents to solve complex problems: David emphasized that as Waterloo Engineering alumni, they are uniquely equipped to solve complex problems like the climate crisis facing the world. “Even now, many years after my graduation, I look at my iron ring and remember my obligation to do my best to safeguard society in the application of technology,” he said.  

Global problems aren’t a sprint or a marathon, but a relay: The Cornfields pushed back against the common refrain of how young people will save the planet, saying that’s too heavy a burden and is also simply unfair and untrue. “One thing that we have learned that may help you deal with the perceived weight of these seemingly intractable problems is that the work is not a sprint, but it's also not a marathon,” said Linda. “It's more like a relay. We each have our leg to run, picking up the baton from someone who came before us and passing it on when we have finished our work.”  

David elaborated, issuing a call to the family, friends and other supporters in the audience to finish their legs of the relay as the new alumni get up to speed. “You still hold the baton,” he said. “Amazing as these graduates are, they are unlikely to be able to set policy immediately. The actions you take in the next few years are crucial to limiting the scale and the scope of the challenges these young people will face. We all still have work to do to finish our legs of the relay strong.”  

Be bold and live fulfilling lives: David and Linda concluded by reinforcing that the alumni have the skills, temperament and courage needed to rise to challenges in extraordinary times by completing their degrees. “If you take anything from this speech, please know that by being bold, by not being afraid to pivot and using the problems solving skills you've learned here, you can enjoy a personally fulfilling life and make a positive change in the world,” said David. “We cannot wait to see what you accomplish.” 

This article was originally posted on the Waterloo News website.