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Coming Home to Tech

College graduations are known as celebrations of achievement and the first step toward sending new graduates out into the world to make their mark.

But for two prominent Georgia Tech alumni, this year's Spring Commencement is more like Homecoming. Former Smithsonian Institution Secretary and Georgia Tech President Emeritus G. Wayne Clough (BS 1964; MS 1965) and Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, Gen. Philip M. Breedlove (BS 1977) are returning to their alma mater as Commencement speakers.

Read their thoughts on the value they place on their Tech education and what constitutes true success.

G. Wayne Clough

G. Wayne Clough retired in 2014 as the 12th secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

As secretary, Clough led the development of a new form of strategic plan that brought focus to the diverse activities of the world’s largest research and museum complex and established a path forward for the 21st century.

He previously served for 14 years as the 10th president — and first alumnus president — of Georgia Tech. Clough’s tenure was marked by rapid growth of the student body and the Institute’s entrance into the top 10 American public universities.

Named in his honor, the G. Wayne Clough Georgia Tech Promise Program offers a debt-free education to qualified residents of Georgia whose family income is below $33,300. Thanks to the generosity of Georgia Tech alumni and other contributors, more than 600 students have participated in Tech Promise over the past seven years.

Q: How did your undergraduate and graduate education at Tech prepare you for future success?

A: I was a youngster who came out of a rural background. Georgia Tech really helped me appreciate the larger aspects of life. Students came here from all over the country and different parts of the world. It was a very broadening experience that challenged me academically. It taught me about the work habits I needed. (I didn’t have them when I came here.)

Georgia Tech forced me to confront the fact that I had to work hard to succeed. I was also a co-op student, which was a wonderful way to go through school and prepare myself to enter the work world.

Georgia Tech forced me to confront the fact that I had to work hard to succeed.

Beyond that, I had two great research experiences at Tech, one as a senior doing undergraduate research with Sam Martin, who helped me understand what it means to define a problem rather than having it defined for you.

Then as a graduate student in geotechnical engineering, I also had terrific mentors in George Sowers and Alex Vesic, two men who brought the right touch in balancing teaching and research interests.

I’m very grateful to Georgia Tech for giving me an opportunity. Being at Tech enabled me to see that I was a smart kid with a fair amount of potential.

I came from the small town of Douglas, Georgia, and I’m very proud of that. But coming to Georgia Tech helped me build toward becoming a more sophisticated person with the potential to be a successful graduate student.

Because I was among the first generation of my family to go to college, graduate school was the furthest thing from my mind during most of my undergraduate years. When I finally got to Berkeley as a Ph.D. student competing with students from all over the world, I was on equal footing with all those students — thanks to my Georgia Tech education and the work habits instilled in me.

Q: What do you know now that you wish you’d known in college?

A: I really didn’t know very much in college; I was a pretty naive kid.

What I do know now is that life has a lot of lessons to teach you and you’ve got to be open to receiving them and be willing to grow.

I wasn’t as clear on that in college, when I was working hard to get a degree and just hoping to get out.

Q: As a Commencement speaker, you’ll be talking to students who are about to leave college. What advice would you give students who are just starting?

A: Unfortunately, my generation hasn’t left this generation of students the best hand that we could have. It’s true that we are entering a period of remarkable change and opportunity, with highly advanced research tools and digital communication channels.

But there are tremendous challenges facing the world that these young people will have to deal with, such as climate change, diseases, and increasingly large numbers of people on the planet.

I have every confidence that they can rise to these challenges, and it’s my generation’s duty to instill that confidence in them.

Q: Which of your professional achievements are you most proud of and why?

A: Helping other people achieve their goals is the thing that’s most gratifying for me. I’ve learned to appreciate that more than anything else I might do.

I first learned how meaningful this is when I had my own Ph.D. students, who were so bright and went on to do such great things. They might actually be more of a legacy than my own accomplishments. I’m really in awe of their achievements. 

Q: What does the next chapter of your life hold? What do you hope your legacy will be?

A: I love to learn. I’ve been very fortunate to be in a position where I was presented with tremendous opportunities to discover and grow. Finishing my career at the Smithsonian was like being a kid in a candy store as far as learning new things was concerned.

Right now I’m writing several books, and I want to do more to help in the area of conservation of our natural environment, especially in Georgia where we need to work hard to keep what we have left of the natural world and preserve it for future generations.

I’d also like to share my experiences with Tech students and help them get ready for life.


Gen. Philip M. Breedlove

Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force

Originally from Forest Park, Georgia, Gen. Philip M. Breedlove is Commander, Supreme Allied Command, Europe, SHAPE, Belgium and Headquarters, U.S. European Command, Stuttgart, Germany.

Prior to his current position, the general served as the Commander, U.S. Air Forces in Europe; Commander, U.S. Air Forces in Africa; Commander, Air Component Command, Ramstein; and Director, Joint Air Power Competence Centre, Kalkar, Germany.

He has been responsible for Air Force activities in an area of operations covering more than 19 million square miles, which included 105 countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, and the Arctic and Atlantic oceans.  

His academic credentials include a master’s degree in national security studies from the National War College, a master’s degree in aeronautical technology from Arizona State University, and a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Georgia Tech.

Q: How did your undergraduate education at Tech prepare you for your career success?

A: While working toward my civil engineering degree at Tech, I learned how to solve problems in a methodical and deliberate way. Although I never did become a practicing civil engineer, I use those problem-solving skills every day.

At Tech, I learned how to solve problems in a methodical and deliberate way.

Sometimes a problem can seem insurmountable or just too complex, but — nearly always — simple steps can be taken to break that challenge down into bite-sized chunks.

Developing the ability to see problems in this way was central to my undergraduate education, and it has served me very well over the years.  

Q: What do you know now that you wish you’d known in college?

A: I loved my time at Georgia Tech. But, looking back, I might have benefited from the knowledge that life would be so much bigger than my area of specialization.

My appreciation for the importance and utility of building a broad experience base has grown over time.

Understandably, this can be difficult to see early on, but I would encourage students to reach beyond the narrow path and explore ideas from multiple disciplines in their education. This approach, I believe, will provide the broadest set of opportunities to flourish.   

Q: As a Commencement speaker, you’ll be talking to students who are about to leave college. What advice would you give students who are just starting?

A: My best advice to those students is to blossom where you are planted. It’s unlikely that the opportunities that come along will match your idea of perfection.

But each one is a perfect chance to do your very best to become excellent at whatever you are asked to do. It is by striving for excellence where we find ourselves that more opportunities will arise.

Q: Which of your professional achievements are you most proud of and why?

A: Although I remember fondly the years I served as a fighter pilot, I am most proud of the eight times I was given the privilege of command in the U.S. Air Force.

The men and women with whom I served inspired me every day. They still do today in this multiservice, multinational command.

Q: What does the next chapter of your life hold?

A: I will remain engaged with those involved in providing security for our country, especially those who are serving or have served in the military. I will make time to do the work that I want to do and focus on the areas where I feel I’ll be most useful.

I am also very much looking forward to spending more time with my family; they have always been central in my life, but they have had to make so many sacrifices. This will be my chance to give back to them some of the support they’ve given me over the years.  

Q: What do you hope your legacy will be?

A: Professionally, I hope to have set an example for others who aspire to command in a way that inspires people, in a way that causes people to want to give their very best. Leaders who can do this are the lifeblood of our military and the bedrock on which the security of our future is built.

As I move forward, I intend to work with our wounded veterans. Thankfully, with the improvements in battlefield medicine, many more of our troops survive combat injuries that used to be fatal. So, today, we have more challenged veterans who live with us for a long time.

I believe that we, as a nation, have a responsibility and an opportunity to provide these veterans the high-quality, long-term care they need. I’m looking forward to helping our leaders stay focused on ensuring these veterans get what our nation owes them.  


Writers: Brigitte Espinet, Dan Treadaway
Digital Design: Erica Endicott, Brett Lorber