Engineers with Solid Foundations

Joaquín Pena represented his course mates during the graduation ceremony of the Universidad de Montevideo

On October 12, 1892, the first Uruguayan engineers who received their diploma celebrated their graduation at Teatro Solís. One of them was Eduardo García de Zúñiga, Bridges and Roads Engineer, who expressed: “The small size of our country’s terrain does not really matter if it is founded in sciences, arts and industries, if it opens new careers and gateways for intelligence by doing public works to take advantage of all the sources of production in our soil. In the end, the size of a nation is measured by the degree of activity and culture of their people, a more or less perfect development of all the vital organisms, and the moral and intellectual dimensions of its men.”

Since that moment, October 12th commemorates the National Engineering Day. Many years later on this past October 8th, 269 new professional engineers from the UM also celebrated their graduation. During the ceremony, the engineer Joaquín Pena spoke in representation of his course mates. His words, filled with depth, reflexion, and a sense of humor, awoke in the public a strong applause.

On the day that National Engineering Day is dedicated to these professionals, we would like to share his discourse:

Good evening to everyone. I would like to begin with the following reflection by the Spanish playwright José Bergamín: “He who only searches for the exit does not understand the labyrinth. And, although he finds it, he will not come out having understood it.” Today, we find ourselves at the end of the labyrinth. It is time to ask ourselves if we, the graduates, have understood it or have simply found the exit. Therefore, I ask you to go back with me a few years back…

The labyrinth begins with a child who is obsessed with a great idea. He wants to change the world. He tells his mother, that he is convinced he wants to do something very big to make the world a better place. At this height of the story, an engineer looks at you disconcertingly. Because what is “better” is not defined, and what magnitude is considered as “big” is not clear. Better and bigger are relative concepts; facts are missing, and in the end, the story is a disaster.

But who was that boy who wanted to change the world? That boy was me. And I even dare to say that that boy was each one of us. I told my mother once and again that I wanted to change the world. She obviously told me that I could do it. You know how mothers are. Today more than one will applaud as though her son or daughter were heirs to the English throne.

But while someone grows, he or she tends to auto-limit themselves and to realize, whether they like it or not, that they are one more in a large heap. They begin to lose the excitement in changing the world. The typical oriental pessimist would say that one tends to “uruguayisarse” or “uruguise” himself. And it was just like that. During the Engineering career there were highs and lows. Like Foncho who measures almost two meatures and Juani who is the complete opposite…

That flame of fire which represented my excitement to change the world slowly extinguished with the years. It is frustrating to realize that although he tries, a person cannot guarantee that it continues to burn. And it is even more sad to realize that in this labyrinth of life, there are many people who want to turn off your flame, or who at least want it to shine less than their own. 

However, today there is no darkness. There is light and there is warmth. Because there is no wind or water that can turn off a bonfire. A bonfire in which many people are constantly adding kindling. Kindling it with love. One log after another. Repeatedly. These people are you, who have unconditionally accompanied us through this path.

Today, our fireplace shines on us. Having finished our degree moves us, it makes us proud, it gives us warmth. Therefore, I ask you to contemplate this bonfire with pride and respect, and to feel fulfilled and happy. But I ask that you never become spectators. Do not be witnesses to how the flame turns off. The fact that it is shining today does not guarantee that it will always shine. I thank everyone who is present: family, friends, professors, and all our loved ones who have maintained our flame burning. Today, we are triumphant in exiting the labyrinth, thanks to every word of support, every gesture of love that was given when we were very lost and immersed in it.

But, coming back to the first question, what does it mean to understand the labyrinth? For me, it means to realize that what truly matters is not to change the world, but to change our world. And we do not need to be engineers, accountants or lawyers for that. We need to be good people. And that is precisely what makes UM unique: it forms good people.

The UM, like every institution, is just an abstract concept. Behind the concept of the UM are actual people. This is why for us, the engineers, the UM is Ceci Varela, the UM is Anita Vidal, the UM is each one of these giant hearts that, with a large smile, have advised us which path of the labyrinth we should take. The UM are those people who do not wait with open doors for those who are successful but let in those who want to learn and collaborate. The UM are those people that do not show you to respond well, but to question better.  

But the UM, for me, more than anything, are my friends. Today, I am here representing all of you, the essence of UM, of my UM. To you, you strange engineers, I tell you that I am very proud. I love you very much, from the depth of my heart. From day one, we are now competing in the labour market. What a competition! But I prefer millions of times to maintain myself lost in the labyrinth with you than to be the first one who finds an exit and does not have someone to embrace. You gave meaning to this labyrinth, in this tireless fight to nurture the fire that burns inside each one of us. We have grown together, we have learned from each other, and that is invaluable. “The bird has a nest, the spider a web, the man has friendship.”

In this difficult path we have learned that the neither success nor failure result from punctual efforts. You have to see: two hours of ceremony, thirty minutes of photos and an hour of kisses from Grandma only represent 0.03% of our professional career. (Being an Engineer I had to throw a number out there). But this is not success. Success is the result of the small decisions we take every day, repeatedly. It is what defines us as people. Because one can chose their attitude in each moment. It can be as basic as choosing whether to smile or not. Every instance brings us closer to human greatness or, rather, mediocrity.   

In this sense, I agree with Sartre when he says: “Man is nothing but the permanent disposition to choose and revoke what he wants to arrive to be.” Finally, I want to conclude that the search for exiting the labyrinth is not important. What is important is understand why we go through it, and to go through it with honour. Find your “why” in this life. Turn on a flame. Love, live, and dream for that. Congratulations to everyone for having understood the labyrinth, and not only coming out of it.

Thank you very much.