November 17, 2015

In ‘Last Lecture,’ Professor Bruce Monger Tells Students to Dream Big

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Think big and carve your own paths, urged Prof. Bruce Monger, earth and atmospheric sciences, in his “last lecture.”

The last lecture series, hosted by Mortar Board, brings speakers to reflect on his or her life experiences and share thoughts with students, as if it was the speaker’s last lecture.


“Stop and pause for a minute and ask ‘What would be the coolest thing I could be?’” and commit to it,” Professor Bruce Monger advised, during his ‘Last Lecture’ Tuesday. (David Navadeh / Sun Staff Photographer)

In his lecture titled “My Slightly Unusual Life-Journey And Some Important Things I Have Learned Along the Way…,” Monger recounted how he grew up in the small town of Shelton, Washington, where the two main industries were saw mills and logging. Despite his deep love for science as a child, Monger said in high school he “just mindlessly sort of followed what [his] friends were doing,” taking carpentry and woodshop instead of science classes.

After high school, he continued to follow his friends and went into the logging business, “because that’s what everyone else did.” However, during one solo motorcycle trip to Colorado during a summer vacation, he had an epiphany that changed the direction of his life.

While checking into a motel, he realized, “That’s what adults do…I’m totally an adult. I’m in charge of everything now. That had never dawned on me before.”

“If I just wanted to ride my motorcycle past Colorado, I just could,” Monger recounted. “I can do whatever I want.”

Finally grasping the significance of his own determination and free will, Monger said his life took a dramatic turn. He “really wanted to think big” and travel the world, and because of his passion for science he decided he wanted to become an oceanographer.

Monger enrolled in community college, although his mother thought he was “giving up honest work” as a logger. There, he said he “started from zero” and worked his way up, later transferring to the University of Washington, where he majored in oceanography.

From there, Monger went on to complete a Master’s degree at the University of Washington and a Ph.D. at the University of Hawaii. Afterwards, he worked at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, learning how to use satellites to study oceans.

Over time, Monger has also achieved his dream of travelling the world — his work has taken him to locations like Rome, Hawaii, Jerusalem and India. He has also taught classes on satellites in Thailand and in Argentina, all the while getting “to see some cool parts of the ocean that not many people have seen.”

When Monger began teaching Introduction to Oceanography in 2006, only 142 students enrolled in his class. Eight years later, nearly 970 students take his class, making it the most popular course at Cornell.

“I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing,” Monger said.

He went on to say that Cornell is a sort of “fairy tale,” where he is surrounded by well-intended people, and where he has the opportunity to “inspire [Cornell students] to change the world.”

His oceanography class focuses on climate change, and he strongly encourages students to “voice [their] demands for change.”

Additionally, Monger advised Cornell students to “dream big.”

He said he notices many students mindlessly following their peers, trying academic paths towards medicine or engineering, and then realizing they do not want to be on those paths.

“Stop and pause for a minute and ask ‘What would be the coolest thing I could be?’” and commit to it,” Monger said. “You’re smart enough, you’re at Cornell, you’re underestimating your knowledge.”

Monger then urged the audience to work to change the world.

“You owe something back to the society that allowed you to be here and raise yourselves to your full potential,” Monger said. “Don’t just sit on what you know, feed it back to the world.”

Monger cited the KyotoNOW! movement as an example. In 2001, members of KyotoNOW! camped in front of Day Hall in sleeping bags, protesting Cornell’s decision to oppose the Kyoto Protocol. The administration eventually agreed to endorse the Kyoto Protocol.

“That’s how change is gonna happen,” Monger said. “It’s not gonna come from the top, it’s gonna come from the bottom … If you’re gonna change things up, you might as well change them in a big way.”