YouTube sensations Rhett McLaughlin and Link Neal, collectively known as Rhett & Link, are among NC State College of Engineering’s most celebrated graduates. Their YouTube channel has over 23 million subscribers with an estimated 1 billion views a month. The duo met in first grade at Buies Creek Elementary School in Harnett County, North Carolina, sitting in time out for misbehavior. They went to high school together, college together, quit their engineering jobs together and started their show business careers in lockstep. So it would be only fitting to have these legendary YouTubers take the podium to deliver their commencement speech together. Right?
Well, actually, it didn’t work out that way. Each gave a speech to his department—Rhett for Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering (CCEE), and Link’s for ISE. They purposely did not attend each other’s ceremony. In fact, they didn’t even discuss what they would talk about before the event. They did this for a specific reason which we will explain later.
Rhett and Link began their busy day on campus with their commencement addresses. First up was Link, who entertained the crowd with the tale of Elk Hound Snugglebaby, the DJ whose name was both unforgettable and hard to remember. Elk Hound Snugglebaby had landed his first gig in front of a large crowd, and things didn’t go as planned. At the end of the story, it was revealed that Elk Hound Snugglebaby was, in fact, none other than Link Neal himself.
But dealing with failure wasn’t the moral of this story. It was that Elk Hound had taken a chance and tried something new rather than playing it safe and not doing anything. Or, in Link’s words, “Err on the side of action over certainty.” He pointed out that when he was sitting right where the graduates were sitting, only 22 years earlier in 2001, the platform that launched his highly successful internet career had yet to be invented. Link ended his speech with a unique rendition of Tom Petty’s classic song, Time to Move On, that included a transition into Snoop Dogg’s Drop It Like It’s Hot that only a professional DJ could have pulled off.
While Rhett was delivering his commencement address, Link sat down with ISE department head Julie Swann to record a video ranging over a number of topics, including Link’s mathematical abilities, how he used his industrial engineering skills to become a YouTube legend, and ultimately dig a medium-sized hole. The interview ended with Link submitting himself to a series of rapid-fire questions. You can watch Link’s Commencement Speech below.
SPOILERS: We will be describing what happened in the videos. If you haven’t seen them yet and don’t want to be spoiled, watch them now.
ISE alums can relax because Link solved all three of the math problems Swann gave him. The first was a simple equation involving fractions that Link handled without breaking a sweat. The second put Link’s math and artistic abilities to the test. He was asked to draw a “normal distribution curve,” which he did with his eyes closed, literally. The third and final question involved row and column vectors and was much more complicated than the first two. After some clarifications, negotiations, a few hints and even rotating his answer 180 degrees, Link solved the problem and was allowed to “keep” his ISE degree.
With the math safely in the rearview mirror, the conversation turned to their shared love of process refinement. Link shared a hilarious story about attempting to use his industrial engineering knowledge to “fix” a long, inefficient concession stand line at a concert. The results were “mixed” at best. They wrapped up the process conversation by discussing Rhett & Link’s We Dug a Medium-Sized Hole video. This is where they had to drive 90 minutes outside of town to demonstrate, in hilarious detail, the proper process for digging a medium-sized hole. There was even a musical number, We’re Digging a Hole.
The final part of the interview involved running Link through a gauntlet of rapid-fire questions, including such no-nonsense, hard-hitting inquiries as—what is your favorite word? least favorite word? favorite sound? Is there something Rhett does better than you? If you want to have a good laugh while exploring the funny side of industrial engineering, go to the link (okay, this time, the pun is totally intended) on page 21.
After their speeches and interviews, Rhett & Link were treated to a tour of the newest engineering building on campus, Fitts-Woolard Hall, which houses both departments and the dean’s office. They arrived on the second floor after visiting the 360-degree Driving Simulator Lab on the first floor. They saw ISE associate professor Karen Chen’s Virtual and Augmented Reality Lab, where they got to experience the VR CAVE. Next was associate professor Xu Xu’s Biomechanics Lab, where they picked up virtual boxes and put them on a virtual shelf. Finally, stopping in on distinguished professor Ola Harrysson’s Center for Additive Manufacturing and Logistics Center, where they watched a demonstration of the world-class 3D printers. On the third floor, they entered Civil’s Transportation Control and Sensors Lab, where they took a few hot laps around the track on the floor using ISE assistant professor Leila Hajibabai’s segways.
Their day ended with a reception in their honor held at The GARAGE across the street from Fitts-Woolard Hall in the Partners I Building. Here they got to hang out, sign autographs and take pictures with the faculty, staff, students and friends of both departments.
As teased earlier in the article, Rhett & Link purposely did not discuss their speeches with each other before the event and did not attend each other’s speeches. The reason. So they could watch them together, for the first time, on their podcast, Ear Biscuits, to explore how each person handled the assignment of delivering a speech and what was the theme of those speeches.
With their trademark blend of humor and insight, the two internet icons shared their speech writing process, writing schedule and the emotional rollercoaster that both caused. As they watched each video, they shared a behind-the-scenes look into what landed with the audience and what was running through their minds as they gave the speech.
By weaving together their personal narratives and the insights gleaned over the years, Rhett & Link demonstrated that growth is a continuous journey, and the wisdom accumulated along the way deserves to be acknowledged, questioned and embraced.