MIT President L. Rafael Reif’s charge to the Class of 2018

MIT President L. Rafael Reif urged graduates to “invent the future.” Photo: Dominick Reuter

MIT News Office

Following is the prepared text of the charge to the graduates by MIT President L. Rafael Reif for the Institute’s 2018 Commencement, held June 8, 2018.

It is great to have all of you here on Killian Court, on this wonderful day, for this tremendously important occasion.

But first, I have a question for today’s graduates: Would you remember if I asked you where you were this past February 15th? Probably not. In fact, on this wonderful June morning, it may seem a little cruel to make you think about February at all! But I do, because this year, on February 15th, one member of our extended community was doing something very specific and memorable.

In a very cold spot in South Korea, Adam Edelman, MIT Class of 2014, was becoming the first MIT graduate in 10 years to compete in the Olympics.

Now, think about this for a moment: Which do you think would be larger, the number of MIT graduates who have ever competed in, or qualified for, the Olympics — or the number of our alumni who have won the Nobel Prize?

Remember, this is MIT…

Well, it turns out that 36 MIT graduates are Nobel Laureates. But 35 MIT graduates have taken part in the Olympic Games! They have represented 28 nations, in 11 sports — from rowing and wrestling, to sailing, fencing, and rifle (And we’re still waiting for “Pirate” to qualify as an Olympic event. I think they are afraid we’d take all the medals!)

Olympic glory may not be the first thing people associate with MIT, but I believe the experience of these exceptional athletes has some fascinating similarities to what you’ve learned here.

One obvious connection between Olympic athletes and MIT graduates is that you are all trained to be fearless.

For instance, Adam’s sport is pretty unusual. It’s called “skeleton.” (Yes, skeleton!) As he describes it, it’s like “taking a lunch tray, diving headfirst onto it and going about 90 miles an hour down an icy chute.”

Now, as those who’ve taken physics here already know, that may sound frightening. But, as Adam might tell you, it’s nothing compared to your first test in 8.01!

In your time at MIT, you have moved faster, stretched farther and accomplished more than you ever thought possible. And sometimes the chute was pretty steep! So, as you step out into the world, remember that you carry within you the deep confidence that you have earned: The confidence that you know how to face, and overcome, difficult challenges. (And, by the way, the fearlessness you learned here will set you apart — even if you forget to wear your brass rat!)

Here in our “Olympic-Village-on-the-Charles,” you’ve also experienced the thrill of working and playing with people from every corner of the Earth. The people of MIT do speak dozens of different languages. But — just like Olympians — we also speak a great shared language of measurement and numbers and facts.

At the Olympics, the fact is there’s only one way to get a medal. And there’s only one way to get an MIT degree: The hard way! (Let me ask our 50th Reunion class: Did I get that right? Is that the MIT you remember?)

There’s one more Olympic connection that says something important about you — this specific class of new MIT graduates:

At the Olympics, some people raise the bar for everyone who comes after. Similarly, those of you who leave us today have set a very important new standard.

Individually and together, you helped us see that, if we truly aspire to make a better world, we also need to make a better MIT. And then, through your compassion, creativity and leadership — and your magnificent example — you showed us how to do precisely that. For instance:

  • By invoking the simple words, “Tell Me About Your Day,” you inspired all of us to perform everyday miracles of human connection. Izzy, wherever you are seated, thank you!
  • You discovered that some students on our campus don’t always know how they’ll pay for their next meal and you helped us find practical ways to help.
  • You developed serious, constructive recommendations for making MIT more caring, welcoming, and inclusive — and you persisted in driving that change.
  • When federal tax changes threatened to make graduate student education unaffordable, you came together to make your voices heard on Capitol Hill — and you won!
  • When members of our community were prevented from returning by the federal travel ban, you came together to try every angle, to help make sure they could come back to join us. (And I’m delighted that Niki Mossafer-Rahmati is graduating here today!)
  • And when, as a community, we most needed to talk with each other, despite our differences, you wrapped in paper the great pillars of our Main Lobby, so we could share our thoughts. And with that gesture, you wrapped this complex community together with the bonds of patient listening, and mutual respect, and love.

In short, in these and many other ways, you made MIT better. And I thank you! It makes me proud that you have set this new standard of community for MIT. And it makes me certain that you will make a better world.

I tried to make the case that MIT has some important things in common with the Olympics.

But I want to highlight one very important difference.

At MIT, in order for you to win, no one has to lose. No one even has to come in second! That’s because in our Olympic Village, we are members of a single-team, united with a single-mission. And we strive to see the world, not as a “zero-sum” game, but as “positive sum” — as a world where generous collaboration makes each collaborator smarter, stronger, and richer in every way.

This deep shared world-view gives me the confidence to deliver my charge to you.

Now, I’m going to use a word that feels very comfortable at MIT, although it has taken on a troubling new meaning elsewhere. But I know that our graduates will know what I mean.

After you depart for your new destinations, I want to ask you to hack the world — until you make the world a little more like MIT: More daring and more passionate. More rigorous, inventive and ambitious. More humble, more respectful, more generous, more kind.

And because the people of MIT also like to fix things that are broken, as you strive to hack the world, please try to heal the world, too. Our society is like a big, complicated family, in the midst of a terrible argument. I believe that one way to make it better is to find ways to listen to each other, to understand our differences, and to work constantly to remind each other of our common humanity. I know you will find your own ways to help with this healing, too.

This morning, I see more than 2,800 new graduates, who are ready for this urgent and timeless problem set. You came to MIT with exceptional qualities of your own. And now, after years of focused and intense dedication, you leave us, equipped with a distinctive set of skills, and steeped in this community’s deepest values: A commitment to excellence. Integrity. Meritocracy. Boldness. Humility. An open spirit of collaboration. A strong desire to make a positive impact. And a sense of responsibility to make the world a better place.

So now, go out there. Join the world. Find your calling. Solve the unsolvable. Invent the future. Take the high road. And you will continue to make your family, including your MIT family, proud.

On this wonderful day, I am proud of all of you. To every one of the members of the graduating Class of 2018: Please accept my best wishes for a happy and successful life and career. Congratulations!

Other Commencement content: In her Commencement address, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandbook urged graduates “to be clear-eyed optimists.” For additional Commencement coverage, visit the MIT News website.

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