Under the sunny skies of a warm spring day, MIT celebrated its 145th Commencement exercises on June 3 in the expansive Killian Court, nearing the culmination of 150 days of celebrations of the Institute’s 150th anniversary. A total of 2,437 undergraduate and graduate degrees were awarded, to students hailing from 88 different nations.
This year’s Commencement speaker was Ursula M. Burns, the chairwoman and CEO of Xerox Corporation. Burns, the first African-American woman ever to lead a Fortune 500 company, has been a member of the MIT Corporation (the board of trustees that runs the Institute) since 2008 — and is also the parent of one of this year’s graduating students.
“Set your sights on changing the world — in leaving this planet a little better than you found it,” Burns said in her address to the students. “That need not be as grandiose as it sounds. It can take the form of getting involved with one of the big ideas of our time, or working for an organization that creates decent jobs for its workers, or raising a family that will carry good values into the future, or mentoring just one kid, one day.
“Believe in something larger than yourself. Make a difference. Live your life so that at the end of your journey, you will know that your time here was well spent, that you left behind more than you took away.”
That theme of making a difference and changing the world was echoed in MIT President Susan Hockfield’s charge to the graduates. Recalling MIT’s many contributions through the years in making scientific discoveries, helping to win world wars and inventing “products and concepts that make people safer, healthier, more prosperous, more productive and more connected,” she told the graduates that in today’s world, “the technical challenges that face you may look different or more daunting. But the essential challenge for each of you is the same — because it is still true that along with the distinctive strengths you gained from MIT comes a profound responsibility to use them.”
Hockfield added, “More urgently and in more fields than ever before, the world needs people with the skills and perspective you have gained at MIT: People ready to apply their skills in interdisciplinary problem solving to the looming problems of the planet — clean energy and climate change, poverty and famine, the health of our oceans and the future of our cities — and primed to build an international network of collaborators to amplify their impact. People eager to deploy the historic convergence of the life, physical and engineering sciences as a catalyst for new solutions, from health care to energy to new manufacturing, that will also help stimulate economic growth. People with the insight, integrity and creative brilliance to help bring intelligence to information; pioneer new connections between technology, culture and the arts; and develop financial models to make our economies more resilient and less inequitable. People perpetually hungry for exploration, from mathematics to music to the moon — and people eager to teach what they know to the rising generations.”
Even the invocation for the ceremony, delivered by Chaplain to the Institute Robert Randolph, reiterated that theme: “Today we celebrate the accomplishments of our graduates, who are our greatest contribution to civilization and the lot of humankind. May those who study here pair their learning with wisdom. May they pair their creativity with care for those in need. May they pair their maturity with a sense of responsibility for our planet.”
As the students of the Class of 2011 proudly presented their class gift, in the form of more than $45,000 for a scholarship fund, helped by a challenge gift from Doug Bailey ’72, Hockfield remarked that the level of participation in the gift by the members of this class — with more than 76 percent of the class having made contributions — was a “near-miraculous” achievement. “By a very great distance,” she said, this was “the highest [participation rate] in the history of MIT.”
Students expressed the individuality of their MIT careers in different ways. Roxanne Bochar, who graduated with an SB in aerospace engineering, chose to top off her mortarboard with a hand-sewn cookie, equipped with wings. “I like sugar and flying things, so when you combine the two, you get a flying cookie,” Bochar said. Asked what her thoughts were on graduating, Bochar replied, “My brain still doesn’t believe it.”
Families came from all over the world to support their graduates. Naa Akwetey, who received a dual SB in economics and management science, was looking forward to celebrating with 15 of her family members who flew from Ghana for the occasion. She says her mother was especially eager to watch her receive her diploma: “My mother always wanted to go to MIT — and she might as well be the one graduating, she’s so excited.”
A look at Commencement day
Video: Melanie Gonick
Thousands packed Killian Court, hoping for a glimpse of their graduates as they crossed the stage. Carrie Kuempel came with her family to cheer on her graduating nephew, Jeremy Kuempel. In a playful show of support, she held up a congratulatory, hand-drawn sign festooned with streamers. “We’re thinking it will help him pick us out from the crowd,” she said.
Julie Flingai, whose son Seleeke graduated with an SB in brain and cognitive sciences, gathered family members from all over the country to celebrate the day. “It’s to show support for someone you love, trying to run after their dreams,” Flingai said. “If you have someone who has the opportunity to be here, I think you should be excited, and we are very proud.”
Jack Milwid, who received a PhD in biomedical engineering, says the day marks a hard-earned occasion for his colleagues. “For us, since we’re finishing PhDs, it’s kind of an end of an era,” Milwid said. What he’ll remember most about his time at MIT, he added, is “being scared to death, and then finding a way to make it through and survive, and then really enjoy it.”
MIT alumni turned out for the ceremony, including many who sported the signature red coat that commemorates 50 years or more since their own graduations. Leif Francel, a member of the current graduating class, said “I was pretty inspired by seeing those guys over there in their red jackets. We’ll be here 50 years from now, and I’m pumped for the 200th [anniversary], when I come back with my red jacket.”
Burns, as both the featured speaker and as a proud parent of a new graduate, summed up her feelings about MIT’s Class of 2011: “I dare say that the graduates here today are among the best and brightest that have been produced at any time and in any place in the long history of mankind,” she said.