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President L. Rafael Reif's charge to the Class of 2016

"You made MIT better. And now you will make a better world," Reif tells more than 2,800 new graduates.
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President L. Rafael Reif
President L. Rafael Reif
Photo: Dominick Reuter

Below is the prepared text of the charge to the graduates by MIT President L. Rafael Reif for the Institute’s 2016 Commencement, held June 3, 2016.

Thank you, Anish. I want to deeply thank the Senior Gift Committee, the entire graduating class, and the MIT alumni and friends who provided your challenge grant: Steve and Karen Kaufman, and Debby Stein and Jim Sharpe.

Anish, before you go: We have something special to present to Mr. Damon. Matt, would you join us here for a moment?

As many of you know, there is a scene in “The Martian” where Matt’s character, astronaut Mark Watney, decides that Mars counts as “international waters,” and therefore, he must count as a space pirate.

Matt, in a few minutes, the Provost and I will give out a lot of diplomas. But right now, Anish and I would like to present to you a very special MIT certificate.

Usually, you can only receive this certificate from MIT’s Department of Athletics, Physical Education and Recreation, and only if you meet all of their standards in archery, sailing, fencing and pistol. But since you — and Mark Watney — have done so much to promote a swashbuckling appreciation for science, engineering and space exploration, we are honored to present to you a special, and authentic MIT Pirate Certificate.

Good morning! To the graduates of 2016: Congratulations! To everyone who has come here this morning to celebrate our graduates – welcome to MIT!

And to celebrate the parents and families of today’s graduates, I want to call out one story in particular.

When Joe Bellantoni began the executive MBA program at MIT Sloan, he was excited, like all of his classmates. But he faced an extra challenge, because, since a car accident in 2007, Joe has been blind. He graduates today thanks to his own intelligence, confidence and determination — and thanks to the fact that his wife, Denise, chose to be with him every step of the way, attending his study groups and typing all of his assignments.

Succeeding at MIT is a serious challenge, for everyone. Facing that challenge while also coping with any form of disability, as many of our students do, is a triumph.

So to all of the graduates, family and friends with us today: Your story may or may not be as dramatic. But we know that this day is the joyful result of years of effort, loving support and sacrifice. Please accept our deepest admiration and gratitude.

It is great to have all of you here on Killian Court, on this wonderful day, for this tremendously important occasion. My job today is to deliver a “charge” to the graduates, and I will get to that in a minute.

But first, let me begin with a question: How many of you are graduating seniors? (Raise your hands!) Since you entered MIT in September 2012, and I started my job in July 2012, you are the first class that I have observed all the way from Convocation to Commencement. Let me just say: You have been magnificent company!

That coincidence of timing also means that we have something profound in common: We were freshmen together!

  • As I expect you will recall, that first year was not easy. (Although, unlike me, you got to enjoy the option of Pass/No Record!)
  • That first winter, many of you had a snowball fight right here on Killian Court. I accepted the challenge to join in – and I got creamed!
  • As we progressed through our time here, we started to figure things out. We passed a lot of tests. We helped each other deal with some tragic losses. We faced some hard facts about our community, and worked together to make things better.
  • Somewhere in the middle, for reasons I cannot explain, a few of us got ice buckets dumped on our heads. (Although that became good training for last year, when we got dumped on us unlimited buckets of snow!)
  • Through it all, none of us got much sleep. And some of us lost some hair. (Well, actually, that was just me.)
  • And then a month ago, we proved that, among the many important things we know how to do here at MIT, “WeKnowHowToParty”!

So, we have a lot in common. Except for one thing: Unlike me, you finished all of your problem sets! So, unlike me, you get to leave!

Of course, this applies not just to the seniors, but to all of you who will be receiving diplomas today: You are now prepared to depart, each of you in search of your own MIT-like exoplanet that could potentially support life as we know it at MIT.

Let me alert you: MIT like exoplanets may feel a hundred million miles away. You might even feel as if you’ve just been abandoned on Mars! But assuming that you will encounter signs of intelligent life, I expect you may have to explain what life is like back on “Planet MIT.” So let me offer a few pointers to get you started:

  • You can tell them that, on Planet MIT, we love hard problems. And we know that, if you’re working alone, you’re most likely doing it wrong. For instance, when an MIT scientist led a 30-year effort that produced the first direct evidence of gravitational waves – the ripples in space time that Einstein predicted – he could have done a mike drop. Instead, he went out of his way to share the credit with the more than one thousand other scientists on the team, from dozens of institutions, because, in his words, that’s “the way that physics gets done.”
  • On Planet MIT, we love data. We just love it. In fact, as one of you out there proved beyond a polka-dotted doubt, we even love ridiculous data about campus trends in the color of underwear! But mostly, we love data because it helps us understand the world: understand poverty, and cancer, and the fresh water crisis, and climate change. In short, it helps us understand how we can make the world better.
  • On Planet MIT, where being called a “nerd” will always be a compliment, we are working very hard on inventing the future. And if you think I may be exaggerating, some of today’s graduates recently won first prize in the Hyperloop Challenge. They designed a futuristic pod that could transport passengers from city to city, through special tubes, at 750 miles an hour! (In fact, you and your pet robotic cheetah will be able to climb into one of those yourself – around the time you’re ready to trade in your driverless car.)
  • And I hope you will also tell people that on Planet MIT, we celebrate Mind & Hand – and Heart. Every day, the members of our community commit “Random Acts of Kindness.” And, thanks to the leadership of many of today’s graduates, we are making sure that MIT practices systematic acts of kindness and inclusion, too.

Mind, and Hand, and Heart. I hope you remember that one. Because Iron Man may have gone to MIT — but the truth is, none of us is Iron Man. With Professors Hugh Herr and Dava Newman, I bet we could make a pretty impressive suit of armor. But none of us has a suit of armor strong enough to get us through this life alone. What saves us, in the end, is heart.

As you go out into the world, heart is what makes the hard problems worth solving. Heart is what makes the data sing with meaning. Heart is your best blueprint as you invent the future. And when, sometimes, you find yourself adrift in deep space, it will be a human connection — hand to hand, and heart to heart — that will bring you home safe.

Those of you graduating today experienced a remarkable period in MIT’s history. It included terrible pain and loss. Fortunately, it also included an exceptional sense of community, and compassion, and shared progress, and joy. That feeling of connection and unity has a great deal to do with the example and ideas and leadership of those of you who graduate today. And that is what gives me the confidence to deliver my charge to you.

Because 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.

This morning, I see 2,800 new graduates who are ready for that cosmic problem set. You made MIT better. And now you will make a better world.

You came to MIT with exceptional qualities of your own. And now you leave us, equipped with a rare 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.

And I also see a planet that urgently needs everything you have to offer.

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 2016: Please accept my best wishes for a happy and successful life and career. Congratulations!

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