On Monday, MIT welcomed undergraduates back to a new fall semester with the annual President’s Welcome Convocation. More than 9,000 people around the world tuned in to watch the live, virtual event.
The event opened with “Together Everywhere: An MIT Convideocation” — a preproduced video that featured a flyover of MIT in Minecraft, the virtual campus that was constructed by MIT students at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
President L. Rafael Reif welcomed undergraduates to the Institute, speaking against a virtual backdrop of Killian Court, where the ceremony typically takes place. “Some of you watching are just beginning your MIT adventure, not at MIT,” he said, addressing first-year students who will start their college experience remotely. “Or you may be the parent of an MIT first-year (who, for some reason, is still living with you!). Some of you are second- or third-year students, excited for the new semester but longing to be back here with the friends and faculty you love. And some of you, including our seniors, are back — and wondering how this strange semester will unfold.”
Reif said that, while the MIT community faces unprecedented circumstances brought on by the global pandemic, the MIT mission remains steadfast: “to develop in each member of the MIT community the ability and passion to work wisely, creatively, and effectively for the betterment of humankind.”
“Of course, this year, we will have to work extra wisely, extra creatively and extra effectively to overcome the challenge of Covid-19,” Reif said.
But he said that, since he first arrived on campus 40 years ago as a junior faculty member in electrical engineering and computer science, he has seen the MIT community come together time and again to face and overcome difficult challenges. This time of coronavirus is no exception.
“None of us expect the rest of 2020 to be easy,” he said. “But given our community’s exceptional efforts since March, I feel confident that this new journey can succeed if we all stand by the science, look out for each other, and go out of our way to do the right thing, for the good of all. If we do, I believe we will find great meaning and satisfaction in having endured this historic test together.”
“Part of the solution”
Following Reif’s welcome, MIT Chancellor Cynthia Barnhart gave a warm greeting to MIT undergraduates, acknowledging that this particular academic year is a bittersweet one.
“The journey we’re about to embark on together is an uncharted, uncertain one,” Barnhart said. “It will demand a lot from all of us. And it will require sacrifices and determination to see our way through. That’s the bitter part. Now here’s the sweet part: No matter what, this is MIT. And we are in this together. Whether you’re on campus in Cambridge or studying remotely from nearby or far away, MIT is a strong, close-knit community, and nothing will ever change that.”
She encouraged students not to hesitate in reaching out to their support network —including faculty members, student leaders, heads of house, graduate resident advisors, and administrators — for help and guidance. She also referred students to a new website, ask.mit.edu, which she described as a “virtual well-being front desk … a place that makes asking questions and seeking help really easy.”
“At MIT, we don’t think that asking for help should be hard,” Barnhart says. “You shouldn’t have to wonder about where you can turn.”
“Every aspect of you”
Danielle Geathers, president of MIT’s Undergraduate Association, gave an enthusiastic welcome, particularly to first-year students, who she pointed out have historically had the opportunity to get involved and make change at MIT — something that she says is still possible this year, even from a remote capacity.
“In our incredibly diverse community, you may find yourself helping to test the newest vaccine, tackling the racial wealth gap, or working toward a better Erdös number,” Geathers said. “You may also be perfecting a new baking recipe, crocheting a cute top, or watching the latest anime. And we are equally excited to welcome every aspect of you into our community.”
She encouraged students to take time to decompress throughout the school year and to find ways to support their community.
“2020 has proven to be a hectic year. As a country, we are facing a moment of national reckoning, reconciling our centuries-long history with our present, and hopefully crafting a future that we can all be proud of,” Geathers said. “As we all fight the plague that is racism, we are also in a severe battle against Covid-19 and larger attacks on the credibility of science. In this new academic year, with most of us off campus, we must ensure we are doing our part to contribute to our community, whether it be joining a lab to help produce PPE, frequently washing our hands, or simply saying no to the party next door.”
A bigger community
MIT Provost Marty Schmidt then hosted a short panel discussion with three faculty members and MIT alumni: Caitlin Mueller ’07, PhD ’14, SM ’14, associate professor of architecture; Kripa Varanasi SM ’02, PhD ’04, professor of mechanical engineering; and Dina Katabi SM ’99, PhD ’03, the Andrew and Erna Viterbi Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.
In recalling her own experience as an MIT undergrad, Mueller remembered being struck by the fluid connections that could form between disciplines.
“It’s very easy to go between disciplines, to think about connections between different areas of study and to collaborate with people from a lot of different areas,” said Mueller, who developed a passion for the intersection between architectural design and structural engineering. “It was this whole new landscape and this new world of possibilities for developing these kinds of connections.”
While many MIT students will be navigating the fall semester remotely, Varanasi highlighted some benefits to the remote format, and said there is still opportunity for cross-discipline connections.
“The virtual format has provided the means to go back and forth and understand concepts at your own pace,” said Varanasi, who also encouraged students to check out the many seminars and conferences that would normally require traveling to to attend, but are now, for the moment, available online.
Katabi has embraced the remote aspect of teaching by inviting professors from other universities to speak via Zoom to her class — an invitation that she normally would only extend, in person, to a faculty member at MIT.
“It becomes a bigger community,” said Katabi, who is also working on a device, called the “Emerald,” that analyzes surrounding wireless signals in a way that can monitor a person’s breathing and heart rate. She recently tested the device in patients who had tested positive for Covid-19 and were recovering at home.
On the Infinite Corridor
John Dozier, MIT’s Institute Community and Equity Officer, welcomed students, noting that this is also his first fall semester at MIT, and that the short time he has spent on campus has been physically disorienting at times.
“I have yet to understand why, when entering from Mass. Avenue, I have to walk through buildings 7 and 3, to get to Building 10,” he said of MIT’s intricately numbered mapping system. “Soon enough, you’ll have an opportunity to explore your physical campus community. In the meantime, we’ll work hard to make sure your virtual campus community is a place you feel a sense of belonging and connectedness.”
Dozier is working to develop a strategic plan to promote and sustain a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive MIT community. As such, he urged students to seek out a diversity of research, ideas, and experiences, in a way that honors and supports each other.
“It is not enough for our students to be technically competent and steeped in the MIT tradition of solving the world’s most difficult and urgent challenges,” Dozier said. “Our students must also be socially conscious and cognizant that every solution to a problem is in service of humanity, for the betterment of our world.”
Despite a challenging start to the academic year, Dozier has high hopes for the Class of 2024, and for all students at MIT.
“We’re here to support you in whatever comes next,” Dozier said. “I cannot wait to meet you, when it’s safe, on the Infinite Corridor.”
The online Convocation closed with a performance by the MIT Chorollaries of MIT’s school song, “In Praise of MIT,” followed by a virtual community singalong, choreographed with faculty, students, and staff, of another Institute Classic, “Take Me Back to Tech.”