In an unprecedented online version of MIT’s annual Commencement exercises, necessitated by the departure of most people from the campus because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Institute added some innovative touches — including a surprise appearance from the International Space Station — to the unusual but festive occasion.
The online ceremony opened with a rousing musical performance by the MIT Wind Ensemble. Recorded individually and edited together, the musicians played “To The Light, To The Flame,” by composer Jamshied Sharifi ’83, which had its world premiere at MIT a few years ago.
This year’s Commencement speaker, Admiral William McRaven, said that in light of the pandemic, he had changed the speech he had intended to deliver. “The fact that I am standing here alone, and that you are isolated somewhere at home, is proof enough that the world has changed,” he said.
“But there is a part of the speech that I retained,” he continued. “It was the part about heroes, and how after all these years I came to realize that the heroes we need are not the heroes I had been searching for,” like the superheroes of comics and movies. Instead, he said, “If we are going to save the world from pandemics, war, climate change, poverty, racism, extremism, intolerance, then you, the brilliant minds of MIT — you are going to have to save the world.”
But, he stressed, intelligence and knowledge alone are not enough. Equally essential are courage, humility, perseverance, a willingness to make sacrifices, a sense of integrity, and compassion. None of this will be easy, he said, “because you are not men and women of steel, you are not cloaked in a suit of armor, you are not infused with unearthly powers — you are real heroes. And what makes real heroes are their struggles and their ability to overcome them.”
Charging the new graduates to go out and solve the world’s problems, McRaven said “Promise me that you will be the last class to miss a commencement because of a pandemic. The last class to miss a commencement because of war. The last class to miss a commencement because of climate change, unrest, tyranny, extremism, active shooters, intolerance, and apathy.”
Expressing his confidence that the graduates are up to the challenge, he said “Go forth and be the heroes we need you to be.”
Another musical performance, featuring the voices of over 800 members of the MIT community, followed McRaven’s remarks. Called “Comusica” and conceived by professor of the practice Eran Egozy along with Professor Evan Ziporyn, who wrote the music, and Professor Isaac Chuang, who built the infrastructure and image-processing algorithms, the project involved recording each participant singing a single note. These were arranged into a mosaic to create a unique song and video “portrait” of the Class of 2020.
Representatives of the graduate and undergraduate classes then offered their thoughts. “I know that I’m speaking to all of you in a very strange time,” said Peter Su, president of the graduate student council. “A time where the spontaneity that we so cherish from on-campus interactions, isn’t possible. A time where the celebrations that we were all looking forward to, have been cancelled or postponed.”
But, Su added, “what the coronavirus cannot take away, though, is all that we have gained from our time at MIT.” And one lesson learned from this experience, he said, is “that MIT really is a bubble, that real life is significantly more complicated and less forgiving. … If we’re going to shape the future and build a better world, we’ll need to take those complications and inequalities into account, and work to eliminate them.” And, he added, they have what it takes: “You all are equipped to lead us through these times to a better future,” he said.
Nwanacho Nwana, president of the Class of 2020, spoke of regrets about the things he and his classmates missed experiencing during their last weeks of MIT. But, he added, “Even if we had those last few months together, we would all likely still leave MIT with numerous regrets of what could have been and what we could have done. This period has been a harsh reminder that time is not only limited, but the limits on that time are uncertain and we never really know when our time will be up.”
So, he said, “I urge you all, Class of 2020, to live the rest of your lives with the mindset that you likely had when you were told we had a week left in our college careers. Take risks, go all in, shoot your shot, and find the things that will make you feel fulfilled every day.” Nwana then asked graduates to join him in turning over their class rings, a longstanding MIT Commencement ritual.
A message from space was next on the program. U.S. astronaut Christopher Cassidy SM ’00 spoke from the International Space Station where he is currently serving as station commander. Cassidy, a former Navy Seal and a veteran of two previous space missions, joked from his perch hundreds of miles above the Earth, “How’s that for social distancing?”
As he recalled standing in Killian Court 20 years ago to receive his MIT degree, Cassidy said, he had no idea where his life might lead, no idea what might come next. “Life will take you places you never imagined,” he said. The key is to hold onto the kind of basic values that MIT instills, he said.
Next, MIT President L. Rafael Reif gave the traditional charge to the graduating students.
“Today, though you are scattered across nearly every time zone, everything we value about MIT is embodied in you,” Reif said. “Physically, I cannot see any of you. But I would like you to know that, in the deepest sense, I do see you. I see the extraordinary range of ways that you, and your families, have struggled and endured these past 11 weeks, weeks that have tested all of us.”
“I see how you have done your best to recreate, remotely, what you love most about MIT,” he said. “I see your pain in losing those sweet weeks of spring, of saying goodbye to MIT, and to each other.”
Despite the difficult current circumstances, he said, “I am inspired by your curiosity, imagination, self-discipline and drive — and by your willingness to plunge into what may be the most intense and demanding course of study anywhere.”
Going forward, he said, “Please help us respond to this brutal pandemic with wisdom, foresight, compassion, and science. Help us rebuild the habits of trust, empathy, precise language, and thoughtful listening that are so essential to a healthy society. And please help us all succeed in remembering our common humanity.”
Following these remarks, Esther Duflo, the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Poverty Alleviation and Development Economics at MIT and recent Nobel laureate, gave a salute to students receiving their graduate degrees. Acknowledging that it is easy to feel discouraged about the vast challenges of solving the world’s problems, she offered an alternative perspective.
“My conviction is that it is possible to make significant progress by focusing on small manageable issues and addressing each of these issues as rigorously as possible,” she said. “So, pick your issue, and go for it with all your heart, all your mind, and all your knowledge. Be nimble, be ready to pivot; no issue is too small, no issue is too specific, as long as you can learn from it, and as long as you hold yourself to the highest standard when you are trying to solve it.”
Following the online graduation ceremony, the names of all 3,512 degree recipients were scrolled online. Then, in a typically MIT show of technical prowess, a specially designed app was made available to all the graduates. This allowed each graduate to individually simulate through virtual reality the experience of walking across the Commencement stage, shaking hands with President Reif, and receiving their degree.
Reif stressed that this unusual kind of graduation would not be the end of the process. “This is not the Commencement Day that any of us could have imagined,” he said. “At some safe time in the future, we will hold one of these for you — in person — right back here at MIT.”