On a bright August day accented by a distinctly fall breeze, the newest members of MIT’s student community gathered with their families on the Kresge Oval and received a warm welcome from President Sally Kornbluth and several faculty members.
The MIT Convocation ceremony served as a way to introduce the Institute’s Class of 2027 to the community and culture, even as Kornbluth explained that the first-years will play an important role in defining that culture.
“If you’re out there feeling pretty lucky to be joining this incredible community, I want you to know that we feel even more lucky,” Kornbluth said. “We’re so delighted and so grateful that you chose to bring your talent, energy, curiosity, creativity, and drive here.”
The occasion also marked a milestone in Kornbluth’s new career at MIT, as it was her first Convocation, making the Class of 2027 the first she’ll see all the way through to graduation.
In her opening remarks, Kornbluth talked about her own career, from her discovery of her love of biology as an undergraduate student to her decision to leave her position as Duke University’s provost to come to MIT.
“MIT was irresistible — the opportunities to make an impact, the amazing hands-on nature of an MIT education, the reverence for science,” Kornbluth said. “Just like you, I thought: I have to be here.”
Kornbluth encouraged first-years to take advantage of undergraduate research opportunities and the hundreds of student organizations on campus. She also reminded them to take some time away from work to have some fun.
“Even if it feels a bit risky, you can join a group that sounds interesting, practice a new skill, or volunteer to serve others in the communities beyond campus,” Kornbluth said. “When you come back to the problem that’s been vexing you, you may have some new ideas for solutions, and you’ll probably have made a few new friends.”
Student well-being was a theme of Kornbluth’s remarks, and she emphasized the importance of seeking help if students are feeling frustrated or stuck.
“You’re surrounded by a community of caring people,” Kornbluth told the audience. “So, at any time, if you feel like you could use some support — academic, professional, personal — don’t hesitate to ask.”
Joining Kornbluth on stage were three MIT faculty members, each with multiple degrees from MIT themselves, who also shared some encouragement and words of advice.
Jinhua Zhao MCP ’04, SM ’04, PhD ’09, MIT’s Professor of City and Transportation Planning, took the moment to run an experiment. Zhao asked the audience to consider first the amount of time and money their most recent dinner cost. Then he asked them how much carbon dioxide the dinner was responsible for emitting.
“Society has a precise accounting for all the activities you do [in terms of] money and time, but not carbon — why?” Zhao asked before laying out his vision for time, money, and carbon to become the fundamental units of a new form of social accounting.
Zhao contrasted MIT’s culture with other colleges by sharing a hypothetical scenario: At other schools, when students tell their professors they want to change the world, the professors say, “Great. First finish your homework.” At MIT, when students say they want to change the world, professors ask, “Which part of the world do you want to change?” and help them turn a vague mission into a solvable problem.
“To solve climate change, we need to know what’s in our dinner,” Zhao said. “We need to ask the technical question: Which part of the world do you want to change? And finally, we need the humility to listen and the pride to act.”
Following Zhao was Bonnie Berger SM ’86, PhD ’90, the Simons Professor of Mathematics, who has experienced MIT’s convocation as both a student and a parent of a (now graduated) MIT student.
“Today is the beginning of an exciting, mind-expanding, and life-changing journey,” she announced.
Berger asked students to imagine that they’re standing at the base of a huge mountain range.
“This is the start of your climb,” Berger said. “This is not a solo climb. You have classmates, faculty, staff, and advisors who are hiking and climbing with. You will learn about your strengths and weaknesses, and you’ll also learn you’re connected to your fellow climbers. These will become your lifelong friends and future colleagues.”
As in any challenging climb, there will be times when students struggle, Berger said. But she encouraged students to ask “stupid” questions and seek support when they need it. She also asked students to embrace the fact that their path is not yet defined.
“These are the years to open your eyes, expand your horizons, develop and explore new interests, test innovative ideas, embrace new challenges, take advantage of the amazing range of courses that this great university offers,” Berger said.
Amos Winter ’05, PhD ’11, the Ratan N. Tata Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering, was the final faculty member to speak.
Winter discussed his work in water purification and accessibility, including his project designing a better wheel chair for people in rural areas of the developing world. Winter has worked with many undergraduate students on the wheelchair project over the years, and the project has led to the distribution of thousands of wheelchairs around the world.
“The ability to synthesize a myriad of real-world factors with deep knowledge of your technical area is what you are going to learn at MIT and what you will leverage to impact the world when you leave MIT,” Winter told the audience.
He encouraged students to be confident and think big.
“You all represent the smartest, most creative, and driven members of your generation,” Winter said. “In the next four years — and for the rest of my life — I can’t wait to see what you can do.”
Kornbluth concluded the ceremony by joining the student a cappella group The Chorallaries of MIT for a performance of the school song, “In Praise of MIT.”
The event kicked off what is sure to be a whirlwind week for new students, but Kornbluth’s message was clear: “Set your mind at ease,” she told the Class of 2027. “You belong here.”