President Reif to Class of 2021: “We are very lucky to have you!”

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MIT greeted the incoming Class of 2021 with its annual Convocation in front of Kresge Auditorium, treating them and their parents to personal stories of what it was like to first arrive at MIT, as told by President L. Rafael Reif and three highly accomplished faculty members.

Reif described his own fears when he arrived at this campus, having grown up in Venezuela, not knowing anyone in the area. He worried, among other things, about whether he was good enough to succeed here, whether his English was good enough, and what it would be like to experience snow for the first time. But those fears were quickly erased: “Very soon, MIT became my academic home,” he said, “and this community became my extended family. I hope that you will come to feel that way, too.”

Those initial fears vanished, he said, when “I found that what mattered at MIT was not where you come from or who you know, but what you contribute: good ideas, new perspectives, hard work, and creativity.” MIT, he said, “was the first place where I could stop feeling self-conscious, particularly about what interested me.”

Those initial worries were echoed by three faculty members who described their own experiences upon arriving here. Kristala Prather, the Arthur D. Little Professor of Chemical Engineering, who earned her bachelor’s degree at MIT, recalled thinking when she arrived on campus and heard of the amazing accomplishments of her fellow students, “how the heck did they let me in?” And, she added, she felt the same way 14 years later when she received her appointment to the MIT faculty.

To those in the incoming class who might feel the same way, she said, “I want to be sure you know, you are here on purpose. … You are ready to take on this place!”

“MIT is a unique crucible, where you will be faced with challenges you didn’t quite expect, at an important time of your life,” she said. “My advice here is quite simple: Embrace failure! If you haven’t already, you’ll soon realize that failures frequently, and I might say usually, allow you to learn far more than your successes.” Failure, she said, “lets you know that your knowledge lacked depth, or your understanding was incomplete, or maybe your expectations were a little unrealistic. Filling in those gaps adds to your knowledge base, and how you go about recovering from those failures will teach you lifelong lessons.”

Prather added that students should seek experiences outside their academic specialties. “You have to have balance, something that allows you to get away from the rigors of academics and enjoy life. … So my advice to you is to have fun, explore, try new things, go new places, meet new people, hang out with friends, just have fun … but not too much fun.”

Martin Culpepper, a professor of mechanical engineering and MIT’s “Maker Czar,” regaled the students with his own experiences of early failure and having fun, such as the time he took apart his dad’s carburetor and found that there were quite a few parts left over when he put it back together and it didn’t work, or when he flooded the basement of his home while trying to fix the washing machine. He learned important lessons from that, he said, such as “what an insurance deductible is, compared to my allowance.”

But these experiences, he explained, really did end up paving his path to MIT. And once he got here, “every day here as a student I got challenged, every day I got to see amazing things that people were doing in their research, and every day here as a student I got to work with my mind and my hands.”

Culpepper added that “over the course of the next few years, you’re going to have tough days.” He gave the example from his first semester, when a professor found out he couldn’t afford to go home for Thanksgiving, and invited him to spend it with his own family. He ended up having a wonderful experience there, having a great meal, driving bulldozers, and talking at length about differential equations. It was a day that could have been really sad for him, he said, but ended up being a fantastic experience.

Sara Seager, the Class of ’41 Professor, a professor of planetary science and of physics, and a leading expert on planets outside the solar system, talked about seeing the total solar eclipse a week ago. She described how that event related to the kind of research she has been carrying out for many years, to detect planets around other stars by observing the dimming of light when a planet passes in from of its star — a kind of miniature eclipse. Seager is a leader of the team that designed TESS, a new NASA mission that will soon observe many nearby stars to watch for such eclipses — called transits — in order to learn much more about the characteristics of those distant planets.

She described how she posed a challenge to a class in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics to develop a system to control the accurancy of pointing for tiny satellites called cubesats so that they could be steady enough to carry out such observations. The students rose to the challenge, and after some further development, this system was launched two weeks ago by NASA to the International Space Station, where it will soon be deployed into space. That whole experience, she said, “captured the MIT spirit: This bold idea that no matter how crazy, if it’s backed up by physics, it’s worth developing.” Where others might dismiss an idea as crazy, at MIT the attitude is “‘Yes, let’s give it a try,’” she said.

As Reif summarized to the incoming freshman class, “Every one of you has what it takes to succeed here. … And I hope you will join us in facing the challenge of building a better MIT, and building a better world. Humanity is facing no shortage of serious challenges: climate, energy, disease, poverty. And MIT is a magnificent human machine for inventing the future. But MIT invents the future thanks to its students.”

Reif concluded by thanking the incoming students for the choice they made: “We are very lucky to have you. All of you had other options, and I am delighted and grateful that you chose MIT. You will receive a great education here, and all of us together will make a better world.”

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