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MIT awards pirate certificates to undergraduates

Why some MIT students long to be pirates (of the swashbucking variety)

david l. ryan/globe staff

In order to get your pirate certificate at MIT, you must complete courses in archery, pistol shooting, sailing, and fencing. So far, six students have been granted pirate status.

CAMBRIDGE - As far as MIT is concerned, Jacob Hurwitz is a pirate.

The sophomore has the certificate to prove it. Hurwitz “is no longer a lily-livered landlubber,’’ the MIT document affirms. “Ahoy, Avast, and finally, Arrrrrr!’’

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It’s been an unofficial, underground practice among students at MIT for at least 20 years: Any student who completes courses in pistol, archery, sailing, and fencing is considered a pirate.

But last fall MIT made it official, granting pirate status to six students, with many more expected to follow.

MIT, which requires undergrads to take four physical education courses, is a haven for competitive, unconventional students, and some of them wanted official recognition for their efforts. Carrie Sampson Moore, MIT’s director of physical education, said she is contacted every year by students who want to receive a tangible pirate document.

“I always tell them it’s a student initiative,’’ she said, “and they’re very disappointed.’’

Not anymore. As of this school year, the physical education department is formally conferring pirate status on students, printing certificates on faux parchment with diploma-esque calligraphy. Each paper, authorized by the “swashbucklin’ ’’ Massachusetts Institute of Technology, certifies that the named “salty dog’’ is entitled to a Pirate Certificate “with all its privileges and obligations thereof.’’

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“It’s something to work toward and you can brag about it,’ said Hurwitz, a math and computer science major. Hurwitz, who for years has observed International Talk Like a Pirate Day (Sept. 19), showed up for an interview with the Globe wearing a pirate hat, eye patch, earring, knickers, and a stuffed parrot on his shoulder.

Becoming an MIT pirate is no small feat. Not only must students learn to sail on the not-very-high-seas of the Charles River, but they also have to grasp the fundamentals of indoor target archery, fencing footwork, and pistol shooting. Even more challenging, they actually have to sign up - not a task for the lily-livered. The four classes are notoriously over-subscribed and online registration begins at 8 a.m. - “when absolutely no MIT students are awake,’’ said Hurwitz.

Much deliberation went into the decision to offer pirate certificates, Moore said. In customary MIT fashion, it involved methodically conducted research, beginning with a student focus group.

“Students were split,’’ she said. “Some wanted to leave it underground. Others thought there should be recognition.’’

Next came the Pirate Award survey, soliciting student opinions on the finer points of the award, such as what it should be called (“pirate license’’? “pirate degree’’?) and what it should look like. (Choices included “a business card size license,’’ “a certificate with a diploma-like look,’’ or “an eye patch.’’)

There is a formality involved in becoming a pirate. Students must take an oath in the physical education office, though Moore declined to disclose it, citing a desire to maintain the secrecy and mystique of MIT piracy.

Pirate Stephanie Holden, however, was willing to go public.

“It was pretty creative,’’ recalled Holden, a sophomore studying brain and cognitive science. “I remember it saying I swear to run from any fight I can’t win. To win any fight I cannot run from. Also, to sing yo-ho-ho at the top of my lungs.’’

Pirates also must sign a disclaimer that states their certificate is “for entertainment purposes only.’’

“We don’t want to give [the impression] we’re giving permission to go out on the Charles River and commandeer boats,’’ said Cheryl Silva, an associate physical education professor who teaches archery at MIT.

MIT may be best known for churning out scientists and techies, but student tour guide Shreya Dave said that doesn’t mean they are humorless.

“MIT is a very unique kind of place and students are very creative in every part of their lives, whether with schoolwork or making something out of their PE requirements,’’ said Dave, a third-year graduate student studying mechanical engineering.

Moore says that MIT students are well-suited to becoming pirates. “The courses are cerebral,’’ she said. “They’re tactical. They involve strategy. Plus they’re a challenge to complete. MIT students are driven: ‘How do I figure out how to do this in addition to all my other courses?’ ’’

Indeed, hardly anyone seemed to notice when Hurwitz crossed campus in his pirate outfit, even when he tried to look menacing and shouted: “Arrrg!’’

“I know it’s International Talk Like a Pirate Day, not ‘dress like a pirate day,’ ’’ he said. “But I figured I might as well do the whole shebang.’’

Linda Matchan can be reached at l_matchan@globe.com.

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