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At MIT commencement, shadow of tragedy ebbs but is not forgotten

Anika Gupta (left) stood with MIT President L. Rafael Reif during Friday’s commencement.

John Tlumacki/Globe staff

Anika Gupta (left) stood with MIT President L. Rafael Reif during Friday’s commencement.

CAMBRIDGE -- At MIT’s commencement last year, as a steady rain drenched graduates and their families, a rattled university community reflected on a year marked by tragedy.

The killing just weeks earlier of MIT police officer Sean Collier, allegedly shot as he sat in his patrol car on campus by the two Boston Marathon bombing suspects, loomed large. Far from being a celebration, it was a deeply solemn affair -- with dreary weather to match.

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But Friday, with the sun shining on the Great Dome and a warm breeze wafting off the Charles River, more than 2,700 graduate and undergraduate students received their degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in a decidedly happier commencement that reclaimed a measure of normalcy and joy.

“It’s fitting that the sun is out; the mood is just that much more jubilant,” said 30-year-old Jide Odunsi, a United Kingdom native who received an MBA from MIT’s Sloan School of Management. “A year on from what happened, I think it’s good to see the school continue to survive and thrive. People are happy again.”

Les Norford, an architecture professor at MIT for the past 25 years, agreed, calling this year’s ceremony “more festive.”

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“We weren’t carrying the burden as much this year,” he said. But, he noted, “Collier is still a part of this place and he always will be.”

In April, MIT held a remembrance on the one-year anniversary of Collier’s death, and the school is installing a permanent memorial to him on campus. Several people in attendance wore “Team Collier” T-shirts on Friday.

Killian Court, the wide green lawn in front of the Great Dome, was packed with graduates and their relatives who stood along the sides jostling for better views of the stage. Cheers echoed off the walls of nearby buildings when graduates were told to flip their “Brass Rat” class rings, signifying graduation. (The rings feature a beaver on the front, in recognition of the school’s mascot.)

In the commencement address, Ellen Kullman, chairwoman of the board and CEO of DuPont, reflected on how her background in mechanical engineering informed her systematic approach as she took the helm of one of the world’s largest and oldest chemical companies at the peak of the recession in 2008.

“It was a frightening time,” Kullman recalled. “Planning was not helping us at all. It was impossible to predict what was going to happen the next day, much less the next month or quarter.”

Kullman urged graduates to continue learning and to keep alive the collaborative spirit that MIT instills.

“The hardest thing I had to learn in my career is that I am not always right. I had to develop the discipline to listen,” she said. “Sometimes the science we find so elegant or the technology we feel is so promising doesn’t look that way to others who view the world through a very different lens.”

MIT President L. Rafael Reif followed her remarks with an often humorous speech.

“I want you to see the status quo as nothing more than the beta release,” he told graduates. “I want you to hack the world, until you make the world a little more like MIT. More daring and more passionate. More rigorous, playful and ambitious. More humble, more respectful, more generous, and more kind.”

Reif drew laughs when he took a “selfie” photo with the class president, Anika Gupta, showing the crowd in the background.

One section of seating was reserved for members of the class of 1964, who wore the bright red jackets traditionally awarded to those who graduated from MIT 50 or more years ago. The makeup of the group of perhaps 100 graduates, most now in their 60s and 70s, reflected a vastly different time at MIT: there were less than five women among them Friday.

“There was a certain kind of pride in being unusual,” recalled Emma Root, who graduated in 1964 with a degree in chemical engineering and said she was one of about 24 women in a class of at least 750.

Root said the women in her class leaned on one another for support, often congregating after class in a designated on-campus “women’s lounge.”

Ann Katan, now 70, also graduated in 1964. She would go on to work for NASA and later spend 20 years as a manager and programmer at Digital Equipment Corp. In the professional world, her MIT degree conferred credibility in the face of institutional sexism.

“The fact that I had a degree meant people actually took me seriously,” she said.

In the class of 2014, approximately 46 percent of undergraduate degree recipients and 31 percent of graduate degree recipients were women, according to MIT.

Asked what advice they would give to the class of 2014, Katan and Root agreed: find a mentor.

Dan Adams can be reached at dadams@globe.com. Find him on Twitter at @DanielAdams86.
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