For two years, graduation ceremonies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were virtual experiences held online because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Saturday, members of the Classes of 2020 and 2021 returned to campus for in-person festivities, wearing academic regalia and receiving congratulatory scrolls.
“It’s really wonderful to have you back,” said L. Rafael Reif, president of MIT. More than 2,500 members of the two classes participated in the event, according to Reif, who said the turnout exceeded his expectations.
On Thursdayand Friday, the institute held its first in-person graduation ceremonies since 2019 for undergraduate and graduate students in the Class of 2022.
The keynote speaker for Saturday’s celebration honoring the Classes of 2020 and 2021 was Kealoha Wong, a poet who graduated from MIT in 1999. He goes by Kealoha professionally, and lives in Hawaii, where he was named the state’s first poet laureate in 2012.
Kealoha blended science into his remarks, but offered a universal message. We are more likely to be remembered for our consideration of others, Kealoha said, rather than for our achievements.
“We may make some esoteric discovery or some small contribution to our industries, but most likely, our most significant impact will be in our communities and in our families,” he said. “Our impact will be felt in the way that we treat others and the way that we treat ourselves.”
Kealoha encouraged the crowd to set aside their fears because “as far as I can tell, life is all that we’ve got.”
“We are not cavemen anymore. There are no saber-toothed tigers lurking in the shadows,” he said. “Yet most of us cling to our fears of the animals we evolved from. What are we so afraid of?”
Near the end of his remarks, Kealoha said “our lives are temporary art pieces.”
“We are works in progress so I say paint your butt off,” he said.
The audience on Killian Court gave Kealoha a standing ovation.
The ceremony also included remarks from members of the graduate and undergraduate Classes of 2020 and 2021.
Joaquin Giraldo-Laguna and Kayla Vodehnal, alumni co-presidents for the Class of 2020, took a selfie from the podium, capturing the large gathering in the background.
“Growing up I longed to see folks like me triumph. At MIT, I realized what triumph meant,” Giraldo-Laguna said. “We triumph just by passing through this institute, becoming a little closer to...who we wish we saw as a kid.”
Another speaker, Chengzhao Richard Zhang, earned a doctorate degree in math from MIT last year.
He talked about the shift from working toward well-defined goals like defending his dissertation and commencement to pursuing success on his own terms.
“It took me a while to realize the importance of having internal success definitions, a set of your own metrics for what it means for you to be successful,” Zhang said.
He talked about enjoying little victories, like a chat with a friend or finding a perfect meme on Facebook.
“I have no doubt MIT’s training enabled us to succeed on our terms and conquer our own world that nobody else can ever define for us,” he said. “In the meantime, celebrate the small as well as the big wins.”