Following a year marked by tragedy, speakers at MIT’s commencement ceremony Friday reflected on community members they had lost, while capturing the spirit of the graduating class.
The somber tone started with the invocation by chaplain Robert Randolph, who recalled the numerous deaths this year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, including the death of a visiting scientist in a bicycle accident, the death of a graduate student, and the loss of MIT Officer Sean Collier, allegedly killed in a confrontation with the two Marathon bombing suspects.
Randolph said that the MIT campus, previously regarded as a place outside of the real world, is now very much a part of it. “We have felt that distance vanish,” Randolph said. “This is the real world. . . . There are no safe places.”
In his speech to the class, L. Rafael Reif, president, also spoke of the bombings, and recounted letters he received from strangers who had fled the explosions to find shelter in MIT fraternities and sororities. They wanted to say thank you to the students who had opened their doors in those frantic hours.
“A few days later, the tragedy of the Marathon bombings arrived at our own campus,” Reif said. “And the whole world saw what I saw: the extraordinary outpouring of respect and gratitude for our beloved MIT police. And the loving sympathy that flowed from the heart of this family to the family of Officer Sean Collier. I’ve never felt so proud to be part of MIT.”
Friday’s rain poured down onto the crowd of thousands, many of whom were sporting ponchos handed out by the school. Security was tight. Guests were not permitted to bring items such as wrapped presents and bottles, and all bags and coats were searched.
In his speech, Reif also urged the class of 2013 to expand MIT’s reputation beyond its outstanding academics.
“Today I can tell you for certain that the world will respect you for what you know, and for what you know how to do,” he said. “But I also want the family of MIT to be famous for how we treat people. Famous for sympathy, humility, decency, respect, and kindness.”
Drew Houston, a founder and chief executive of Dropbox, a free online storage space, told the graduates to find a line of work that they are obsessed with.
“When I think about it, the happiest and most successful people I know don’t just love what they do,” Houston said. “They’re obsessed.”
He called building Dropbox the most “exciting, interesting, and fulfilling experiences of my life.” But Houston also said that starting a company has also “been the most painful, humiliating, and frustrating experience, too, and I can’t even count the number of things that have gone wrong.”
Houston said that Bill Gates’s first company made software for traffic lights. And Steve Jobs’s first company made plastic whistles that enabled the user to make free phone calls.
“Neither were too successful, but it’s hard to imagine they were too upset about it,” said Houston. “That’s my favorite thing that changes today. From now on, failure doesn’t matter: You only have to be right once.”
As the ceremony came to a close, graduates and their loved ones congregated in nearby campus buildings, swapping stories and showing off their newly conferred diplomas.
‘The world will respect you for what you know, and for what you know how to do. ’
A long line snaked down the corridor of the Rogers Building, as graduates waited to pose in front of the MIT seal. While in line, Ashin Modak, 23, who received his master’s in mechanical engineering, said listening to Houston made him realize how much more there is to do.
“It’s really humbling,” he said, adding, “You’ve accomplished something . . . but there’s so much more to accomplish.”Katherine Landergan can be reached at klandergan@