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Vest Welcomes Freshmen

President Charles M. Vest made the following remarks at yesterday's President's Convocation.

I would like to welcome MIT's Class of 1997.

Now, it may surprise you, but actually, I know what you are thinking, and I am going to answer it. Let me tell you right off: You were not admitted to MIT by mistake. You are not the result of a computer glitch. You are not here because we needed more architecture majors or people from Idaho, or what have you.

Each of you is here because we know that you have the intellectual capacity, the energy, the imagination, and the will to succeed, both in meeting your personal goals and in contributing to this unique academic community. Your high school teachers knew this, your parents knew this, the MIT admissions committee knew this, and our faculty know this. So relax.

All of us that are new to this place have that question some time, and I certainly have. Last spring, I decided, despite the fact that I've only been here three years now, I really do belong here. Because at 12:30 one morning, or late night depending on your perspective, I was working on my computer, and an e-mail message came accross and said, "President Vest, we are a group of students over in one of the dormitories, and we are all sitting here heretaking something called a Nerd Test. We wonder if you'd take it."

Of course I said yes, expecting to get three or four questions. Well, it was about 120 questions as I recall. It began with things like, "Have you ever worked or studied all through the night?"The answer is yes, as a matter of fact, I did it this summer once. "Have you ever programmed in at least three different computer languages?" "Can you write Maxwell's equations?" "Do you wear glasses?If so, are they broken? If so, are they held together with scotch tape?"You got the idea.

So, I took the entire test and anxiously waited and bit my finger nails and about four days later another message came back and said, "We finished the scoring, and you scored 51 on our scale. And that classifies you as a moderate nerd, and we just want you to know we think that is about right for the president of MIT."So I belong here; you belong here. But now that you are here, exactly where are you?

MIT is an institution like no other. It is a university that attracts many of the nation's and the world's most talented students; especially of course, the Class of 1997.

MIT is an institution that counts nine Nobel Prize laureates amongst its faculty and staff in economics, physics, medicine or physiology, and peace.

It is an institution that provides unparalleled opportunities for you as undergraduates to take part in research -- working and learning together with faculty and graduate students.

It is an institution which just a few days from now will host over 600 of the world's highest level leaders of industry, government, and scholarship to discuss together fundamental issues facing industries in today's highly competitive post-Cold War economy and the new challenges that we all face.

MIT, as well, is a place where science and engineering students participate in a remarkably rich set of activities in the visual and the preforming arts. It is a community that believes that the creative mixture of teaching and research together provides the best environment for a modern education.

It is a place where we work and study very hard, pursuing our activities with both intensity and passion. At the same time, we really do enjoy working and living together with our colleagues.

MIT is a place with a great sense of humor. A fact that has been celebrated in books and in the national press, and a fact which I hope you will learn a lot over the next four years.

It is a place where students learn from each other. In study groups, and across the Athena computing network.

It is a cosmopolitan campus, where students, faculty, and staff of every conceivable race, ethnicity, and background have come together from around the world to pursue our common goals of learning, discovering, creation, and invention.

Wherever you come from, and wherever you go after your four years here, you will find that your MIT education will serve you well.

The next four years will be intense, and they will be challenging. MIT will teach you to think. It will teach you to solve problems. It will teach you to persevere. And after you've gone through this remarkable place, you will know that you can do virtually anything.

Now where do you come from, however, and who are you? First of all, there are 1086 members of the great Class of 1997. That's a far cry from MIT's first class -- a group fifteen, young, all-white males who gathered together in Boston at the end of the American Civil War to study the practical arts and sciences which serve the needs of a rapidly industrializing society.

You however are much larger in numbers, and you come from every state in the United States, and 8 percent of you come from some 40 other countries around the world. You come to study everything from molecular biology, to computer science, to music composition. Over a third of you are women; 6 percent are African American; 30 percent Asian American, 10 percent Hispanic Americans, six of you are Native Americans.

That's one kind of measure of who you are, but there are many other indicators of the ways you are both alike and different from each other.

Now let me see just a brief show of hands to try a couple of things. How many of you are the oldest among your brothers and sisters? How many of you are only children? How many of you come from a large city? How many of you come from the country or a small town? (I've got to hold up my hand on that.)

Now, as the Dean of Engineering Joel Moses will tell you this is a really important question, how many of you are left-handed? Oh, look at that. This is going to be a creative class. How many of you speak more than one language? That's excellent.

Now this is a totally unscientific poll, and of course it gives us just a surface picture of both your differences and similarities. There are much deeper ones as well, a variety of interests, backgrounds, and perspectives that you bring here will be one of your greatest strengths, and one of our greatest resources.

They'll also be from time to time the source of tension, that you will experience while you are here. Now, tension is not necessarily a bad thing. It can be a tremendous source of growth and learning, but whether or not it is will of course depend on you. You have come here to pursue your individual academic and career goals. We know that you have worked hard to get here, and I'm very confident that you will continue to work hard now that you are here.

Most of you are probably already wondering -- perhaps even a little anxious about -- the challenges that will face you in your studies as you strive to meet the standards that you have set for yourselves. But there are equally rigorous challenges that come from joining any community. As you seek your place here, you may find it more comfortable at first to seek out people who are more like you than not. But I would encourage you to get to know people who bring a different cultural background, a different way of viewing the world, different ways of expressing themselves.

This is really an extraordinary opportunity of your college years, one that you will never have again in exactly the same way. So as you begin to get to know your classmates, don't be afraid of your differences, but acknowledge them. Don't try to erase them; learn from them. Men and women together create a more balanced discourse and world view. Black and white, brown and yellow, red and tan, create a campus and nation far more meaningful and creative than any of us can do alone.

At the same time, however, find the common threads that will enable you to work together, to learn together, and to live together successfully. I would like to suggest that the values and purposes that we hold in common are those of an institution that values broad learning, but maintains a strong and very specific focus on science and on engineering. They are those of a community of scholars, faculty and students together, who believe in the importance of rational thought and objective investigation, who believe in learning and searching together, who believe in the importance of individual fundamental scholarship for its own sake, but who also are committed to research and learning about projects that have direct application and practical significance in making a better world.

The values we hold in common are those of a community of students and faculty who believe in serving their fellow men and women in many ways. By recognizing that we are all here at MIT for the same fundamental purpose, by applying ourselves through our teaching, our studies, and our research, we will acquire a common vocabulary and a common mission.

And this will enable us to communicate and know each other better through our working and learning relationships. There are many opportunities for pursuing our individual goals while building a sense of comraderie. In fact, working together is often the best way to find one's individual success.

Beside the common experience of your freshman year and the core curriculum here at MIT, there are a number of specific activities I hope you will look into. Just a few specific examples, I hope you will participate in the freshman adviser seminar, a really wonderful opportunity to spend a lot of time together in very small groups together with a faculty member learning about something of mutual interest, as well as finding your way through your first year at the Institute. Or the special freshman programs, such as the Integrated Studies Program, Concourse, and the Experimental Studies Group.

And of course UROP, the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, an activity I really encourage you to take part in at some point during your years here.

We also have something new this year. It's a program called Team Works, in which most of you taking the chemistry requirement will have a chance to participate in small study teams, that will have a stake in helping each other do well in the course. Two versions of first-term physics will also be adaptations of the Team Works philosophy.

Outside the classroom, and indeed outside the campus, you will have the opportunity to work together to build a sense of community. One of the first such things will take place the day after Labor Day, when MIT students will host over 500 elementary school students from Cambridge here on our campus. This great program, City Days, will be the first of many opportunities for you to develop links with school children in Cambridge throughout the year. Programs ranging from community service projects, to science and math tutoring, to athletics. Well, so much for advice and information, you'll get more than your fill of that in the days and weeks ahead.

But I would like to close with a few reminders before I introduce the next speaker. First, there is no other institution like MIT in the world, and now you are a very, very important and integral part of it. The curriculum is like no other, the spirit of invention is like no other, the heritage of scientific and technological accomplishment is like no other. Learn from it, engage in it

We have here at the Institute a truly extraordinary faculty. But ask any professor what it is that most attracts him or her to a career at MIT. Almost invariably, the response will be the MIT students. Our faculty members are here in large measure because they gain enormous satisfaction and stimulation from working and learning with you.

So remember please, you are the best, you belong here, every one of you. But don't be afraid to ask for help, and don't think you're supposed to know everything beforehand. You don't, that's why you're here, that's in fact why we're all here. Go to class -- that help's a lot. Get involved in sports, music and theater, and community activities. These kinds of things will be a great help in the years ahead as well.

And, I hope that you heard me very clearly today, accept the challenge of not just joining but of creating the community where we all can study, work, and play in an environment of mutual respect and enjoyment.

Now I expect to have the opportunity to see many of you around the campus and in the coming weeks, months, and indeed years. But the next time I will see all of you together like this will be in the Great Court, in Killian Court, when I hand you your degree in June 1997. So please have a great four years.