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President Vest Imparts Advice to Class of 2000

The following is the complete text of President Charles M. Vest's Welcome Convocation to the Class of 2000.

Good afternoon. I am Charles Vest, President of MIT. And you... are the MIT Class of 2000!

Now, I know what you are thinking... and it's not true.

You were not admitted by mistake. You are not here as the result of a computer glitch, or the report of an incompetent educational counselor. You are not here because we needed more architecture majors or people from Montana or because someone misread your SAT scores.

You are a member of the freshman class at MIT because we believe - we know - that you have the intellectual capacity, the energy, the imagination, and the personal will to succeed here.

Learning at MIT

Let me tell you the first thing that strikes me as I stand here. It may surprise you, but I envy you. Just think: you are about to set forth on an extraordinary adventure, and you will be entering the new millennium prepared with all the tools of an MIT education.

During your years here, we hope that you will dream great and worthy dreams, and that you will obtain many of the skills and insights needed to achieve them. Above all, we want you to understand that the world is not something that happens to you - it is something you can shape. You can make a difference... and because of your talent and what we will offer you here... you will make a difference in the world.

What to expect

What should you expect about studying and learning at MIT?

First: MIT is made up of men and women who are devoted to learning - learning in its many forms. This means learning by formal study and teaching; learning by disciplined research; learning by designing... building and operating... and working on real problems; and above all, learning from each other.

Second: MIT is a place that values hard and effective work. I should be very honest about this. We expect you to study and work hard - on things that matter. And this is true whether you major in engineering, science, the humanities or social sciences, architecture, or management.

Third: MIT thinks about and works on "big" subjects - major issues facing humankind - ranging from cancer research to the environment to industrial productivity. Of course, at MIT, science is at the core of all that we do.

This year much has been made about what is termed "the end of science." That may be a great book title, but science is not ending. It is advancing, transforming, and expanding.

There is a reasonable chance that we have in our hands clear evidence of life on Mars. Just imagine! And science, moving through engineering, has brought us the age of information technology, which is transforming the ways in which we learn, work, and communicate.

But the really important things are our ignorance, our curiosity, and our sense of wonder. There are so many things we do not know.

Last year, I asked several of our faculty members to tell me what they considered to be some of the key unanswered questions in their fields. Here is just a sample:

We do not know, even in principle, which aspects of climate are predictable.

We do not know why national economies grow at different rates.

We do not know how we learn and remember, or how we think and communicate.

We do not know how to transform materials without creating waste by-products.

We do not know how and why cells die, or why tumor cells migrate to new sites in the body.

We do not know how to convert solar energy into practical, cost-efficient fuels.

We do not know how old the universe is, what it is made of, or what its fate will be.

These are just a few of the things we do not know. They offer immense opportunities for exploration and discovery and learning:

Learning to understand fundamental ideas and principles.

Learning the skills and "know-how" that will enable you to apply what you learn.

Learning about the historical, social, and political settings in which ideas re-embedded and decisions are made.

And learning how to learn.

Partnerships in learning

This brings me to another point about learning at MIT. You may be thinking that these next four years will prepare you for the real world. It is true that MIT will be a gateway and a guide to your future in very profound ways. But it's time to get yourself out of the "preparation" mind-set. Real life begins today. Right here at MIT.

Don't think of yourself as a container to be filled with information and skills by faculty lectures. MIT is an active place. And learning at MIT is active. You are about to enter into a collaborative partnership in learning.

Your partners are other students. As you might imagine, students at MIT tend to be very competitive with each other. In most circumstances this is healthy. But modern organizations, whether in business, government, or academia, deal with problems that are very complex. They require group work, and team work, and the ability both to teach and to learn from others. You will have many opportunities, both formal and informal, to work together to integrate the efforts of many to achieve a goal. Take advantage of them.

Your partners are also the hundreds of individuals who make up MIT's faculty and senior research staff. Get to know them. Don't assume that they are too preoccupied with their loftier, god-like enterprises to be bothered with the likes of you. You are a central part of their mission here.

You will meet them in class, of course. But there are other settings in which you have an opportunity to work closely with the faculty. Let me mention just three:

First, the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. This is a way for you to work with faculty, as part of their research teams. Most students do this at one time or another, although usually not as first term freshmen.

Second, the Freshman Advisor Seminars. Over 90 percent of you have opted to join one of these seminars... which are taught by faculty who will also be your advisors.

Ask your friends at other universities and colleges how many of them get to gather for a couple of hours every week in a close circle with a half dozen other freshmen and a world-renowned faculty mentor... and spend that time talking about ideas, trying out hands-on learning, and exchanging insights about life issues. Your freshman advisor seminar is a unique opportunity to do just that. I hope you will take advantage of it from the outset.

Third, the special freshman programs - Concourse, the Experimental Study Group, and the Integrated Studies Program. Each of these covers the basic first-year subjects - but does so in the setting of a small and close-knit educational community. I urge you to look into these alternative programs. You may find that one of them is just right for you.

Now let me tell you a little secret about the professors at MIT. You may wonder how we maintain a faculty of such world-class distinction. Is it because MIT always pays them more or provides better laboratories than other universities? No.

The fact is that if you ask MIT professors why they are at MIT, nine times out of 10 they will say, "Because of the students!" That is because MIT students are bright, interesting, creative, challenging, and fun to work with. In other words, you bring to us as much as we have to offer you.

I should also warn you that there will be times when you will be certain that we have forgotten this, and there will be times when your self-confidence will wane. Believe me, this happens to all of us. But you will overcome these feelings. You have what it takes, and you will succeed.

Building on diversity

Now this brings me back to you... MIT's Class of 2000. Look about you. Your class is not simply one whose talents, abilities, and aspirations stack up against any group of first-year students in the world.

Your class is also one of the most diverse in America:

You come from every state and from scores of other countries.

26 of you have transferred to MIT from other institutions. Welcome.

Over 40 percent of you are women.

You come from an extraordinary array of ethnic, racial, economic, cultural, and religious backgrounds.

What you have in common are brains, determination, and a belief in the importance of education. And now, you all have the same distinguished Cambridge address - 77 Massachusetts Ave.

As you get to know each other, you will quickly sense the wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives you bring to MIT. This can be one of the strongest elements of your education here: Learn from each other. Learn together. Be proud of who and what you are, but be prouder still of what we can become together.

You have a remarkable opportunity to get to know - and learn with - others whose experience and outlook are very different from your own. If you seize this opportunity, you will be much better prepared to help build the national and world communities of the next century.

Closing

In closing, I should tell you that I think this convocation is the most energizing event of the academic year. To have this entire class assembled in one place at one time, filled with that wonderful mixture of enthusiasm and apprehension, is just spectacular.

This is an extraordinary moment. But there will be one more moment that you will find even more exhilarating. And that is when we gather together as an entire class in Killian Court - the great court of MIT - for your commencement on June 2, in the year 2000.

I look forward to seeing you there!