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Our Last Blank Wall

Jason H. Wasfy

In the Building 10 lobby under MIT’s great dome, there’s only one blank wall left. Etched into the brown stone of other walls in that lobby are long lists of the names of MIT graduates who died for the United States in the wars of the past century. Those walls that we’ve scurried by so many times over the past four years stand as a memorial both of soldiers’ sacrifices and of the adversity that their generations faced.

The names of today’s graduates will likely never appear on that last blank wall for the same reasons. We’re at peace now. It’s a new world order, the politicians say. Our attention these days focuses more on developments in biotechnology and on the daily close of the Nasdaq than any menacing threats from the Soviet Union or from Nazi Germany. Our generation of MIT graduates will never fear a military draft. Instead, we have high-paying jobs waiting for us.

We’re looking forward to those jobs and bright futures because of the sacrifices and the hard work of the generations that came before us. Our parents led the civil rights movement and suffered through Vietnam, and our grandparents faced down Hitler and reaffirmed the American ideal of free markets and free people, as they pulled our nation out of the Great Depression. MIT graduates went on to develop radar in the 1940s, when our military needed it most. Those accomplishments testify to the historical commitment of MIT graduates to great causes.

Our graduating class is far more diverse, both in terms of backgrounds and skills, than many of those past classes. We should, however, share with those classes their history of engaging important problems. The struggles of generations past, which allow us to celebrate today, bestow upon us a solemn debt that compels us to put our skills, education, and potential to work for the greater good.

We have begun to pay down this debt. We have worked hard to get here -- and I’m not just talking about problem sets. MIT is an institution that encourages upward mobility, and some of us have endured great adversity in moving from bad high schools and poverty to attend college here. But no matter how challenging this journey has been for any one of us, we each carry this debt because we each profit from the enormous potential both of the intellectual standards that the Institute requires and of the lessons inherent in an MIT undergraduate education. Because of our experiences and our abilities, MIT graduates can solve great problems that many others simply can’t. Our potential for serving our society reinforces our deep responsibility to serve.

That responsibility shouldn’t restrict graduates to careers in research, government, or non-profit service groups. Go ahead and take that well-paying job in banking in New York if you’d like. After all, the entire world always has profited from advances driven by our market economy. If you do opt for one of these fine jobs in the financial industry, though, just remember to conduct business in a socially responsible way.

Though not engaged in war, we still have big problems to tackle. In our lifetimes, oil wells will run dry and we’ll have to find new sources of energy. The structure of American families is continuing to erode. Our transportation infrastructure needs expansion and modernization. As biomedical technology progresses, we’ll have to quickly develop new rules of ethics and public policy. Infectious diseases like AIDS and tuberculosis are ravaging the developing world. And for the first time since the end of the Cold War, America’s leaders are talking about the vulnerability of our cities to nuclear missiles. The formidable and diverse challenges ahead call out for bright, well-prepared MIT students to take them on.

And as we accept our duty to undertake these great tasks, we start to repay the debt. On this day that we celebrate our achievements, we should also remember our individual commitments to our nation and to our world. Let’s cover our blank wall with a range of names -- of men and women, of every race and ethnic background, straight and gay alike, whose deeds sustain the accomplishments of past generations. If we do that, I’m sure that Charles John Weschler -- just one of the many fallen soldiers with names on a Building 10 wall -- would think that his ultimate sacrifice so many years ago was worth it.