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COLUMN

The Power of Tech

Jason Wasfy

One recent Saturday morning, I was sitting in a charming little cafe on High Street in the town of Oxford as a rare ray of sun poked out around one of the beautiful medieval towers here and into the big front window of the cafe. Munching on omelettes and toast with me was a group of about six other American graduate students. Most of the people with me have only been here a few weeks, so we were discussing our initial impressions of the workload here.

“I’m actually a little bit concerned,” I told them. “I feel like I’m not doing work. I’m concerned I won’t learn enough and then I’ll flunk the exams next year.”

One of my friends, a Stanford graduate, laughed out loud. “Well, you’re not at MIT anymore, Jason,” she said. “You’re going to be fine.”

Everyone laughed.

I absolutely love being a graduate student at Oxford, but a certain sense of powerful nostalgia popped up when I heard my friend say that.

When talking about what other university in the world can you explain so much by just saying “Well, you’re at MIT,” or “Well, you’re not at MIT anymore,” or “This is MIT,” or for that matter, “This isn’t MIT?” I heard those sorts of comments time after time when I was a student at MIT, and still hear them even now, when I’m an ocean away.

The reason why those comments have meaning to me and to just about everyone else who hears them is that MIT is unique. Other universities are more beautiful. Other universities have produced more U.S. Presidents -- er, well, at least one U.S. President.

But no other university in the world combines such hard-working students, faculty, and staff with a culture that is so geared towards innovation. MIT is a special place. And although I knew it before my graduation last June, leaving Cambridge has just re-enforced for me just how special MIT is.

What I think is particularly special about MIT is how the Institute always seems to chip in during times of significant national and global distress. That happened when the development of radar at MIT in the 1940s helped turn the tide of World War II against the Nazis.

And I’m certain that a similar effort will surface now that the specter of terrorism faces our nation and the world. The threats that face us are insidious and powerful. Threats to transportation infrastructure, the chance that powerful pathogens like anthrax and smallpox could be let loose, and the public hysteria that terrorists crave -- the list is as long as it is frightening.

But this list is one that we can neutralize. As an American, as a citizen of the world, I sleep better knowing that bright, committed, hard-working people at MIT and elsewhere are working on confronting these tremendous threats.

I’ve lived, learned, and worked with you all for four years. My faith is embedded in your thoughtfulness, your endless capacity for hard work, and your extraordinary intellects. Civil engineers, biologists, computer scientists, political scientists, historians of science, and so many others at MIT have such useful, unique skills for this ongoing struggle against terrorism.

On the day of my graduation, I wrote on this page that our generation of young people don’t seem to face challenges commensurate with the challenges that our parents and grandparents faced. Watching planes fly into the World Trade Center and seeing the devastation at the Pentagon made me eat my words.

Now as we face our new challenges, I hope -- indeed, I know -- that MIT people will be at the forefront. Those people of an institution that I know is so unique and so special have a duty to respond. And I know they will.