Pouring rain gave way to calmer skies as MIT’s 142nd Commencement began last Friday. Over 2,000 students received degrees in front of approximately 10,000 guests, including members of the 50-year reunion Class of 1958.
For the third year in a row, the senior class set a record for participation in the Senior Gift campaign, reaching 64 percent participation and contributing over $41,000 to the Class of 2008 Externship Assistance Fund. The gift included a $25,000 challenge gift from Alumni Association President Harbo Jensen PhD ’74, for the class achieving over 56 percent participation.
Muhammad Yunus, who won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in microfinance, gave the Commencement address. He spoke about his own experiences in building the Grameen Bank in Bangaladesh and urged graduates to spend time “making the world a better place.”
Yunus reminded graduates they represent “the future of the world.” He spent most of the speech describing the step-by-step approach to building a microcredit empire which has focused on helping the poor build their own businesses.
“Whenever I needed a rule or a procedure in our work, I just looked at the conventional banks,” Yunus said. “Once I learned what they did, I just did the opposite.”
Yunus went on to describe his unique approach to lending — essentially focusing on those with the least collateral to offer, and currently reaching 7.5 million borrowers, 97 percent of whom are women. He explained that small loans to the poorest individuals offer a near 100 percent repayment record.
Yunus described the difference between the profit-maximizing ideal that a traditional business is expected to pursue versus the multi-dimensionality inherent in people’s natures. “For a real-life human being money-making is a means, not an end,” Yunus said. He then encouraged graduates to pursue businesses with social objectives and described a wide array of businesses he has built in a variety of industries, based on the roots of Grameen Bank.
Yunus concluded with a look toward the future. “You will take your grandchildren to the poverty museums with tremendous pride that your generation had finally made it happen,” Yunus said.
Speeches from Graduate Student Council President Leeland B. Ekstrom G and 2008 Class President Phi Ho ’08 followed Yunus’ address.
“It is our spirit that sets us apart,” Ekstrom said. “That entrepreneurial, push through the limits, refuse to accept no attitude — if you export one thing from MIT, let it be that spirit.”
“We are stretching ourselves beyond our limits,” Ho said. “Our perspective, shaped by our experiences and ambitions and goals, will empower us to shape the world.”
After accepting the Senior Gift, President Susan Hockfield took the podium and charged graduates to focus on the state of the world as they leave MIT.
“The changes that erupted during your time at MIT have transformed our cultural landscape. Facebook and social networking have changed the structure and texture of friendship; they have transformed business and politics; and they have established entirely new networks of understanding,” Hockfield said.
Hockfield stressed the pursuit of realistic but ideal-driven goals, describing Yunus as a practical visionary, the founding of MIT as “practical inspiration” and the “practical, unwavering spirit that pushed MIT researchers and graduates through … immense technical problems.”
“We will certainly miss you, but the world right now needs you.” Hockfield said.
Graduate Shiva Ayyadurai ’87 took the exhortation to act immediately and literally, procuring poster board during the ceremony to make a sign saying “Out of Iraq” which he pulled out from under his gown and held up on his way back from the podium after receiving a postdoctoral degree in Biological Engineering.
“Yunus was saying powerful things … and we’re supposed to be the next generation of leaders,” Ayyadurai said in an interview yesterday. “I wanted to wake people up a bit.” He added that while the Commencement speakers addressed problems in the developing world, “I was upset that no one up there said anything about the fact that we have a war going on.”
Parents and family members attending the ceremony expressed their pride at watching their students graduate.
MIT has provided a “diverse set of exceptional programs,” said Seward Pulitzer Jr., whose son Seward Pulitzer ’98 graduated from MIT 10 years ago.
“Joining a sorority” was the most surprising thing her daughter did at MIT, said Tama Andres, mother of Teagan Andres ’08, a member of Alpha Phi. “In the end, it helped a lot.”
Yun-Pung Paulhsu, an MIT postdoctoral student in 1981, said he has witnessed many changes watching his daughter Irene Hsu ’08 attend MIT. “I still remember my old office, Building 16, Room 439,” said Paulhsu. “But there are a lot of new buildings now.”
Rosa Cao contributed to the reporting for this article.