The power of inspiration
The road from Caracas to Cambridge
I grew up in Caracas, Venezuela, the youngest of four brothers: Elias, Benjamin, Isaac and me. When Elias was a baby, my parents fled from Eastern Europe in the late 1930s, just before World War II. They first took refuge in Ecuador, on the west coast of South America. Benjamin and Isaac were born there. Eventually, in search of work, my parents moved to Venezuela, on the Caribbean coast, where I was born.
When my mother and father arrived in South America, they did not know the language or understand the culture. By the time I came along, at home we spoke Yiddish and Spanish. Neither of my parents had had the opportunity for more than a very simple education. But they were smart and caring people of great principle and integrity.
I saw my father do all sorts of humble jobs to make a living for our family. To this day, each time I see a humble person in some menial job, I see a smart person like my parents who did not have the opportunity for an education. Elias and Benjamin also had to quit their education right after elementary school to help my father support our family.
When I was little, almost no one I knew went to high school. But somehow, my third brother, Isaac, decided that he wanted to, and by then the family did not need him to work, so he was allowed to go to a public high school. In poor neighborhoods, most people do what others do, and to this day I do not know what inspired him to go to high school. But he did. By the time I came along, Isaac had already gone on to college, and, by his example, he had also inspired Benjamin to get his high school diploma by going to night school. So, for me — with these two role models — continuing my education seemed like the obvious choice, and my family could afford for me to go to high school instead of working like Elias and Benjamin did.
By the time I was finishing high school, Isaac was in the U.S. getting a PhD, and Benjamin had moved on to college — so again, for me the path to college was obvious. I liked the people my brothers got to spend time with at their universities, and I thought that if I could get educated as an engineer, it could lead to a steady job. I enrolled first at Universidad Central de Venezuela in Caracas. Unfortunately, after two years, the government shut the university down because of student riots. I waited another two years for the university to reopen, earning my keep by tutoring high school students. Eventually, Elias encouraged me to transfer to Universidad de Carabobo in Valencia, a city where he was living at the time. I graduated there with a degree in electrical engineering in 1973.
I started to think then that maybe I could have a career teaching at a local university. So, I decided to get a PhD in the United States — just like Isaac. I spoke very little English. But somehow I managed to get into a PhD program in electrical engineering at Stanford University. Living in California was a whole new world. I had never lived outside of Venezuela, and it was hard to leave my family and my friends behind. My plan all along was to finish my education and return to Venezuela to pursue an academic career.
After I completed my PhD, I stayed on at Stanford for a year to do research. It was May 1979, and I had told everyone that I was moving back to Venezuela that fall. I was, in fact, already packing.
While attending a conference, I bumped into a colleague who had left Stanford for MIT. He said MIT was looking for a faculty member in my field: Would I be interested? I said I was flattered, but I was noncommittal. (After all, I had seen pictures of the great Massachusetts Blizzard of 1978. I wanted to go back to the warmth of Venezuela, in every sense.)
Then another MIT professor, the chair of the Faculty Search Committee, started recruiting me hard. He would call almost every other night at home, trying to convince me to interview. In one of those phone conversations he asked, “What are the chances that if you came to interview at MIT, you might like it?” I didn’t want to say “Zero” — I didn’t want to offend him. So, I said, “Five percent.” He said, “Five percent is not zero — why don’t you come?”
By this time, my brother Benjamin was doing his PhD at MIT, so I thought I could visit him and interview. So, I came, I spent a day here, and I realized — “This is it!”
MIT made me an offer, and I accepted right away. We packed the car with all our belongings and drove all the way across the country. It took about three weeks, most of it camping. My moving expenses were a bunch of receipts for campsites.
When I finally got here, MIT became my home — and I never left. I loved the people, the values and the mission. It was like no place else that I had ever been. I still feel the same way.
When I look back on my experience and I think about my parents, I feel strongly about how important it is to be humble and respectful to those who have not been fortunate enough to have the same opportunities I did.
Out of four brothers, three of us ended up getting PhDs. That is the power of inspiration, of having a role model. If it weren’t for my brother Isaac, I would not have been able to fulfill the dreams my parents had for us. He was my role model. I did what he did. He inspired me and showed me the way. And he did the same for Benjamin — his older brother, and another role model for me. And the three of us did what we did under the inspiration of our oldest brother, Elias, a man with impeccable integrity, who helped support our parents and supported us morally, ethically, and financially in every way he could.
By the time I joined MIT as a faculty member, Benjamin was finishing his PhD here, and he escorted me to my faculty office on my first day. A year and a half later, I attended his PhD Commencement at MIT.
It is all still very hard to believe.
L. Rafael Reif is the president of MIT.
Off the Beaten Path is a series that shares stories from members of the MIT community from working-class backgrounds. Comments, questions, and submissions are welcome at email@example.com.