MIT celebrates Class of 2020’s virtual commencement

Commencement speaker McRaven asks graduates ‘to be the heroes we need you to be’

The Class of 2020 Commencement took place May 29 through a three-hour live webcast streamed on the commencement website. In the 2019-2020 academic year, MIT awarded 1,100 bachelor’s degrees, 1,820 master’s degrees, 8 engineer degrees, and 584 doctoral degrees, according to an email to The Tech from Mary Callahan, senior associate dean and registrar.

Retired Navy four-star admiral William McRaven addressed graduating students as the commencement speaker. President L. Rafael Reif, MIT Corporation Chairman Robert Millard ’73, and Professor Esther Duflo PhD ’99 also spoke during the event.

In his speech, McRaven acknowledged the COVID-19 pandemic: “I had an entirely different speech prepared, … but somehow that speech just didn’t seem right in light of all that has happened in the past five months.” 

McRaven said that he expected MIT graduates “to save the world from pandemics, war, climate change, poverty, racism, extremism, intolerance.” In addition to “intellect and talent,” McRaven said that to save the world, graduates must also possess courage, humility, perseverance, willingness to sacrifice, integrity, and compassion.

McRaven described moral courage as the courage “to stand by your convictions” and “to speak truth to power.” He named scientists including Copernicus, Galileo, Marie Curie, and Katherine Johnson as “brilliant minds” and “tellers of truth” who made the world more knowledgeable, compassionate, and livable.

McRaven warned against conceit by citing his experiences in the military: “No experience on earth is more humbling than combat.” 

“If you do not approach the world with humility, it will find a way to humble you,” McRaven told graduates. He also said that graduates must “realize the limits” of their understanding and “the boundaries” of their intellect to “find the answers [they] are seeking.”

McRaven also discussed the value of perseverance and sacrifice in his speech: “Only the most resolute,” those who “can persevere through the failure, the rejection, the ridicule, the emotional and physical strain of time,” can “most likely… save the world.”

McRaven said that when graduates fail to uphold integrity, they “should be so tortured” that they “promise… never to do it again.” In addition, he said that graduates must “ache for the poor and disenfranchised,” “fear for the vulnerable,” “weep for the ill and infirmed,” “pray for those without hope,”  and “be kind to the less fortunate.”

McRaven concluded his speech by expressing his confidence in the Class of 2020. “Promise me that you will be the last class to miss a commencement because of a pandemic, the last class to miss a commencement because of war, the last class to miss a commencement because of climate change, unrest, tyranny, extremism, active shooters, intolerance, and apathy… Go forth and be the heroes we need you to be.” 

Professor Eran Egozy ’95 presented Comusica, a project combining over 800 single notes sung by members of the MIT community. Egozy said that a team “of MIT coders, videographers, and sound designers stitched them all together into a collaborative work that celebrates the graduating students coming together as one MIT.”

In the video accompanying Comusica, videos submitted by the community appear along a path from the student center to Killian Court and combine to form an image of the Great Dome at the conclusion of the song.

Reif delivered his charge to graduates and presented the conferral of degrees, which included an animation of the Great Dome opening its top and launching the degrees and graduation caps. 

Reif said that “nothing can possibly replace the sense of being connected in one joyful time and place with 3,500 freshly-minted MIT graduates and the people who helped them get there.” 

“Today, though you are scattered across nearly every timezone, everything we value about MIT is embodied in you,” Reif continued. “I am inspired by your curiosity, imagination, self-discipline, and drive, and by your willingness to plunge into what may be the most intense and demanding course of study anywhere.”

Reif also asked graduates, as he has at previous commencements, to “hack the world, until you make the world a little more like MIT.” He described graduates as “ready for this timely and timeless problem set.”

Reif said that an in-person commencement will be held at MIT at “some safe point in the future.” He also said that digital diplomas have been delivered to students who requested them through the Blockcerts Wallet app.

Duflo saluted to advanced degree recipients, urging graduates to pick “small manageable issues” and to “go for it with all your heart, all your mind, and all your knowledge.”

“Progress will be slow but… inevitable” and “will take thousands of people, working on different aspects of the problem, building on each other’s victories,” Duflo said, citing climate change, COVID-19, and cancer as examples of challenges that will take the effort of many to address.

Graduate Student Council President Peter Su PhD ’20 said in his address that the pandemic has revealed “inequalities everywhere, both in the resources that we have access to and the people in our lives that we can turn to for help.” 

“We need to build systems that show empathy for the diversity and richness of the human experience, and recognize that there’s rarely a one-size fits all solution,” Su continued.

Nwanacho Nwana ’20, president of the Class of 2020, also gave a salute and led the turning of the class ring. He advised graduating seniors to live without regrets: “I urge you all, Class of 2020, to live the rest of your lives with the mindset you likely had when you were told we had a week left in our college careers… don’t wait until your last day to do the things you’ve wanted to do since your first.”

Nwana’s turning of his ring was accompanied with a digital video version of the turning of the Brass Rat.

Christopher Cassidy SM ’00 addressed graduates from the International Space Station. He described the earth from space as having “no borders, no boundaries, and no conflicts: just a common humanity sharing common problems.” He encouraged graduates “to honor that common humanity” and “solve those common problems.”

The commencement ceremony ended with a performance of the school song “Arise All Ye of MIT” and a sing-along of “Take Me Back to the Tech,” both led by the Chorallaries of MIT.

MIT Alumni Association President R. Erich Caulfield PhD ’06 welcomed graduating students to the association. “Allow me to congratulate you on your triumphant transition… to recent graduates and the newest members of our community.”

After the ceremony, all degree recipient names were scrolled across the webcast screen. 

During the hour preceding and the hour after Commencement, Talia Khan ’20 and Yaateh Richardon ’20 hosted a pre-program and post-program show, featuring videos submitted by students, faculty, alumni, and other members of the MIT community congratulating and commemorating the graduating class. 

An augmented reality app created by MIT community members will be launched next week to allow MIT students to experience graduation virtually.