By Angela Millan Epstein
Rafael Reif speaks slowly with the clarity of an engineer’s mind and the matter of fact attitude of a person whose life and experiences have led him to hold one of the most important positions in the field of science and technology education in the world. Listening to the Venezuelan born Rafael Reif’s explanation of how he recently became the 17th president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it is easy to see how his openness and constant exploration of the world around him led him to the presidency at the prestigious school.
As he addressed a crowd of the most selected intellectuals of the world of technology – alumni, scientists, and delegates from universities from all over the world, at his inauguration this past week, he demonstrated his humor, warmth and his humility. At MIT, it was the school’s 17th such inaugural, for Latinos and immigrants, it was clearly more – a historical milestone in higher education.
Reif’s story is not too different from that of many immigrants who arrive in the U.S. with a dream and a plan to better their lives. Reif describes his early years as growing up in a “home wealthy in integrity and principles and values, but poor in everything material.”
His decision to become an engineer was driven by his desire for the economic stability he lacked in his childhood becoming the first generation in his family to attend College. After graduating as electrical engineer from Universidad de Carabobo he attended Stanford University in California, and pursued a graduate degree not knowing that this decision would change the story of his life. Along the way, he also became a source of inspiration to many.
When Reif arrived in California, he did not speak English well, but that did not deter him from finding a way to understand what the professors said during their lectures. His desire for learning was more powerful than his inability to communicate in a new language. He followed the conversations in his classes at Stanford by taking notes and writing the sound of what he heard, he then would go to his room and tried to decipher what was said. It is no wonder today he is at the helm of an institution where resolving problems thru creativity, research and application of technologies is at the core of its offering.
His life’s story and attitude make MIT seem warmer and closer to those who might perceive it from far, as an arrogant and cold institution. President Reif says his administration will be one of collaboration and integration. One of his five goals is to continue to “make significant contributions in the area of race and diversity, equity and inclusion,” and he acknowledges that in the creation of a true culture of inclusion, “MIT remains a work in progress” but he also unequivocally asserts his belief in that the school has “the power to lead the way.” Similarly to when the institution corrected the inequities for women faculty a few years ago, making MIT a model for progress.
Reif’s approach is good news for talented Latinos and minorities who see in him not only a symbol of inspiration but also a champion of inclusion. He plans to continue to open MIT’s doors to students from all types of economic backgrounds and cultivate diverse talent that he believes will only strengthen the school. Today 14 percent of students enrolled at MIT are Latino: 613 undergraduate and 265 graduate. Like the school’s new president, 14 percent of MIT’s undergraduate students are first-generation college students.
Prior to assuming the presidency, the Reif, 62, served as the Provost of MIT for the past seven years and is credited with strengthening the school’s financial standing and for promoting its global and diversity strategy. He started in career at the school in 1980 as a faculty member. Ironically, he was on his way back to Venezuela to start a life in academia after graduating from Stamford, when a friend insisted he apply to MIT for a faculty position. He reluctantly agreed.
The three-day celebration surrounding Reif’s inauguration were filled with the usual formal ceremonies, but also symposiums on the future of education, and how technologies, some invented at MIT, have changed the traditional way of teaching and learning.
(Angela Millan Epstein is a former Univision Correspondente, NBC’s Canal de Noticias’ news anchor and has written for numerous publications.)