• Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast keynote speaker Richard Tapia, a professor of mathematics at Rice University, said diversity in education is essential for the health of the nation.

    Photo: Dominick Reuter

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  • Hundreds gathered at MIT's Walker Memorial for the 38th annual event.

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  • MIT senior Shamarah Hernandez reflected on the event's theme, 'Expanding the Possible.'

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  • MIT President Susan Hockfield, center, joined the MIT community in paying tribute to King.

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  • Tapia, a National Medal of Science recipient and a longtime champion of diversity in education, drew a standing ovation for his keynote address.

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MIT honors Martin Luther King Jr. at 38th annual breakfast

Diversity and education among breakfast-table topics.

On Thursday morning, hundreds from the MIT community gathered to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. at the Institute’s 38th annual breakfast celebration of the late civil rights leader. At the event, where invited speakers reflected on the theme “Expanding the Possible,” President Susan Hockfield said that to achieve real diversity and inclusion, “we must answer inertia with momentum.”

“Without constant vigilance, old habits and well-worn pathways will prevail,” Hockfield said. “We need to engineer a set of underlying institutional mechanisms, expectations, habits and rhythms that make diversity and inclusion simply part of what we work on here, every day.”

In her remarks, Hockfield highlighted a number of efforts to cultivate diversity and inclusion in MIT’s faculty and student body: The School of Engineering is honing its procedures to recruit and mentor underrepresented minority (URM) graduate students and faculty; the School of Architecture and Planning is reaching out to its alumni to form a mentoring network for URM graduate students; and the School of Science is identifying new funds to expand its pool of URM faculty.

“Just as everyone at MIT shares responsibility for our mission, if we hope to continue ‘expanding the possible,’ we also share responsibility for making our diverse community thrive,” Hockfield said.

Fitting the model

Keynote speaker Richard Tapia, professor of mathematics at Rice University and a recipient of the National Medal of Science, echoed Hockfield’s call for diversity. Tapia, a longtime champion and mentor of underrepresented minorities in education, spoke of his own path to academia, and how he learned early on that he didn’t “fit the model of the good student.”

Tapia grew up in Los Angeles, the son of Mexican immigrants. Instead of attending a predominantly Hispanic school, he went to a “poor white school,” excelling at math. Tapia recalled a time when the principal announced a school-wide math contest whose winner would receive a medal at an assembly in front of the entire school. When Tapia won, the principal presented him with a medal — but in his office, not at an assembly.  

“That bothered me,” Tapia said. “That bothers me to this day. I didn’t fit the model that they had.”

Tapia has worked to change this model, encouraging women and underrepresented minorities to pursue education and careers in science and engineering. He said that while there have been many “sincere efforts” since King’s time to promote racial equality in education, “some progress was made, but not enough.” To illustrate his point, Tapia pointed to the meager representation of minorities in university faculties across the United States.

He also urged his audience to examine an oft-overlooked metric: How many minority students graduate in their intended disciplines, “in the areas they love?” Tapia’s research has found evidence that the answer is less than encouraging. For example, students who attend minority-serving institutions and pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics (“STEM”) are encouraged by their mentors to go on to graduate school at top-tier institutions such as MIT. However, Tapia observed that once there, these students find they are less prepared for graduate-level coursework than their peers, and tend to “leave with a master’s degree, lost to science for good.”

On the other hand, Tapia found that many minority undergraduates who attend top colleges lack support, “feeling beat up and losing confidence.” These students tend to migrate to non-STEM majors, or choose not to continue on to graduate school. Tapia pressed for more mentoring and support of minority students in their intended disciplines, in order to increase the population of minority faculty across the country.

Living up to mens et manus

MIT senior Shamarah Hernandez spoke about her own experience navigating MIT’s science-centric culture, pointing out a subtle institutional bias. When she first came to MIT, Hernandez aspired to be a science journalist. She found that when she raised the subject with her peers, they would often joke that she belonged at an Ivy League school, “where they do that sort of thing.” When Hernandez eventually chose to major in economics, people would inquire, “What else are you studying?”

“I felt I didn’t belong,” Hernandez said. “My journey was fraught with doubt.”

Hernandez, who said she will be the first member of her family to earn a bachelor’s degree — and the only female African-American economics major in the Class of 2012 — drew a standing ovation as she urged the MIT community to live up to its motto, mens et manus (“mind and hand”), encouraging students in all disciplines.

Derek Ham, a second-year PhD student in architecture and planning, invoked the Olympic torch as a symbol of purpose. He spoke on the importance of mentors, from King — “his life indeed was a torch itself” — to professors who have advised him in his academic career.

“We all have a torch to carry,” Ham said, “a torch that represents a legacy of excellence in lives lived to the fullest, for the betterment of generations to come.”

The breakfast featured performances by the MIT Gospel Choir and singer Jermaine Tulloch, along with a video of past speakers at the event and an invocation by the Rev. Keri Jo Verhulst. MIT Chaplain Robert Randolph gave the closing benediction.

Topics: Community, Diversity, Faculty, Graduate, postdoctoral, MIT presidency, MLK visiting scholars, Special events and guest speakers, Staff, Students, Undergraduate, Underrepresented minorities


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