KAUST graduates celebrate ‘journey of discovery’ at 10th Commencement ceremony

At KAUST's 10th Commencement ceremony on December 13, 196 Ph.D. and master's degree graduates joined the University's alumni community. Photo by Khulud Muath.

​-By Caitlin Clark, KAUST News

The University celebrated its 10th Commencement ceremony on December 13, 2019, welcoming 103 master's degree and 93 Ph.D. graduates to the KAUST global alumni community.

Presided over by senior leadershipfaculty and the KAUST trustees and led by Dr. Tony Chan, the University's president, the ceremony also featured speeches by 2019 Ph.D. graduate Yasmeen Najm and KAUST's founding President Dr. Choon Fong Shih.

Celebrating 10 years

"[T]his Commencement is special because it is our 10th Commencement and also the 10th anniversary of the University itself," President Chan noted in his opening remarks.

"Ten years is a very short time for a university, but for KAUST, it is a significant milestone," he said. "We have risen from the sands of Thuwal to become a globally recognized university with a scholarly community of faculty and students…[and w]e have taken an essential first step towards King Abdullah's vision of reviving the House of Wisdom from a millennium ago."

KAUST President Tony Chan gives his opening remarks as part of the University's 10th Commencement ceremony. Photo by Khulud Muath.

"As we celebrate our first decade, we have many achievements we are proud of, from groundbreaking research…to our rising global stature…[but] at the same time, we face many challenges and opportunities going into our second decade," he continued. "We must grasp new opportunities such as those presented by Vision 2030 that are opening up for us, as well as expanding new scientific and technological frontiers."

President Chan advised graduates to remember "that we will look to you to make a positive and lasting impact in the world…You leave the University at a time of tremendous change and great promise, whether here in the Kingdom or in an increasingly complex and interconnected world."

From vision to reality

"On my first visit [to campus] 12 years ago, I stood on this very spot," KAUST's founding President Shih recalled in his Distinguished Speaker remarks. "I saw shimmering desert sand stretching as far as my eye could see. Today I see eager, committed [and] achievement-oriented talents from 112 countries…Indeed, you have turned the Kingdom's dream into reality."

Although Shih noted he felt "cautious" when first approached about KAUST, his curiosity about the project was piqued.

The University's founding President Dr. Choon Fong Shih was Commencement 2019's Distinguished Speaker. Photo by Khulud Muath.

"[I]t is not in my nature to be dismissive," he said. "It did not take long for me to be gripped by the transformative potential of the late King's dream of a global scientific community by the Red Sea…I resolved to become part of this bold endeavor."

"Today, at KAUST's 10th anniversary, I see a functioning state-of-the-art university campus staking its place among the world's preeminent institutions of science and engineering," he continued.

"The seed of the House of Wisdom has been planted and taken root. In due time…KAUST can become a flourishing tree of knowledge bearing fruits of technological innovations to serve the Kingdom and beyond. In due turn, fruits carry the seeds for the next generation of trees, and which in time form a regenerating ecosystem of innovation and economic vibrancy."

From Riyadh to London to Thuwal

Shih noted that Yasmeen Najm, 2019's Commencement student speaker, exemplifies the University's "true success."

In 2008, Najm had just graduated from high school in Riyadh when she received a phone call from the KAUST Gifted Student Program (KGSP), a pilot program at the time. Participants would receive a full scholarship for a bachelor's degree, with the promise to return to Saudi Arabia for a master's degree at KAUST.

Yasmeen Najm, 2019’s Commencement student speaker and Ph.D. graduate, began her journey with KAUST in 2008 when she was selected to be part of the KAUST Gifted Student Program. Photo by Khulud Muath.

Like Shih, Najm hesitated at first, but journeyed to the KAUST campus with her father for a visit.

"KAUST wasn't yet quite as magnificent as the staff on the phone claimed it would be," she said. "The site was overflowing with cranes and had only one structure, a large white tent."

However, Najm too was intrigued by King Abdullah's vision and the assurance of KAUST staff that—in one year—the University would be fully constructed and running at world-class standards.

In 2012, after receiving her bachelor's degree from University College London, Najm returned to KAUST to begin her master's degree in environmental science and engineering. Her Ph.D. is in the same field, and she has gone on to work in industry in Saudi Arabia's Eastern Province.

Graduates take part in 2019's Commencement ceremony on campus. Photo by Khulud Muath.

"[KGSP] was a generous and courageous investment in Saudi Arabia's promising young people," stated Shih. "By nurturing their talent early on, the Kingdom has built a steady talent pipeline of researchers, innovators and thought leaders…Their contributions, like Yasmeen's, are already benefiting the Kingdom and the world."

'Solving the unsolvable'

Najm noted that "the University's construction in such a short time frame signified what KAUST ended up teaching us all—that no project, no matter how daunting and scary, should ever be deemed impossible."

"As KAUST ambassadors, I know we are going to go out into the world and solve the unsolvable—all while remembering that our University was born from a dream so enormous it once seemed impossible itself," she told the graduates. "[But] always keep in mind this most important piece of advice—the day you plant the seed is not the day you eat the fruit."

KAUST President Dr. Tony Chan told 2019's graduates that 'we will look to you to make a positive and lasting impact in the world.' Photo by Khulud Muath.

An ongoing 'journey of discovery'

In their closing remarks, both President Chan and Shih advised the graduates to remember they are the markers of success for the University.

"[Y]ou are the fruits of KAUST, [and] you carry vitality and knowledge to enterprises in the Kingdom and the world," Shih said. "As alumni of KAUST, you are playing your part in creating the innovation ecosystem in the Kingdom…May your journey of discovery and learning lead to service to the peoples of the Kingdom and beyond."

"A university's reputation is built on the success of its graduates…and I know that one day, KAUST will be proud of your achievements," President Chan added. "Your success will contribute to making KAUST one of the world's great universities."

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