KAUST Commencement 2020: celebrating resilience and transformation

​In December, KAUST recognized the graduating class of 2020 in its 11th commencement and first virtual graduation ceremony at its headquarters in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia. Students and faculty embodied the spirit of community, demonstrating that even virtual events can be celebratory.

This year's ceremony honored 149 master's degree graduates (88 male/61 female) and 95 Ph.D. graduates (72 male/23 female) from KAUST's various disciplines and programs. Of the 244 graduates, 87 are from Saudi Arabia (51 male/36 female). The total number from each academic division:

A new chapter

President Tony Chan welcomed the graduates into the global community with words of congratulations:

"You are about to embark on a new chapter of your lives, and transition into a world that no one could have anticipated. It is a world full of challenges, many old and, as we know from this year, some quite new, but we are confident that each of you is up to the task … based on many examples from your ranks."

KAUST President, Tony Chan, addressing class of 2020 in the University’s 11th Commencement and first ever virtual graduation.

Chan referenced the graduates' incredible resiliency in overcoming both personal and collective challenges as evidenced by their ability to transform problems into exceptional opportunities, whether in areas such as energy and the environment or pressing global health issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The toilsome, resilient and entrepreneurial ways of your class are lessons to behold for all of us," Chan said.

Roadmap to the future

Chan commemorated the graduating students for contributing to KAUST's success in completing its first decade of research excellence, and called on them to take part in the success of its second decade—"KAUST 2.0." He characterized KAUST in this next chapter as being an instrument for building the future—delivering expertise to the Nation of Saudi Arabia as well as the global stage.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Saudi Arabia hosted the 2020 G20 Riyadh summit, the fifteenth meeting of Group of Twenty, virtually on 21–22 November 2020.

To this end, Chan said that KAUST is off to a rousing start. He pointed to KAUST's role anchoring discussions in the areas of energy, environment, health and digitalization as a participant at the G20 Presidency in 2020, hosted by The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. And he underscored major initiatives that position KAUST faculty, students and collaborators at the leading edge in research and translation—for the circular carbon economy, regional climate change, future of health, cyber security and artificial intelligence.

"I have absolutely no doubt that we will deliver, and that our indelible impact will be felt for many years to come through you and what each of you will accomplish in the coming years," Chan said.

Purposeful destinations

Chan highlighted the successes of some of the 2020 graduates, including two men who were raised in Thuwal, the local fishing village adjacent to the university. As teenagers, Motaz Modaishea AlJahdali and Hamzah Ahmad Alzanbaki both saw the massive campus development in their neighborhood, and in it both recognized 'the future.' Chan said the two Thuwal graduates are symbolic of KAUST's coming to fruition as a House of Wisdom—having risen from the sands of Thuwal to become a globally recognized university. He urged all of the graduates to "follow that road of meaning, and seek that path that will lead you to your purposeful destinations."

Dr. Saleh F. Hassan, the student speaker of class 2020, started his journey at KAUST in 2016 and is the first Saudi student to earn a Ph.D. from KAUST in Energy Resources and Petroleum Engineering.

Dr. Saleh Faisal Hassan delivered the student address. An Aramco-sponsored student, Hassan started his journey at KAUST in 2016 as the first Saudi student to join the newly established Ali Al-Naimi Petroleum Engineering Research Center (ANPERC). He is the first Saudi student to earn a Ph.D. from KAUST in Energy Resources and Petroleum Engineering.

Hassan received his master's degree in petroleum engineering at Imperial College London, and his undergraduate degree, also in petroleum engineering, at the Colorado School of Mines in the U.S. His combined record of academic achievements, community service, peer-reviewed publications, and cultural ambassadorship make him an exemplary scholar and representative of KAUST and also Saudi Arabia.

Hassan told the students a story about a gift of pearl cufflinks he received from his father when he was a young man. It was a gift that he was not to wear until he earned the right to wear them. He said the pearls signified a rite of passage—that great achievements are possible through hard work and perseverance, and that success is not a solo journey:

"Our success has only been possible with nurture and care from family, friends, mentors and great institutions like KAUST. As we enjoy this day, let's remember to turn to everyone around us … to take the time to thank our families who have supported us, our friends who have encouraged us, and our mentors who have guided us along the way."

At the end of his speech, Hassan proudly displayed his cufflinks, symbolic of his success in earning a Ph.D.

The conferral of degrees

Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Yves Gnanou officiated in conferring the Doctor of Philosophy degrees. The virtual presentation featured a slide of each student with a summary about their program and achievements, a quote of acknowledgment to mentors, family members, and/or other individuals, a photograph, and video footage of the students donning their doctoral hoods.

Dr. Samir Hamden, acting dean of the Biological and Environmental Science and Engineering Division, presented the Master of Science degrees. Similarly, the virtual presentation featured photographs of the students, their acknowledgment quotes, and information about their program and achievements.

Live footage of the graduating students appeared in grid formation along with their faculty mentors throughout the Zoom presentation.


A number of Ph.D gradates of class 2020 at the conferral of degrees during the KAUST 11th commencement.

President Chan offered closing remarks to the new graduates: 

"Whether you continue in academia, join the private sector, embark on an entrepreneurial journey, or enter public service, your contributions are solving important problems locally and globally and will be what matters. Whatever they are, I urge you to contribute in ways that matter to society, your country and the world."

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