​​​​​​​Commencement 2010

Frank H. T. Rhodes
Commencement Ceremony
December 16, 2010

Minister Al-Naimi, Chairman of the KAUST Board of Trustees, and other distinguished Members of the Board; President Shih, Executive Vice President Nadhmi Al-Nasr, Senior Vice President Mohamed Samaha, Acting Provost Calvin, and other members of the Executive Staff; distinguished members of the faculty and staff whose devoted work comes to fruition today; but most of all, our graduating students and your families, whose special day this is.

Today’s celebration is one of historic significance, a day of celebration as the world’s youngest and most ambitious university graduates its first class. It is an occasion of bold aspiration and remarkable accomplishment.

All of us here congratulate our Founder, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques on this historic occasion. We salute the vision, generosity and unflagging support that he has given us in this great venture. I hope I may speak especially on behalf of this first class in expressing our deep sense of admiration and indebtedness for that extraordinary generosity and support.

None of this would have been possible without the devotion of many who are here today. President Choon Fong Shih and his dedicated faculty and staff have been tireless in their efforts and support. I salute them and thank them. And I want especially to recognize and applaud a small group of individuals, whose extraordinary devotion has converted a dream into a reality. The Chairman of the Board of Trustees, His Excellency the Minister of Petroleum, Ali Al-Naimi, has championed, guided and nudged this university into the honored place it occupies today. As Chairman, he has worked tirelessly for KAUST, in addition to all his other responsibilities as Minister of Petroleum. He is required to travel the world in this role as one of the King’s chief ministers and advisors, with responsibilities of global significance. But he has never been too busy to lead, advise and encourage the work of KAUST.

I have also had the privilege of working closely with three other members of the university since October 2006 and have watched their tireless devotion to the work of KAUST, when they were the only members of the academic leadership and staff. This founding team was made up of Executive Vice President Nadhmi Al-Nasr, Interim Provost Ahmed Khowaiter and Senior Vice President Mohamed Samaha, and they were responsible for every aspect of the oversight and administration of the university during those vital early days of its existence. Our present strength owes much to their pioneering efforts.

None of the present progress of KAUST would have been possible without the unstinting leadership, help, generosity and support of Saudi Aramco. They were largely responsible for the fact that that these magnificent campus buildings were created, literally from the ground up, in the space of a little more than 1,000 days. Their contribution has been of incalculable benefit and I thank Mr. Khalid Al-Falih and his staff for their personal leadership and devotion.

All this we celebrate today as the first fruits of the noble vision of King Abdullah, who has brought into existence a new House of Wisdom – Bait al Hikma -- devoted to the quest for knowledge and its peaceful and useful application by a community of scholars, both men and women, coming together from all corners of the earth to this historic place.

Listen, if you will, to King Abdullah’s bold vision in founding the university, articulated in his words in the university’s royal charter. The university’s founding was, he wrote, based on his belief “that a great university can best bring this knowledge, and scientific base in fruitful service both to my people and all the peoples of the world, and wishing, moreover, to rekindle, effectuate and spread the great and noble virtue of learning that has marked the Arab and Muslim worlds in earlier time....”

“Giant towers” Morris Bishop, a 20th century Cornell professor, once remarked, “rest on a foundation of visionary purpose.” Today that “visionary purpose” finds new embodiment in you – the first graduates of KAUST.

You, today’s graduates, have given two gifts of great value to KAUST and we thank you for them. First, you gave us your trust. You came to a country most of you did not know, to a campus that did not then exist, to which the faculty had not yet been appointed, to a new experiment in learning that was then untested, to degree programs that were not fully planned, and you enrolled. Thank you for the gift of your trust.

Second, you have created the KAUST community. Your openness and zest have provided a strong and firm foundation for the future KAUST community.

There are 313 students graduating today, 72 of whom are women. You come from 45 different countries, including 82 students from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, 41 from the Peoples Republic of China, 37 from Mexico, 36 from the United States, 22 from the United Kingdom, 14 each from Jordan and Tunisia and smaller numbers from other countries. We are proud of this rainbow community.

Some of you, and many of the staff, came here without your families, before the campus construction was completed. You became a unified community, overcoming many obstacles, from heat and floods to temporary living accommodation. How well you have succeeded is shown by the fact that 70 of you hope to stay on here to work for a Ph.D. From a group of strangers, you have created a true community, not only with each other, but also with the faculty and staff, so that with them the larger campus community represents 67 countries in all. You have built bridges of understanding, goodwill and trust to all members of this visionary enterprise, and we congratulate you and thank you for that gift of community to KAUST.

In giving us these two gifts, your class is unique. For you are the foundation class and there will never be another. You did not come to a finished community and an established campus steeped in tradition. You have created a community from a group of strangers from many differing cultures, and you have created, too, an extraordinary richness of campus life, from sport and travel to supporting and serving the local population. You have joined with the faculty and staff to create an active and vibrant social program, forming sporting teams and interest groups – from biking clubs to scuba diving groups – so that the campus has become a very lively place, with the gymnasium, swimming pools, golf course and harbor fully engaged at almost all hours of the day and night.

And you have worked hard. Four of you have turned your skills into businesses, supported by the first KAUST Seed Fund. Fahmi Machda, for example, is creating a Red Sea Biogeographic Information System. Gamal Amin, who represented Egypt in the saber competition at the Beijing Olympics, is developing a wireless scoring system for use in fencing matches.

Some of you have already achieved remarkable academic success. Joanna Oommen will have a paper published in Electrochemical and Solid State Letters.

Some of you have already demonstrated the results of the application of science to human need. For example, John Murtagh received the Gold Medal of the Irish Academy for work done as an undergraduate at Trinity College, Dublin, when he presented a paper on solar ultraviolet disinfection of drinking water in developing countries.

Sabil Aldas undertook a summer internship, which led to her being appointed to the editorial board of the journal Focus on Alternative and Complementary Therapies.

Over 200 of you undertook internships at partner universities last summer. I had the opportunity to see this at first hand during a lunch that I hosted at Cornell University for a group of 16 KAUST students. This international group studied at Cornell for two months as part of the KAUST 2010 Summer Research Program. The group was inspiring. All were full of praise for their first year of experience at KAUST. They had many reasons for having chosen KAUST and, indeed, several had come against the advice of their parents, although they assured me that their parents are now wholly supportive of their decision. They praised the quality of housing, dining, recreational and academic facilities. They had high enthusiasm for the closeness with which they worked with their professors, both in course work and in research projects. Their only complaint, which was voiced by several young women in the group, was that they were uncertain that there would be career opportunities for them when they graduated.

None of this would be possible without the superb experimental facilities available on the campus. These facilities are now increasingly shared by some of our 23 industrial partners. Because of this, research has been very important to you. You, yourselves, organized the first Student Research Symposium held in October of this year, which included 27 student papers. This is a remarkable contribution to the life of the campus.

So well you have settled into this new community that, for all of you, even those from other lands, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is now home. Saudi Arabia has become a vital part not just of your experience, or your education, but also of your lives. What a great tribute this to the welcome and support that Saudi Arabia has provided. And to show how well you have settled into this new home, together with members of your families, faculty and staff, you have among you produced 45 babies, who have become new members of the KAUST community.

So we thank you for these two gifts of Trust and Community that you have created and given to KAUST.

All this is a cause for celebration, congratulations and thanks. But today everything changes. From today on you will no longer be students, but graduates: no longer apprentices, but professionals. Now you are about to graduate. You are the KAUST foundation class, the first fruits of a dream. Until now, the products of KAUST – its first graduates – have been a dream, a hope, a high promise of prospective results. Today we talk no longer of future promise, but of present results: no longer of talented students, but of capable engineers and skilled scientists. That transformation does not occur as you cross the stage and shake hands with the President. It has already taken place in endless labs, lectures, tutorials and events on the campus. So again we salute Professor Shih and thank all the faculty and staff who have prepared you for this day. Please stand – Professor Shih and all members of the faculty and staff -- so that we may thank you. We salute also your families who have encouraged and supported you as you ventured into this untried, untested and distant campus, as pioneers in a new venture. Please stand, families of the graduates, so that we may thank you.

I realize that I am now the only obstacle standing between you and graduation. It is traditional for commencement speakers to give advice and it is equally traditional for you to ignore it. The comedian, Bob Hope, who was the commencement speaker at another university, said to the graduating class, “You stand here at graduation, about to leave the campus and my job is to give you my advice. Here it is: “Don’t go””

But go you must. In return for your two gifts to KAUST, I want to remind you of KAUST’s parting gift to you: the gift you have received over these last 18 months.

I hope KAUST’s gift to all of you is something to hope for: a hope based on large dreams and high aspirations . It is a gift that encompasses and harnesses all that you have done here. It turns community into teamwork. It turns knowledge into purpose. It turns technology into service. It turns skills into benefits. It turns a job into a career, and it turns a career into a calling. I hope you graduate today, not just with a job, but also with a calling. For our society and our world are in desperate need of your help.

Some will say you have been born at the wrong time, for this is an age in which hope and heroes died. Can you really hope for new worlds to conquer, or is there only turf to defend? I would assert that there is a good reason for hopefulness.

First, in your graduation today, the world is renewed. With your skills, the world’s newest professionals, you can provide new solutions, new energy, and new insight. You can make a difference. Your leadership matters. With your graduation today, the world is born again.

Second, knowledge, hard won and humanely used, can improve the human condition, not immediately, but slowly, haltingly, over time. Everything here at KAUST has encouraged you to seek knowledge and to apply it humanely and wisely to human needs. And that, too, is a source of hope.

That hope, that larger purpose, which alone brings meaning to life, unites our gathering today with a larger company that links the continents, crosses the oceans, and spans the centuries, stretching from the Bait al Hikma, to the ancient centers of learning – in Asia, Europe and North America – to KAUST, this new university at Thuwal here today. This is the noble company of men and women who have loved learning and defended it well, and who have seen in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words “The ultimate in the penultimate.” It is their ranks as leaders you join today.

Men and women of the Class of 2010, the foundation class of this remarkable university, the embodiment of the vision of King Abdullah and the hopes of those on the faculty and staff who have accompanied you on the journey, welcome to the world that that urgently awaits you; to the world that desperately needs your skills and your commitment.

So, Class of 2010,
May the friendships you have made here never fade.
May the knowledge you have gained here serve you and others well. May the hope you have nurtured here never be lost.
And, when you return here in 2035 for your 25th Reunion,
May it be said that you, the Foundation Class of KAUST,
Truly embodied the hopes and dreams of our Founder, King Abdullah, In fruitful service to all the peoples of the world.

Members of the Foundation Class of 2010,
Congratulations. Good wishes. Good success.