Olin College Holds 16th Commencement and Presents First Honorary Degree

Monday, May 17, 2021

On Sunday, May 16, Olin College celebrated the Class of 2021 at a Commencement ceremony overflowing with joy and pride in the accomplishments of the class.

As Olin’s first in-person event since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was indeed a lot to celebrate.

During the ceremony, Olin awarded its first-ever honorary degree to Dr. Robert Langer, Olin’s featured Commencement speaker, in recognition of his exemplary contributions as a respected leader in the scientific community. “When learning about Olin’s Commencement traditions, I found out that in the College’s 21-year history, we have never awarded an honorary degree,” said Olin College President Dr. Gilda Barabino. “In this year of firsts, it seemed like a good time to change that.”

A line of students in cap and gown wave and process down to the Olin Commencement Tent.

Members of the Olin College Class of 2021 wave to the community as they process to the Commencement Tent on May 16, 2021.

Provost Mark Somerville led the procession of graduates into the tent and welcomed the in-person guests and remote viewers. “I want to offer a special welcome to the four seniors who are participating in this ceremony from remote locations and to the family and friends at home who were not able to join us for this momentous occasion,” he said. More than 880 viewers tuned into the livestream from their homes all over the world. 

The Olin College of Engineering Class of 2021 Graduates pose for their class photo on May 16, 2021.

The Class of 2021 graduates pose for their class photo on May 16, 2021.

Welcome from the Board of Trustees

In his remarks, Ken Stokes P’12, Chair of the Olin Board of Trustees, welcomed special guests, including President Emeritus Rick Miller and Bill Norden, former director of the FW Olin Foundation, founding and current trustee and former board chair. Mentioning the issues facing the world today, Stokes said, “I believe that problems like these serve to underscore the relevance of Olin’s mission, and the critical need for engineers like yourselves now and in the decades to come.”

“However you choose to apply your talents, please don’t view the state of the world as overwhelming,” said Stokes. “Rather, view it as your personal invitation to participate in creating a better future along whatever path you find most compelling. On behalf of the Board of Trustees, to the Olin College Class of 2021, we wish you all abundant health, great success, and fulfilling lives in the years ahead!”

Ken Stokes, Olin College Chair of the Board of Trustees stands at a podium and offers the Commencement Greetings

Ken Stokes, Olin College Chair of the Board of Trustees, offers the Commencement Greetings during the ceremony.

A Life With Purpose

In her first Commencement address as President of Olin College, Dr. Gilda Barabino thanked the Class of 2021 for welcoming her to Olin and applauded their many achievements during this challenging year. She also urged the graduates to find their ikigai, the Japanese concept of a life with purpose.

“Ikigai is the intersection of what you love and what you’re good at with what the world needs—because part of our fulfillment comes from potentially changing the lives of others. Quite simply, ikigai is your reason to get up in the morning,” said Barabino. “Since coming to Olin, I have felt the spirit of ikigai in who we are and what we do. Here, it is not just about personal fulfillment without regard to the world around us. Rather, it is the marriage of the two—the meaning and purpose to your life, while also contributing to society at large and doing what the world needs.”

As engineers entering the workforce and finding their own purpose, the Class of 2021 has enormous potential to contribute to a world that acutely needs its skills and desire to help others, Barabino noted. “The world you are entering is a world of enormous worry and challenge," she said, but also “a world of enormous possibility for engineers and scientists—particularly for the kind of engineer you have become.”

“You have learned how to consider the consequences of your designs, you have learned how to put humans at the center of your engineering. You have learned what it means to fail a hundred times before you succeed. You have learned how to make an impact on the world—and leave every part of it better than it was before.”

“We are excited to see what you will accomplish,” said Barabino. “And we—and your families—are so proud to have played a part in preparing you for it.”

President Gilda Barabino, in blue cap and gown, stands at a podium and addresses the Class of 2021 and their families, faculty, staff and guests at Olin Commencement.

President Gilda Barabino addresses the Class of 2021 and their families, faculty, staff and guests at the 16th Olin Commencement Ceremony

Life, Laughter and Love

Anusha Datar, selected by her peers to speak on behalf of the Class of 2021, spoke about the graduates’ connection to one another. “As a class, we have supported each other through dramatic change and tragic loss, navigated a variety of new environments, and doubled down on prioritizing causes we care about like equity, social responsibility, and sustainability. And we’ve had a lot of fun while making all of that happen,” she said.

Datar pointed that “while the setting of Olin itself served as a catalyst for our initial connections, we did not need to be colocated all of the time to work together like that. Virtually, we continued to pass down Olin traditions like the senior auction. We bonded as a class over complicated google sheets, photo-filled miro boards, and chaotic class group chats. This proves that while the place of Olin certainly matters, its power is within us as individuals, who are part of the people who make up the Olin community, or as we often say, Franklin Walter Olin Family.”

“You all are some of the most inspiring, hardworking, and hilarious people I’ve ever met. I’m so excited to see what you all do for your communities and for the world, and I know we will keep learning from each other along the way. Thank you all, and as I like to say when I conclude all of my communications to our class: I hope our futures are full of life, laughter, and love.”

Anusha Datar, selected by her peers to speak on behalf of the Class of 2021.

Anusha Datar, selected by her peers to speak on behalf of the Class of 2021.

Build a Vision to Better the World

“You are the next generation of innovators who want to better the world. You’ve been living that out for 4 years. So what now?” asked Tim Sauder, Professor of the Practice in Design, in his remarks on behalf of the Olin faculty. “You’re leaving Olin. What are you going to do without Olin’s vision guiding your work, your community, your classes and your mentors?”

Instead of a traditional speech, Sauder, told the graduates, he designed a t-shirt for them and told the story of what he made with a series of images showing his design’s evolution toward the final product, which was given to the graduates as a gift after the ceremony. His design contained a message to the graduates to “Build a vision to better the world, Struggle with that vision and Act on that vision.”

Tim Sauder, Associate Professor of Practice in Design, in a black cap and gown, stands at a podium with the Olin College logo behind him.

Tim Sauder, Associate Professor of Practice in Design, gives the Faculty Greeting.

“You are designers and engineers,” Sauder told the graduates. “You’ve specialized in different areas based on your abilities and interest. But you’ve also been a part of a community, taken part in politics, learned about education and developed meaningful relationships. These are all opportunities to act on your vision to better the world. What you’ve learned at Olin will help you make responsible decisions as engineers and designers but it can also inform how you volunteer in your local school, how you engage with your neighbors, what you invest your time and money into and who you throw your support behind. I’m so excited to see how you will use what you’ve learned here to act on your vision to better the world.”

Transforming Human Healthcare

Olin welcomed featured Commencement speaker, Dr. Robert Langer, head of the Langer Lab at MIT. The most cited engineer in history, Langer has over 1,400 issued and pending patents worldwide, as well as patents licensed or sublicensed to over 400 pharmaceutical, chemical, biotechnology and medical device companies. He is a founder of Moderna, the Cambridge, Mass.-based maker of one of the world’s COVID-19 vaccines.

“In speaking to you this afternoon, I want to leave you with some very simple messages,” began Langer. “First, when you leave here and you choose a job, I hope you follow your passion. Choose something you really love rather than, say, something that is going to make you the most money. Secondly, try to dream big dreams—dreams that can change the world and make it a better place. Third, you’re going to run into roadblocks, whatever you do. I hope that no matter how bad things look, you don’t give up. And fourth, I hope everybody treats all people with respect and kindness.”

Langer shared many of his career setbacks, rejections, risks and failures to illustrate his message to the Olin graduates that career paths are rarely smooth and easy.

After finding “over 200 different ways to get it to not work,” Langer joked, his research finally resulted in a breakthrough that enabled the development of bioassays, ultimately leading to new treatments for cancer. “It took 28 years from our earliest study in this area until the FDA approved the first blood vessel inhibitor.” Today, blood vessel inhibitors are among the most successful biopharmaceuticals in the world for treating cancer and eye diseases like macular degeneration, helping hundreds of millions of people in the process.

Langer realized early on in his career that what he really wanted to do was to use his engineering education to improve people’s lives. Over the years, he and his students have started over 40 companies and licensed things to over 400 companies. “The reason I do this goes back to really wanting to make a difference in the world,” said Langer.

“Throughout all our work, with our challenges and setbacks, I remain incredibly proud of and excited about the potential of using engineering to make the world a better place and transform human healthcare."

“I think we’re still at the tip of the iceberg in terms of using engineering and engineering principles for all types of applications that can profoundly relieve suffering, prolong life and create all kinds of new technologies. And I believe that you, as engineers from this great college, really have the ability to change the world.”

Dr. Robert S. Langer gives the 16th Olin College Commencement Address on May 16, 2021

Dr. Robert S. Langer gives the 16th Olin College Commencement Address on May 16, 2021.

Video: Well Wishes from Family and Friends

Many people wanted to share in the joy of this day with the graduates and the Olin community, but couldn’t be at the ceremony because of travel restrictions and other pandemic-related reasons. So, we asked family, friends, faculty, staff and others to share their well wishes in advance: