Khan urges graduates to ‘increase the positivity in the world’

Pictured from left are Albert Wei, Salman Khan and David Leebron. Photo by Tommy LaVergne

Graduating senior recognized for education activism

Albert Wei has spent much of his college career finding ways to make education better. The graduating senior was honored for his efforts Saturday with the Salman Khan Commencement Award for Entrepreneurial Community Leadership.

Each year, the university honors a graduating senior who exemplifies the values and ideals of the commencement speaker. Wei, a senior, was selected for the award because of his passion for education and his talent for leading others. Wei received a strong, passionate nomination from Leadership Rice, an organization he has been involved with for three years.

“Some simply do what is asked of them,” the recommendation letter said. “Albert consistently finds ways to go above and beyond.”

Last summer, Wei took part in Leadership Rice’s Summer Mentorship Experience, a competitive program that places Rice students in challenging internships. The students are paired with leaders who mentor them through substantial projects and work experiences.

Wei was placed at Houston’s Sharpstown High School. The internship, he said, “gave me assignments from beautifying the school to helping with staff development to going to principal training, helping in the office, tutoring students, substitute teaching – it was interesting being put in that position as an intern.”

He took a particular interest in the school’s marching band, which struggled without resources for assistant directors and other instructors to help students on the field.

“I decided to help whenever I could,” Wei said, because marching band had been an important part of his own high school experience.

The previous summer, Wei spent five weeks in Peru as a Loewenstern Fellow, a Rice program that sends students to Asian and Latin American countries for service and research.

“That was a huge growing experience for me,” he said.

Wei worked in four schools, usually as a teacher’s aide. “I taught some of the classes on my own because some of the schools were terribly understaffed,” he said – classes in math, Spanish, English and physical education.

Wei has also been influential in his residential college, Will Rice. Last year he created Karma Patrol, a volunteer group that supplies food and water to students at parties to help curb too much alcohol consumption.

“It reinforces the culture of care,” Wei said, “and it’s really fun.” He hopes Karma Patrol will soon spread to other residential colleges.

After graduation, Wei plans to stay in Houston. He has joined Teach for America and will return to Sharpstown High at the request of the school’s principal to teach social studies classes.

“I am fascinated with education,” he said. “I think education is so, so important to everything we talk about. All of these social issues – poverty, crime – I think it all stems from education.”

Wei isn’t sure just where his work in education will lead – administration, perhaps, or maybe education reform from the outside.

“I also want to work with the kids,” he said. “Right now, I really want to stay connected to the students; I think I belong in the classroom.”

He met Khan, founder of the online Khan Academy, at a breakfast with Rice President David Leebron Saturday morning before commencement.

Wei said he admires what Khan has done to make education accessible online to everyone. “It’s not just any education – it’s high-quality education,” he said.

His best friend has earned a college degree online, Wei said, and he sees the value of online education’s flexibility.

“For a lot of students who don’t have the resources to go to a campus, I think it really helps,” he said.

Wei attributed much of his success to the staff at Rice’s Center for Civic Engagement. “They’ve all been so instrumental in helping me grow,” he said.

Wei said he’s grateful for the commencement award.

“The university always wants to highlight students, and I’m honored I was chosen as one of them,” he said. “But the experience is reward enough.”

Overnight rains don’t prevent Rice’s 99th commencement from being held outdoors

The grass was still soggy and clouds covered the sun, but the rain stopped just in time for Rice University’s 99th commencement Saturday morning outdoors in the Academic Quad.

President David Leebron welcomed the graduates’ friends and families to a ceremony that is often a hot and sunny affair. Overnight storms had left the morning cool and damp, and in Houston in May, he told the crowd, “this is what we call perfect commencement weather.”

Rice awarded a total of 1,665 degrees to 1,609 students, including 881 degrees to 832 undergraduates and 784 master’s degrees and Ph.D.s to 777 graduate students.

“We thank you for lending us these outstanding students who have contributed so richly to our community,” Leebron told the friends and family members in attendance.

He commended the Class of 2012 for its senior class gift of more than $11,000 to the Rice Annual Fund, a record-breaking contribution from a graduating class.

Commencement speaker Salman Khan’s address to the graduates focused on contributions of a different kind: He urged the students to do everything they can to “increase the net happiness in the world.”

Khan is the founder of the Khan Academy, a free online education platform and not-for-profit organization that has made waves in the field of education. In 2004, Khan’s online tutorials for a young cousin gained a wider audience, and five years later he turned his collection of free educational videos into the online Khan Academy. Today, his more than 3,200 online tutorials attract 6 million viewers every month, and Time magazine recently named him one of the world’s 100 most influential people.

Khan, 35, looked nearly as young as the graduates he addressed.

“I feel like a bit of an older brother to you,” Khan told them, saying he wanted to “think together” with them and share “some thoughts, ideas and guiding principles.” He encouraged the graduates to do three things: Become lifelong learners, maintain perspective and “increase the positivity in the world, the net happiness.”

A Rice diploma is “a powerful thing,” Khan told the graduates. “When you have that, really neat things are going to start happening in your life.” The question, he said, “is how you can leverage that validation you’re going to get” to make the world a better place.

Khan offered an example of how a Rice grad had made a difference in his own life. In 2009, he quit his job as a hedge fund analyst to devote his energy to building Khan Academy online. For months, he struggled to find support until Ann Doerr ’75, a Rice alumna, gave him the financial backing he needed to get Khan Academy up and running.

Doerr, an environmental activist, and her husband, Silicon Valley venture capitalist and Rice alum John Doerr ’73, have made generous contributions to Rice, as well. A $15 million gift from their Beneficus Foundation in 2010 established the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership, and John Doerr was the university’s commencement speaker in 2007.

Ann Doerr’s belief in Khan – and her willingness to show her support – was crucial, Khan said.

“Obviously the money was a good deal,” he said. “But the real power of what Ann did was that act of empowerment, that act of validation.”

His advice for the graduates was to do the same thing – to support and validate others who do good things, even in small ways.

“Don’t just sit by and observe it,” Khan said. “Recognize it. When you do that, all sorts of things are going to start percolating in the universe.”

Khan also stressed the importance of lifelong learning and urged the graduates to approach life with energy and curiosity.

“The next 10 years are your chance to ask the naïve questions that you’ll later learn are the profound questions,” he said. “They’re your chance to really invest in yourself.”

He urged the students to build resilience by keeping their lives and careers in perspective.

“Everyone in this audience, you’re going to do just fine,” Khan said. “You’re going to have your four-bedroom house, your car with power windows, you’ll be able to go to Sea World whenever you want to. But along that way, there are going to be ups and downs.

“You might stumble the first few times out of the gate,” he told the graduates, or they might have immediate, startling success. Either way, Khan said, it’s important to focus on the long term and put those highs and lows “in the perspective of the universe.”

Fifty years from now, Khan told the graduates, they’ll have regrets – “we’ll all have them.” He urged them to try “a little thought experiment”: Imagine, he said, that 50 years from now a genie gives you a chance to go back in time, take you “right here, to May 2012.” He urged the graduates to live now as if it were their “second pass” through life.

“I am truly honored and humbled to be here,” Khan told the Class of 2012, “just completely excited by what you all are going to do in your ‘second pass.’”

Rice senior Albert Wei received the 2012 Salman Khan Commencement Award for Entrepreneurial Community Leadership, named in honor of the commencement speaker. (See sidebar above.)

About Alyson Ward

Alyson Ward is a writer in Public Affairs at Rice University.