Hi, Harvard College Class of 2024. I’m President Bacow—but please feel free to call me Larry. Everybody does.
It’s my honor to welcome you officially to the Harvard community. We’re more than 315,000 strong—living and working in nearly every country—and making countless contributions in communities around the world.
Today, you begin to undertake a task of great significance: determining how you—and you alone—will spend the next four years of your life. Dean Khurana urged you to see your time at Harvard as transformational rather than transactional, and Dean O’Dair encouraged you to take full advantage of your newness. To their wisdom, I’ll add my own words of advice—and they’re simply:
Find your way to heal this world.
Throughout childhood and young adulthood, you’ve experienced the thrill of more and more opportunities to decide what you will do, when you will do it, and how you will do it. It started simply enough—peas or carrots, for example. Then it grew into negotiations about bedtime, about screen time, about driving time—the list goes on.
If you haven’t thanked your parents—or the people closest to you—for all of those chances to learn and grow, chances that ultimately set you on a course to this very moment—you should make it one of your goals this week. And—if you’ve done it already—there’s no harm in doing it again. Remember, you have lots of people to help you through this transition—advisors, resident tutors, deans, PAFs, and others. By contrast your parents and family are on their own. You need to help them through their transition.
This moment is about you, but it is also about the people who helped you along the way—and the people you will encounter over the course of the next four years—and, candidly, over the course of the rest of your lives. With the privilege of a Harvard College education comes the responsibility to use your considerable talents to make this world a better place.
Start close to home. Social distancing, mask wearing, hand washing: these actions may save your life, the life of someone close to you, the life of someone you’ll never meet. In moments when compliance feels like a nuisance—and we’ve all been there—I hope you’ll remember the stakes and do the right thing.
Expand your reach and make your voice heard. There are, as Dean Khurana has mentioned, political campaigns that would benefit from your involvement, especially at this moment of deep division in this country. For those of you who are eligible to vote in the upcoming elections, I will now give you your first homework assignment: register to vote, inform yourself of the candidates and the issues, and cast a ballot. It’s the first responsibility of citizenship in a democracy, and at Harvard we take this responsibility very seriously.
In fact, while you are at a computer, bookmark this website: iop.turbovote.org (IOP—for Institute of Politics). We have made it very easy for you to register and request a ballot. Now go do it.
And, finally, find your cause and fight for it. And, when you see something wrong, try to right it. I have yet to meet anyone—of any political leaning—who thinks the world we live in is perfect. The only way it’s likely to get better is if good people like you work to repair it—through everyday action, through focused effort, through lifelong attention and engagement.
This summer—just this week—the streets of cities across this country have been filled with protestors—demonstrations unlike any I have seen since I was your age. People are marching for justice. They are marching in the name of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and now Jacob Blake. They are marching against racism, and they are shining a light on systems and symbols in this country and elsewhere that perpetuate inequality. That, too, is democracy in action—citizens exercising their rights to help right wrongs—people working together to form a more perfect union.
Always remember that anything worth doing tends to generate discussion and debate. In difficult moments, I hope you’ll be generous and patient listeners, eager to understand those whose views you do not share—and I hope they pay you the same courtesy. Every conversation that deepens your understanding of something that’s important to you even if—especially if—it is the perspective of someone who disagrees with you—is education, too. Never forget: No one has a monopoly on virtue. If we believe in truth, if we believe in Veritas, we must all be willing to be proven wrong.
Today, you accept the challenge of making good on the opportunities before you—for your own sake and for the sake of causes as varied as the members of this class. Welcome to Harvard, Class of 2024—good luck to you and Godspeed.
And, now, a beautiful meditation on the power of public service prepared by the Harvard Choruses and the Kuumba Singers—followed by a special welcome from Dani Pérez. They are a senior in Leverett House and one of this year’s co-chairs for the FYRE Pre-Orientation program.
Once again, best of luck to each and every one of you. I look forward to seeing you—to meeting you in person—when that permits. Thanks a lot—see you soon.