Welcome, members of the Class of 2022—and soon-to-be-graduates of Harvard College.
Exactly 1,359 days ago, we met at Convocation, and we began our first year together—you as undergraduates, me as president. I spoke about the merits of academic regalia, and I challenged you to use your waking hours as undergraduates—some 21,000 of them—to explore all that the University had to offer.
Little did we know then that we would all confront a global pandemic that would test us in ways that we could not have imagined. I find it fitting that we are gathered here in these billowing robes, a symbol not only of our membership in a community of learning but also of our experience these past four years, our experience of a Harvard—of a world—blown about by winds that never existed before. And all of us carried along with them—and into the unknown.
It has been a wilder ride than any of us could have expected. Candidly, when I made the difficult decision to send you all home on such short notice in March of 2020, I never imagined that two years later—and after one million people had succumbed to this virus in the US alone—we would still be dealing with this public health crisis. Your class has been tested as few others have been. You have demonstrated extraordinary resilience and patience, both skills that will serve you well as you prepare for life after Harvard. Based on what I have seen of you and how you have met this moment, I have great faith that you, like those who came before you, will find your way, and will make your mark on the world. Let me take this moment to thank you for your perseverance, for your flexibility and your understanding. I don’t think I have ever been prouder of any graduating class at any university than I am of the Harvard College Class of 2022.
One day, there will be enough distance for us to contemplate the enormity of what we have been through as a community, but that day is not today—and that is okay. For now, we can share a quiet moment to say goodbye to whatever we imagined these last 1,359 days might have held for us. For now, we can be grateful that we are here—together—on the verge of your commencement and all that awaits you in the years ahead.
It is quite common for students at this precise moment in time—a day before your College graduation—to feel a combination of excitement and anxiety. Excitement for all that awaits you as you begin the next chapter in the journey called life, and anxiety over where that journey is likely to take you. Some of you entered Harvard convinced of exactly where you wanted to go—law school, medical school, a career in public service, for example. Some of you found your passion on this campus and are now going to pursue academic careers or opportunities in journalism, the arts, or entertainment. And some of you are still searching. You may have a job lined up that will pay you well, but, if you are honest with yourself, you are still worried if it is the right path for you or if you will succeed.
One of the problems in trying to plan your career is that a career is only knowable in retrospect. On the day you retire you can look back and it all makes sense. You can identify the inflection points, the decisions, that brought you to where you ultimately wound up. But when confronting these decisions in real time, you will struggle. You will make lists of pros and cons. You will consult with friends and family. And you will agonize over these choices long into the night.
I know what I am talking about because I have been there.
As I was completing my PhD here at Harvard, Adele and I thought we were headed to Washington, DC. It was the start of the Carter administration, and we were excited by the prospect of getting in on the ground floor. But then an unexpected opportunity came up:
Would I like to return to my alma mater, MIT, to fill in for someone going on leave for two years? The salary was a fraction of what I would have made in DC and there was no guarantee of a job two years hence.
A number of years later, I was still at MIT—now on the tenure track but disheartened because my fabulously talented co-author didn’t get tenure. I had concluded that if he did not get it, I wouldn’t either, and I had just made up my mind to leave MIT and academia altogether when my department chair came calling:
Would I consider taking on major administrative responsibility to launch a new academic program?
Flash forward 35 years. I was a member of a presidential search committee, trying to find a leader for a university I care a lot about. I had been comfortably semi-retired—more or less—for almost seven years when the chair of the search committee approached me on behalf of the group:
Would I consider becoming a candidate for the job?
If I had said “no” to any one of those questions, I would not be standing here today. This is not to say that I am prescient or wise, or brave—just that I was open to seeing where roads I hadn’t considered might lead me. That way of moving through the world has taken me to some pretty interesting places—being here, behind this podium, is one of them.
You, too, will have chances to consider other paths for yourself, paths that will appear to you unexpectedly—even inconveniently. Be willing to take those chances. Believe in yourself. And don’t be too concerned about failure. My late mother, Ruth, was a very wise woman. Whenever I worried about a decision, she would always say, “What’s the worst that can happen? Can you live with that? If you can, go for it.” I hope you are as liberated by this advice as I have been throughout my life.
Other discrete moments will influence you so profoundly that denying them would be a tragedy.
Jorie Graham, Boylston Professor of Oratory and Rhetoric, was once an undergraduate at NYU with her heart set on filmmaking. One day, walking past an open door of a poetry class, she heard lines from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. / I do not think they will sing to me.” But sing they did—and, because of that moment, Jorie went on to become one of America’s most distinguished poets, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and one of Harvard’s most beloved faculty members.
Rubén Blades, a musical giant and this year’s Harvard Arts medalist, was once a law student in Panama. One weekend, the dean of the school he attended saw him performing with his band. The dean took him aside and told him that if he wanted to be a lawyer—to reflect the dignity of that profession—he would have to quit singing. Rubén ended up in Miami with a demo album—a wild talent and ambition—and, eventually, seventeen Grammys.
Ray Hammond, a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Medical School, was a very successful surgeon. Then he heard another voice calling him. Today he is Reverend Ray Hammond, one of Boston’s most influential spiritual leaders.
I chose these examples because they demonstrate the randomness with which new roads will appear to you. Neither Jorie nor Rubén nor Ray could dream of where a single voice would take them, but they listened nonetheless, paying close attention to the world around them as they imagined how and where they wanted to focus their attention and time.
Now, I will say something that you may shrug off as nostalgia. But I hope you will remember it: Random events of profound influence don’t happen on a screen. Think of a person stopping in her tracks to listen to lines of unfamiliar poetry. Think of a person recognizing his desire in an unexpected and unwelcome ultimatum. Think of a person tuning into something greater than himself. Think of where and how those things happen—and where and how they can’t or won’t. Engage and embrace the world personally with passion and enthusiasm and, if you are lucky, you too will someday be inspired by the unexpected.
Members of the Class of 2022: May you consider fully the paths that reveal themselves to you in the years ahead. May you experience the sweetness of both poetry and song, and marvel at the refrains that emerge as you make your way through life. May you be spared anxiety, dread, and uncertainty—and may you always be surrounded by people who love you.
Best of luck to each of you—and Godspeed.