Remarks made by President Bacow on March 24, 2023 at Junior Family Weekend.
Thank you, Lie Leena and Travis.
On behalf of the entire University, I want to welcome each of you to Junior Family Weekend. I always look forward to this event. It is an opportunity to meet the families who have entrusted their young people to us. But today is a bit bittersweet for me since it is the last time I get to welcome folks to this event, as I will be stepping down at the end of June. Not to worry. I have a fabulous successor – Claudine Gay, currently dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, which means she oversees the College. You will love her.
My remarks today are divided into four parts: First, a compliment. Second, an observation. Third, a suggestion. And, finally, some advice.
So let’s start with the compliment. The fact that you are sitting here today is indication that you have done your job well. You all have raised incredibly smart, interesting, creative, hardworking, idealistic, and, if I am honest, sometimes challenging kids. Those are the qualities we sought when we admitted them, and we have not been disappointed. But I also want to give your kids a compliment on their admirable selection of their families. I told you they were smart, and they are.
Second, an observation. No one skates through life without encountering adversity. Your students have already faced more than their share. I know about a few of their personal challenges because they have told me their stories. I have my own group of first year advisees. I also try to meet as many students as possible. I learn a lot about their backgrounds when we talk. I always admire how they have overcome the personal challenges they have faced. But every student in the Class of 2024 also has faced an enormous collective challenge – the pandemic. It has robbed them of much of their young lives – the last few months of their senior year in high school, always a special time, and a first year of college that was radically different from their expectations and unlike that experienced by any other class. If there is a silver lining to their experience, it is that they have already demonstrated that they are incredibly resilient. While I would have not wished the pandemic on anyone, this resilience will serve them well in life. They will encounter future challenges, and they will be prepared.
Third, a suggestion. While you are here, go out of your way to get to know your kid’s friends because they are likely to keep reappearing in your lives. Most students form friendships in college that last them a lifetime. I know what I am talking about. I met three of my best friends during the first two days of orientation my freshman year. No, not here. I went to a small technical school down the street – MIT. The four of us lived together on and off throughout college. When we graduated, we shared an apartment. One of my roommates introduced me to my wife, Adele. He married Adele’s roommate. In fact, my three roommates and I all got married in four successive weekends in June 1975. As we all approach our 48th anniversary, we are all still married. We have shared all of life’s passages together: the birth of children, buying our first houses, the marriage of our kids, major career decisions, and the birth of grandchildren. (Between the four couples we have 17 of them.) My point is the friends your kids make at Harvard are likely to keep reappearing in their lives and yours. Get to know them now and eventually you will think of them as extended family.
Finally, some advice. Your kids are closing in on the end of their junior year. This is the time when they start to get nervous about what comes after college. The fact that they think that most of their Harvard classmates have already figured things out only adds to their anxiety. My advice is to tell them to relax. Their first job will not be their last. And even a choice of what to study in graduate school will not bind them to a particular career path. Whatever they think they are likely to do as they start their final year at Harvard will often change. To illustrate this point, let me go back to my roommates. When we graduated, we all started graduate school at either Harvard or MIT. At the time, we all were convinced of our future paths. In fact, none of us wound up doing anything close to what we thought we were going to do. This also proved true of many of our classmates. I guarantee you I never thought I would be president of any university let alone Harvard. In fact, I never even dreamed of being an academic. Life happens. Most of our careers are a series of fortuitous accidents. On the day you retire, it all makes sense. Encourage your kids to relax, to be thoughtful about their choices, but caution them not to over plan. As the saying goes, man plans and God laughs.
It has been a pleasure sharing these last three years with your kids. Best of luck to them. I can’t wait to see what they all do, but I am confident that, whatever it is, they will make you as proud as you are today.