This past week, 1,670 first-year students have arrived to join Harvard College; 558 men and women have entered the 1L class at Harvard Law School; there are 906 new MBA students at Harvard Business School; 939 new students at the Harvard Kennedy School; 690 new students at the Graduate School of Education. And so on. Thousands of individuals from across the United States and around the world have come to be part of this extraordinary institution, with its long traditions, its distinctive culture, and its at times almost impossibly high expectations. And of those thousands, I am certain that at least many hundreds are wondering, “Do I really belong here?”
The familiar undergraduate version of this anxiety is the widespread conviction among freshmen that they are the Admissions Office mistake, the one who got the acceptance letter in error instead of that other Jessica Rosenberg. Or sometimes they worry about whether they will fit in — like Shawna Sinnott, who wrote me after her graduation and her ROTC commissioning last spring. She had heard before she arrived four years ago that Harvard was not welcoming to the military. She told me that, despite her fears, this proved to be not true at all. She felt at home as soon as she got here, she told me, and she hopes perhaps to return to graduate school at Harvard after her military service.
But anxieties about belonging have not always had such happy outcomes. When Booker T. Washington was awarded an honorary degree at Harvard in 1896, he reported that he felt like a huckleberry in a bowl of milk. W.E.B. Du Bois, Harvard’s first black Ph.D., observed that he was in but not of Harvard. More than a century later, we still have work to do to ensure that black students, staff, and faculty feel fully represented and included.
And, of course, women were not permitted to belong here either for most of Harvard’s long history. Had I arrived as a freshman at Radcliffe College, I would have been told I could not enter the undergraduate library. Lamont was only for men. The distinguished journalist Linda Greenhouse of the Class of 1968 — my contemporary — remembers that, and I quote her, the “basic fact of our existence within the Harvard community was that we were not the norm. We were the deviation from the norm.”
Two years ago, I attended the 25th anniversary of the Harvard Gay and Lesbian Caucus, an experience I found deeply moving. Most of these former students were from generations for whom “belonging” at Harvard required closeting and denying their real identities. To come back now as their real selves meant for many to truly belong at Harvard for the first time.
Much of Harvard’s history, especially in the past half century, has been a story of extending the opportunities for belonging, challenging not just our own institutional assumptions but working to become an agent of change and openness in society more broadly. James Conant, the president of Harvard from 1933 to 1953, introduced a program of national scholarships that were revolutionary in their commitment to recruiting students of modest means. Recent expansion of our financial aid programs built on that legacy of ensuring access to Harvard for talented students regardless of their economic circumstances. Today’s undergraduates are the most diverse in Harvard’s history — diverse racially, internationally and economically.
But students of every race, gender, and circumstance still wonder “Do I belong?” and we must continue to work to ensure that they know they do. That you do. I always tell the freshmen — and some of you may have heard me say it at your convocation yesterday — that the Admissions Office knows what it is doing. But that is hardly enough. We speak in so many ways — with our words, of course, but perhaps even more powerfully in what we do. Only 3 percent of our faculty is African-American. What does that communicate to an African-American undergraduate contemplating an academic career? What does it mean that the focus of undergraduate social life, the final clubs, are a group of organizations closed to women? How can we work both to honor and support the dedication of students who join ROTC and the dignity of gay and lesbian students excluded from it? What can we do to advance passage of the DREAM Act so that undocumented students do not face the terrifying experience of College sophomore Eric Balderas, who last June was confronted with the possibility of deportation — denial of the right of belonging not just to Harvard but to the country in which he has lived since he was 4 years old? Harvard spoke out strongly in support of Eric and his right to belong.
As we leave this chapel today, let us think about the thousands of new Harvardians among us and how we can help them in the weeks and months to come to truly know they belong in this community. And let us think more broadly about what we might call Harvard’s trajectory of belonging: a promise of inclusion and participation that is at the heart of who we are and that we must dedicate ourselves to fulfill. And to those new Harvardians, I say, this is your place; you are here because we chose you, we thought you belonged. Now make Harvard yours.
– Drew Gilpin Faust