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Remarks from Convocation 2023

Your Name

Welcome, members of the Harvard College Class of 2027!

I am Claudine Gay, and I am your president.

I am excited to be here and to mark with you the first moments of your official membership in our community.

You’ve joined us from across the country and around the world. You’ve lived lives as varied as anyone could imagine, surmounted obstacles and reached goals, and defined part of who you are through intense focus, unceasing effort, and outstanding achievement.

And now you are here.

In this space, give yourselves permission to set aside thoughts of the past and designs on the future. Be present in this marvelous theatre. Take in every aspect of this experience. Let your joy and your pride win out.

Each of you deserves it.

Each of you has earned it.

Each of you belongs here.

You are going to make Harvard stronger and better by being who you are, by sharing your perspective, and by contributing to our mission. I know this because I have seen it myself. Year after year, as a faculty member, I witnessed extraordinary transformations in students, profound shifts in understanding and awareness across every dimension of being.

Others will speak today about some of those shifts. For my part, I want to share with you something I learned long ago that made transformation possible for me, something I hope each of you will remember as you set out on your Harvard journey.

Let me tell you a story about a monogram.

I was in 6th grade, and I had a good friend named Stacey. One day, Stacey came to school with a new backpack, and I noticed three letters embroidered on it: SEK. I asked her what they meant. They were, of course, the first letters of her first name, her middle name, and her last name. And she explained, proudly, that when she got older, instead of “Stacey,” she might use her middle name and become “Elizabeth,” or “Liz,” or “Betsy.” We thrilled at the possibilities; each name seemed like a gateway to a different world.

For the first time, I thought about my own name: Claudine Gay. I thought about it for the rest of the day, and my confusion and resentment grew as I contemplated the space between Claudine and Gay—the space where my parents had failed to give me a middle name. And I imagined all of the futures that were now out of reach as a consequence.

I was 11 years old, and I felt—suddenly and acutely—that I was insufficient. I was not happy with my parents.

When I confronted them that evening, demanding to know why I did not have a middle name, they explained that each of them had given me half of my name. My mother, Claudette, gave me Claudine. My father, Sony, gave me Gay. They were matter-of-fact in a way that parents can sometimes be, a way that anticipates and forestalls argument. But argue, I did. And when I complained that they had denied me the possibility of reinvention, their response was, “you are Claudine Gay.”

Then they offered this coda: “Your name is enough.”

I turned those four words over in my mind, and they have stayed with me all these years, a powerful statement about my inheritance, my identity, and my capacity. Sometimes, even now, even as president, when I am pushing a pen across paper and signing my name, those four words surface in my mind.

Your name is enough.

At some point between now and your Commencement—probably at several points between now and your Commencement—you will feel insufficient. Despite knowing better, you will feel as if everyone around you knows exactly what is going on, as if everyone around you understands something you do not, sees something you do not.

When that happens, I hope you remember this story—and my parents’ wisdom.

You have been given a name, but—from this day forward—you will make a name for yourself. And we are here to help.

Who can you be? Who will you be? These are questions that you will consider alongside your classmates; in conversation with faculty, proctors, tutors, and deans; and in connection to your own learning and scholarship. Take notice of work that energizes and fulfills you. Take notice of your joy and your satisfaction. Take nothing for granted. Be willing to reconsider assumptions for the sake of your present happiness and future contentment.

I am excited to learn your names, to understand your aspirations, and to see how you make the College—how you make the University—stronger and better. Welcome to our community. We are so glad you are here.