Good afternoon, Class of 2022. I am Larry Bacow — and please feel free to call me Larry — and it is my great honor to welcome you officially to the Harvard community.
We have something very special in common: This is my first year as president, which makes me a member of your class — and no other — for all time. My classmates!
Like you, I’ve recently moved into Harvard Yard. Like you, I’ve given up familiar routines in search of new challenges as well as new opportunities. And, like you, I’ve arrived here in the hope that I can make a unique contribution to this very special place.
But unlike you, I didn’t have to decide what to wear today. One of the benefits of being president is that I get to wear this very stylish robe — a pilgrim’s preachers robe, by the way. Don’t worry, though. You’ll be wearing something very similar when we next meet as a group, exactly two days before you graduate in 2022.
There are exactly 1,358 days between this day and that one. Accounting for the hours you will spend sleeping — and I do hope that you will try to get eight hours of sleep a night, I highly recommend it — you have approximately 21,000 hours to explore this extraordinary institution, 21,000 hours to find your passion and to see where it will take you, 21,000 hours to discover what matters to you most and to determine how you can make the world a better place.
Where will you begin in this journey? If I can offer a suggestion, I think you should start with the person sitting next to you, because he or she is most likely going through a lot right now. I know because I received an email from one of you earlier this summer. It was a very honest message to me about feeling excited and joyful — but also anxious and scared — at the prospect of coming. The thought of moving to a new place with new people was nerve-wracking, and the thought of not fitting in was both daunting and real.
What put everything in perspective for this particular student, who is sitting among you, was learning that he and I actually have something in common: parents who had immigrated to the United States. Now, looking at me, dressed in this robe, you might not have assumed or gathered that my folks came to this country as refugees, or that I grew up in a blue-collar town in Michigan, or that I spent my free time in high school building ham radios and entering science fairs. Okay, maybe the last one is more readily apparent.
My point — and this is some of the best advice that I have ever been given — is that you should never judge your insides by other people’s outsides. No one you will meet at Harvard is perfect, and that includes your president. I have experienced despair and hope, defeat and triumph, and loss and love just like anyone else. Everyone you meet here is unique; and everyone has his or her own story — and every single one of you was admitted because we saw something in you that we believed would enrich this special community.
As you begin to find your way over the next few weeks, invest some of your 21,000 hours in getting to know one another. Don’t just talk to your classmates, listen to them; learn from them. Recognize that every kind of circumstance — financial, social, or otherwise — comes with its own set of complications. After all, we are all human, none of us is perfect. Embrace the challenging work of trying to understand the world from a perspective other than your own. You’ll be a better person for it and I guarantee you, you’ll also make some lifelong friends. One of my closest friends is someone I roomed with as a freshman, and we have been part of each other’s lives for 49 years and counting. Actually, he is a very, very special person in my life because he introduced me to my wife, Adele, who is sitting somewhere over there.
I hope you will spend some of your hours getting to know your teachers, too. One of the best decisions I ever made as an undergraduate was to approach one of my economics professors to ask a question about a footnote in a reading after class. We ended up having a long conversation about game theory — an emerging field at the time — that turned into a reading course that actually changed the course of my life. I am still in touch with that professor today. I believe the single greatest predictor of whether or not you have an extraordinary experience here is whether or not you get to know one of your teachers well enough that you will stay in touch with him or her for the rest of your life. If you don’t know where to start, go to office hours. Invite your teacher to have a cup of coffee either at the Smith Campus Center or the Lamont Café or just get together with them right here on these steps or somewhere else nearby. And if you’re a little nervous or anxious and you don’t know what to ask them, ask them about their research. Faculty love talking about their research. I guarantee you’ll have an interesting conversation.
Now, Harvard will give you many opportunities to satisfy your curiosity. In fact, you could spend a considerable amount of your time just in this space alone, learning everything there is to know all the magnificent trees in Tercentenary Theatre — bur oaks, honey locusts, red maples, yellowwoods —if that’s not enough, go to Arnold Arboretum in Boston and see many more species, or you could even travel to the Harvard Forest. You could enter Memorial Church—behind me—to be inspired and even overwhelmed by the names of Harvard men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country, something which is likely to inspire some of you to want to learn more about history, about the circumstances that gave rise to the conflicts for which they sacrificed. Or you could enter Widener Library, where we’re going to assemble for your class picture in a little bit, and you could explore our extraordinary collections, get lost in the stacks. Or you could venture beyond the Yard to the Harvard Art Museums right over there comprising 250,000 items in our collection. One of the most extraordinary art collections you can find anywhere; or the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture to find the third largest herbarium in the United States or the only collection of life-size glass flowers in the world. If you haven’t seen them you should, truly amazing. Go farther afield to explore the American Repertory Theater or the Harvard Dance Center, across the river to the athletic fields, the Harvard Innovation Labs, the soon-to-be art lab, as well as the Science and Engineering Complex. Every direction that you might choose to wander from here will lead you to extraordinary opportunities.
And there is, of course, a greater world beyond campus, a world that each of us has the potential to make better in some way. So class of 2022, I’m actually now going to give your very first assignment. If you are eligible to vote, we expect you to register,inform yourself of the candidates and the issues, and then cast your ballot. The very first responsibility of citizenship in a democracy is to vote, and the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School has actually made it quite easy for you. So take out your phones. I know all you have them. This is the time when you actually get to take them out because I’m going to give you the website. Take down this address: iop — for Institute of Politics — .turbovote.org. Again, that’s: iop.turbovote.org. If you’re eligible, register and vote. It is your responsibility as a citizen of this country and as a citizen of Harvard.
Voting is just one thing you can do to ensure that the world in which you live is much more like the world in which you would like to live. I hope in the next 21,000 hours you will find ample time to determine how you might use your considerable talents to make life better for others. I have yet to meet anyone who thinks that the world that we live in is perfect. This is not a political statement, it is equally true of Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives. And if you don’t think that the world is perfect, the only way it gets better is if good people like you work to repair it. Harvard has endured over centuries not because it is great but because it is good, and I look forward to learning about the ways in which you choose to grow in goodness — and in wisdom — over the next four years.
And now the most important unsolicited advice you will receive from anyone today: It is also wise to be good to the people who love you, especially parents and your family. You going off to college is a huge adjustment for them too. You’ve just applauded some of the many people who will help you with this transition, but they are on their own. Be grateful for the ways in which they have supported you and sacrificed so that you may have the opportunity of studying and learning here. Express your gratitude by supporting them as they now adjust to a life in which you are no longer a constant physical presence. Your parents, in particular, will never tire of hearing how you’re doing, be it by phone, email, or text. Just make sure to ask how they are doing. I assure you it will be time well spent.
And of course Adele and I will ask how you are doing when I see you in the Yard or at events on campus or elsewhere, and I trust that you will update us on your excitements and joys — even your anxieties and concerns. Everyone here today — and lots and lots of other people across the University — are here for you and want you to succeed. Take us up on our offer and ask us for help whenever you need it.
You will soon learn that Harvard is not a place: It’s an idea, and it’s the people who carry that idea with them. Harvard will be everywhere you go for the next 21,000 hours — and every hour after that for the rest of your life as well. Welcome, fellow members of the Class of 2022, my class. May you make the most of this wonderful time in your lives. It’s my privilege to share this journey with you. Thank you.