The Essence of Commencement

A photographer captures three decades of graduation moments and emotions.

College seniors celebrate as their degrees are conferred (here, in June 1998—but the emotions are timeless).
 Eliot House roommates Rulonna Neilson of Salt Lake City, Alexandra Brown of Los Angeles, and Gouita Bozorgi of Lake Forest, Illinois (1991)
President Derek Bok and honorand Jacques-Yves Cousteau observe West Germany’s chancellor, honorand Helmut Schmidt, pause for a pinch of snuff (1979).
Junichi Hayami traveled all the way from Kyoto, Japan, to see Naomi Fukumori ’91, of Lowell House and Hastings, Nebraska, graduate.
Professor John Kenneth Galbraith and his wife, Catherine (Atwater) Galbraith (1991)
Honorand Stephen Hawking (1990)
Carrot-top Ana Vollmar ’08, of the Dudley House Co-op and Hamden, Connecticut
Olympic swimmer David Berkoff ’88, of Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, in his merman wig
A contemplative Richard Busby, M.B.A. ’92, of Scarsdale, New York
Exuberant M.B.A.s wave the flags of many nations.
After delivering the Commencement afternoon address, retiring President Bok is hugged by president-elect Neil Rudenstine (1991).
Maria V. Mavroudi, Ph.D. ’98, of Berkeley, California, caps her son George.
There are always flowers at Commencement. This bouquet was delivered in 1984.
The Harvard Band helps ensure that there is always music at Commencement as well.
Standing on a chair, Mark D’Andrea ’97 of Winthrop House and Reston, Virginia, makes a beatific gesture.
High spirits can overcome even a late spring shower (2004).
Accessories add to the fun for participants and audience alike (2005).
Making his debut as Commencement caller in 2006, McKay professor of mechanical engineering and Lawrence professor of engineering Frederick Abernathy announced to those assembling in the Old Yard, “My responsibility is to engineer with dignity your orderly march into Tercentenary Theatre.”
Seniors lining the Yard walkways applaud the dignitaries, professors, and alumni and alumnae who precede them into Tercentenary Theatre (1996).
Memorial Church overflows with seniors on Commencement morning. Standing in the balcony in 1996 was Michael Preston of Lowell House and Madison, New Jersey.
Members of the class of 1948 tip their straw hats in a show of fiftieth-reunion pride.

[extra:Extra]

 

See the photo gallery at right for additional Commencement images beyond what appeared in print.

Graduation morning unfolds with moments that range from solemnity to frivolity. From every direction, seniors enter the Yard with their House-mates, some marching to the mournful sounds of bagpipes, others dancing in step to the staccato beat of a ragtime combo. After the requisite photos of the honorands are taken, the faculty members begin their slow parade through the rows of imminent graduates lining the walkways. During the exercises, the assembly clutch their programs in an effort to follow the Latin oration and laugh in all the right places, while the student speakers inspire with the sincerity of their rhetoric. In the end, the band plays, the “Harvard Hymn” is sung, and everyone marches off to respective futures (or just to lunch).

Yet beyond all the tradition, costumes, and kinetic energy of the proceedings, what has most impressed me in the 31 years I have photographed this annual rite of passage are the more than 30,000 people who attend—the wonderful tapestry of faces and emotions all gathered together for a short time in this small quadrangle, sharing a bond to Harvard—and to each other.

For despite the very public nature of Commencement, and its seemingly overwhelming scope, it is the countless private, personal moments—three young friends hugging each other and crying; a relative beaming with pride, his camera at the ready; a University president showing his surprise as a head of state breaks for a pinch of snuff—that photographs express so well. And it is these moments that give this centuries-old rite its freshness: they cut through both the momentousness and the levity to reveal the very human meaning of it all.

You might also like

How Air Pollution Affects Our Brains

An expert Harvard panel discusses the links between air pollution and dementia, learning, mental health, and mood.

Steven Pinker on Apple’s Vision Pro

Professor of psychology on the science and history behind the Vision Pro.

The State of Black America

Harvard African American scholars take stock of a difficult moment. 

Most popular

World’s End

A day trip to Hingham

The State of the Final-Club Debate

Continuing, heated differences over single-gender social organizations

Broadsheet Coffee Roasters

An antidote to Starbucksification?

More to explore

Photograph of Winthrop Bell 1910

Winthrop Bell

Brief life of a philosopher and spy: 1884-1965

Illustration of people talking to each other with colorful thought bubbles above their heads

Talking about Talking

Fostering healthy disagreement

Vacationing with a Purpose

New England “summer camps” for adults