The Student Commencement Speakers
Three 2022 graduates—and one from 2020—do the honors.
After two years of virtual ceremonies, the 371st Commencement exercises will feature three live student speakers for the first time since 2019. The three orators speaking this Thursday, selected in a University-wide competition, are Benjamin Porteous ’22, Noah Harris ’22, and Lindsay Sanwald, M.Div ’22. All three are profiled here, plus Caroline Engelmayer ’20, who will deliver the Latin Salutatory to the classes of 2020 and 2021 on Sunday after her live 2020 performance was postponed.
Benjamin Porteous ’22
Unlike many boys who dream of becoming a football or basketball star, Benjamin Porteous ’22 dreamed of becoming a history scholar. “That was the only career I could envision myself being good at,” he says, “and the only career I could ever envision really wanting to do.” Raised on old Victorian children’s books that his mother, Rebecca Porteous ’87, collected when the family lived in South Africa, he built a strong connection to the past. “I was never in the present fully,” he jokes. “I was one of those weird kids who reads a lot and spends most of my time in these other worlds.”
For such a student, homeschooling was a great option. It allowed him to focus less on math and science and more on the many languages he wanted to learn (and did): Latin, Greek, classical and modern Chinese, biblical Hebrew, Old English. He found conversing especially fun and accessible with Chinese. He spent hours weekly visiting elderly Mandarin speakers and hearing stories about the Cultural Revolution and other historical events.
By the time he arrived at the College, from nearby Arlington, Massachusetts, where he spent most of his childhood, he had decided to concentrate in East Asian studies. He was particularly interested in pre-modern China—and ecstatic to have access to the Harvard-Yenching Library. “So I spent the past four years, when it was open, in the Yenching, reading old Chinese books,” he says, “which is really such a treat.” Aside from his studies of Chinese language and literature, the Leverett House resident continued studying Latin, began learning Japanese, and got started on Manchu—one of the official languages of the Qing dynasty—before taking a (possibly permanent) break. “It has a very intricate and complex script,” he explains, “and it was just above my pay grade.”
Porteous did not consider auditioning to deliver the Latin oration until a couple of his Chinese professors urged the enthusiastic senior to do so. Having won the competition, he’s excited for the unique opportunity to give a speech in a language about which he’s long been passionate. “Because it’s in Latin, it can be kind of goofy to start with—because nobody understands it,” he says, adding that the speech is known for grand physical gestures. “So that allows for considerable freedom to, I think, combine humor and poignancy.”
After graduation, Porteous will pursue a master’s degree in East Asian studies at Harvard and then a Ph.D. in comparative Latin, Greek, and classical Chinese. “So we’ll see where it goes,” he says, smiling. “And we’ll see whether I can get a job, which is the key question these days.”
Noah Harris ’22
Senior English Address
Growing up in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Noah Harris ’22 could never stick to a single hobby. When the school day ended, a deluge of after-school activities began: Boy Scouts, violin, piano, basketball, baseball, community service. His parents told him he was welcome to quit something, but he didn’t want to. “I think it probably wasn’t the best thing to do,” he joked, “but I enjoyed it.”
For much of high school, Harris planned on picking a college where he could play varsity baseball or basketball. It was his mother, Frankie—a guidance counselor—who suggested he look at the Ivy League. After attending a summer camp at Stanford Law School before his senior year and winning its “best attorney” award, he began thinking schools like Harvard might not be an impossibility after all.
As a first-year student at the College, Harris joined the Undergraduate Council (UC) and became its finance committee chair. He also wrote a children’s book—Successville—a token of appreciation for his community at home. “I just wanted to try and figure out how I could give back,” he says. “So many different people had given me so much and seen so much potential in me.” The story encourages kids to take their education seriously and to take concrete steps to achieve their goals.
A resident of Dunster House, Harris took steps to achieve his own long-time goal of becoming an attorney, joining the Black Pre-Law Association and declaring a concentration in government. His work on the UC also expanded in scope. He served as the organization’s treasurer as a sophomore and became the first black man elected UC president by the student body as a junior. “It tracks very well with real government in a way,” he explains. “It’s very public, and you have The Crimson following you around like they’re the New York Times or Washington Post.”
Always interested in public service, Harris also mentored middle-school students of color through the Phillips Brooks House Association’s David Walker Scholars program, a collaboration with the Harvard Black Men’s Forum. “Even though a lot of things haven’t gone their way,” he says, “you see them really starting to see that they can chart their own path.”
A recipient of a 2021 Truman Scholarship for students who “demonstrate outstanding leadership potential, a commitment to a career in government or the nonprofit sector, and academic excellence,” Harris will work in public service—likely near home or in Washington, D.C.—for two years before entering the Law School in 2024. “There are so many other people who could have easily had this opportunity,” he reflects. “[But] it’s not as special if you don’t open doors for others.”
Lindsay Sanwald, M.Div ’22
Graduate English Address
Lindsay Sanwald, M.Div ’22, has always been one to follow a hunch. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College in 2007 with a degree in comparative literature, she decided to pursue a career as a solo musical artist. “I always sort of felt this thing…[that] it would be an affront to God not to do it,” she says, “or at least try to do it.” Under the moniker Idgy Dean, Sanwald performs in a drum-heavy style with a mystical, chanting quality. Though her style doesn’t easily fit into a genre, “psycho spiritual surf rock”—as her website describes it—might be the best approximation.
Another hunch was yoga. Sanwald first practiced in Florence, Italy, after learning from a classmate while studying abroad. Wherever she landed in the following years—from rural Argentina, while on a Fulbright, to New York City—she always found herself near a master of the practice. Following her various teachers, and partly inspired by her father’s life-long practice of gymnastics, Sanwald earned a 500-hour certification in tantric yoga.
And the final hunch was Divinity School. Working on a record in Montauk, New York, Sanwald found herself extremely distracted by the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings and decided to “self-medicate with a bunch of Ruth Bader Ginsburg [L '59, LL.D. '11] documentaries.” The films piqued her interest. While researching Ginsburg’s Harvard background, she learned more about the Divinity School; the following week, she drove a few hours to attend its open house for prospective students. “Everything at that point in my life felt very blocked,” she says. “Everything about the Divinity School was just green lights—which is always a sign to me.…When there’s very little resistance, that’s this clue to keep going.”
Sanwald likes to say that she treated her time at the Divinity School like an artist’s residency. “Then throw in a plague,” she says, “and you’re really given a lot of free time to work.” She studied different philosophies and traditions of yoga and learned Pali, the sacred language of Theravāda Buddhism. She also pursued her own creative writing, working on several essays, sermons, and a book.
Sanwald was at first feeling anxious about what to do after such a period of growth, but she’s begun to feel content. “I’m very excited to go back to where I started and to do all the things I was already doing, but just do them with more wisdom, more knowledge, more practice.” She’s still going to teach yoga, perform, write, and record. And as always, she’ll keep her eye out for any “secret paths and portals” in her path.
Caroline Engelmayer ’20
Latin Salutatory, Class of 2020
Soon after starting Latin in the sixth grade, Caroline Engelmayer ’20 was already fascinated by the language. “With a sort of methodical attention and determination…you can piece together that meaning of what initially seemed really confusing and challenging,” she explains. “And I think there was that sense of almost a mini-triumph at the end of every sentence that really hooked me.”
No one was too surprised, then, when she decided to concentrate in classics at the College. At Harvard, she took a relatively broad view of the language, focusing not just on Latin literature, but how the classics were interpreted centuries later during the Renaissance. “I remember, when I was choosing my concentration, feeling some pressure to choose between these interests of mine—it was classics or English,” she recalls, “and then realizing at some level that I could combine the two.” As part of her senior thesis, for example, she studied how William Shakespeare’s King Lear reinterpreted elements from a play by Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca.
Aside from her academics, the New York City native and Currier House resident spent lots of time working on The Crimson, where she served as associate managing editor, and took several advising roles on campus: a First-Year Outdoor Program Leader, a Peer Advising Fellow, and a Humanities 10 student adviser. After graduating from the College during the pandemic (which delayed the presentation of her oration by two years), she began an M.Phil at Cambridge University, where she learned more historical and literary content from the Renaissance period. “I was very excited to think about some of those questions from the perspective of an English department,” she says. “And intellectually, it was a fantastic year.”
She returned to a leadership role after her year at Cambridge, teaching English and classics at Phillips Academy in Andover. While she loves researching and developing original interpretations of classic texts, she finds it refreshing to review themes of the works of literature that have been discussed in classrooms for many generations; her students don’t need to unearth a new aspect of Julius Caesar to have an interesting conversation.
Engelmayer will teach at Andover for one more year before returning to Harvard for a Ph.D. in English, continuing her research into connections from the classics to the Renaissance. After a two-year delay, she’s hoping her oration can be a time for reflection and lighthearted fun. “I hope the tone matches the real sense of joy of not just coming back together,” she says, “but coming back together at a time when things seem to be looking up.”