Orators Three

Harvard’s student Commencement speakers 2024

Student orators Blake Lopez, Shruthi Kumar, and Robert Clinton

From left: Blake Lopez, Shruthi Kumar, and Robert Clinton | photographs (from left) Niles Singes/HPAC; Stephanie Mitchell/hpac; Dylan Goodman/hpac

Each year, three student speakers address the Commencement crowd in Tercentenary Theatre: the student “parts” that are an essential feature of Harvard’s graduation traditions. Here Harvard Magazine profiles the honored student speakers at the 373rd Commencement, this Thursday, May 23. Each excelled during the competitions for the respective parts, which are judged on presentation and contents. Each will address the enormous crowd speaking from memory.

Blake Alexander Lopez ’24, Latin Salutatorian

While his middle school friends were playing Flappy Bird and Minecraft, Blake Lopez ’24 devoted his screen time to learning Swedish on Duolingo. Lopez, a Crown Point, Indiana, native whose parents have Mexican and Macedonian roots, had no ties to Sweden or its language. But he was intrigued by the country’s history and architecture, and, he says, “The grammar is actually very straightforward for an English speaker.” Soon, the fourteen-year-old found himself in Chicago’s Swedish American Museum playing guitar alongside Swedish musicians and chatting in their native tongue.

Lopez’s foray into Swedish ignited a love for learning languages. As he prepares to deliver this year’s Latin salutatory, he now can speak four (German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish) and read another six (Old English, French, Old French, Latin, Ancient Greek, and Swedish).

For Lopez, language represents more than words on a page; it’s a gateway to community. At Harvard, he helped lead the undergraduate linguistics society, where he and clubmates constructed a new language. The most fun part of the “con-lang”, he says, is its two noun classes (akin to many languages’ gendered structure). “We have Harvard nouns, and Yale nouns,” he says. “Every word that we make in our language, we make a value judgment. Is it a good word or a bad word? If it’s a good word, it’s a Harvard noun. If it’s a bad word, it’s a Yale noun.”

That sort of imagination serves Lopez well academically. He’s fascinated by how ancient languages would have been pronounced. For his joint concentration in classics and linguistics, he wrote a 50-page thesis on a single Latin vowel: the “short i”: specifically, its impact on modern Sardinian. To have a true Roman experience, he believes, one must read Latin aloud. “Silent reading is a relatively modern phenomenon,” he says. For his thesis, he examined rhyming puns in Roman graffiti, analyzed phonetic spelling mistakes on papyrus, and tracked spelling variations throughout the transition from Latin to Sardinian. Next year, he will continue his classical studies at Oxford, pursuing a master’s of studies in Greek and/or Latin languages and literature. After, he hopes to pursue a Ph.D. or a law degree (he’s intrigued by the language of law, and tracking how interpretations of a legal concept change over time).

In his speech, “Distantia Propinquior” (delivered in Latin; “A Nearer Distance” in the English translation) Lopez reflects on the experience of starting Harvard during the COVID pandemic. “We are the first class of Harvard College to arrive here without having had any personal experience…of what life was like here before the pandemic,” he says, explaining his speech. “We really set the mold for what it is to be a pandemic and post-pandemic student here at Harvard, and I’m very proud to be a member of this class.”

Shruthi Kumar ’24, Senior English Orator

Shruthi Kumar ’24 often does not know what to think. The Omaha native was frequently confused by the gendered traditions of her parents’ South Indian villages and her Nebraska high school friends’ conservative beliefs. But she approached each of these uncertainties with generous curiosity. “From that place of not knowing,” she says, she was able to connect with “people and learn where they’re coming from, how they’re thinking.”

Kumar credits her mindset, in part, to her daily yoga practice. A student of yoga from a young age, she says daily meditation has helped her navigate the “troubles of life.” After her high school freshman year, she learned to teach Kundalini yoga, which, she says, “tracks the movement of energy throughout the body.” During high school, she helped other students use yoga to manage stress and anxiety.

At Harvard, her passion for health blossomed. As a sophomore, the history of science and economics double concentrator launched a campaign called “Making Harvard 100% Period Secure.” She helped install menstrual product dispensers in nearly every female and gender-neutral bathroom on campus. She also helped lead the Harvard South Asian Association, sat on the Harvard University Health Services student planning committee, and organized support for affirmative action.

Kumar prides herself on using public speech to “bring people that are seemingly on two sides of a spectrum…together.” As a high school senior, she won a national student essay contest sponsored by the Veterans of Foreign Wars addressing the question, “What makes America great?” She was daunted, both because she was concerned about the country and because the audience was much whiter, older, and more conservative than she. Through that experience, Kumar says she “bridged a seemingly distant gap” with an audience “that I previously thought I had no connection with.”

On campus, Kumar was not pleased with the quality of conversation on divisive issues. Too often, she says, students shut themselves off from people with whom they disagree. But not Kumar. Her high school friends “had views on women’s health that I very much did not agree with,” she says, “but I was still friends with them. I never knew intolerance the way that I learned it here.” In her Commencement speech, “The Power of Not Knowing,” she hopes to encourage people to embrace uncertainty and difference.

Next year, Kumar will head to Seattle to work for a healthcare company. In the future, she wants to pursue “public health entrepreneurship” and help make the benefits of health innovation accessible to the general public. She does not know if that career niche exists yet and says that “the path there is very unclear,” but, for now, she’s okay with not knowing.

Robert Clinton, J.D. ’24, Graduate English Orator

Robert Clinton’s path toward social good began at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, where he created his own major: the sociology and politics of urban agriculture. Ending up at NYU was a surprise—he expected to play football in college and NYU does not have a team—but he loved Gallatin’s program of individualized study. Throughout college, he researched food from a variety of social angles, ranging from urban design and food deserts to ethnographic recipes and community-making through cooking.

After graduating in 2016, the Bay Area native deepened his interest in urban design and change during a two-year Marshall Scholarship at University College London, where he earned a master’s degree in sustainable urbanism and then—aiming for social impact—pursued a second master’s in public administration.

Following three years at San Francisco’s office of civic engagement and immigrant affairs, Clinton, who will receive his J.D. ’24 degree on Thursday, matriculated at the Law School in 2021. At Harvard, he participated in the capital punishment and federal tax clinics (in which students work with clients and learn practical advocacy). “So much of law school feels theoretical,” he says. “It was really a privilege to work with actual people and try and help them.” He continued that practical work during summers with public defense internships in California and New Hampshire.

Next year, Clinton will return to New York to clerk for a U.S. district judge in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.

In his Commencement address, Clinton wants to encourage his fellow graduates from across the University to use their degrees for good. “At a place like Harvard, where people are chasing after credentials,” he says, people “sometimes forget that having a Harvard degree doesn’t actually mean a whole lot if you’re not going to use it to do something good.”

Follow the full array of Commencement-week activities, including the 373rd Commencement on May 23, at which the three student speakers have their big moments, at https://www.harvardmagazine.com/topic/commencement.

Read more articles by Max J. Krupnick

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