Photograph by Jon Chase/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications
Photograph by Jon Chase/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications
Harvard College began holding a Freshman Convocation ceremony in 2009—a formal public greeting of new freshmen by the president and deans, and the only occasion when the students gather as a class before graduation. This year’s Convocation took place on Labor Day, one of the last scorching hot days of the summer. “We have something very special in common,” University president Larry Bacow told the class of 2022, who moved into their Harvard Yard dorms last week. “This is my first year as president, which makes me a member of your class—and no other—for all time.”
“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 about 21,000 hours to explore this extraordinary institution,” he continued: “21,000 hours to find your passion and to see where it will take you; 21,000 hours to discover what matters most to you and to determine how you can make the world a better place.”
Bacow urged the students to develop relationships with faculty members in addition to their classmates:
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 will have an extraordinary experience here is whether or not you get to know one of your teachers—just one—well enough so that you will stay in touch with him or her for the rest of your life.
Speaking on the day before the Massachusetts primary, he also told students: “If you are eligible to vote, we expect you to register, to inform yourself of the candidates and the issues, and then vote. The very first responsibility of a citizen in a democracy is to vote.”
The “most important unsolicited advice you’ll receive from anyone today,” Bacow added, is that it is “also wise to be good to the people who love you—especially your parents and your family. You going off to college is a huge adjustment for them, too. You have just been introduced to many of the people who are here to help you make this transition. But your families are on their own.”
As for the students themselves, though: “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 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.”
Dean of students Katie O’Dair also made her debut at this year’s convocation. “There’s something very freeing in being new,” she told the first-years. “You have a new opportunity to define who you are...There are not many times in life that you get this chance to push the reset button...The end of one experience and beginning of another is a good time to take stock of who you are, and what you value most.”
She quoted from the class of 2018’s senior reflections book, where one student wrote: “It is so easy, especially at a place like Harvard, to move so quickly that we forget where we’re going and why it matters...I think a lot about the importance of slowing down and being in the moment. Like most of you, my days start early and end late. And between meetings, events, and never-ending notifications on my devices, it can be hard to step back and be open to the present. Yet the unplanned, spontaneous moments end up being the ones I appreciate most.” O’Dair invited students to participate in the “journal project,” a new initiative encouraging students to reflect on their days at Harvard in writing; the Dean of Students Office will provide each student a blank journal. “As educators, we know that reflection has many positive outcomes, such as better self-awareness, deeper learning, and refining the values that are important to you.”
College dean Rakesh Khurana spoke, as he regularly does, about what it would mean for students to make their college experience “transformational” rather than “transactional.” “You’ve arrived at Harvard at a critical moment in our nation’s history,” he said. “A moment in which our most deeply held values—truth, reason, civility, inclusion—are being challenged. Some of you may have already had the opportunity to engage with Teresita Fernández’s wonderful installation Autumn (...Nothing Personal),” he continued, referring to the new art installation that stood behind the students in Tercentenary Theatre, inspired by James Baldwin’s 1964 essay “Nothing Personal.” That text, Khurana explained,
describes a divided, violent, and empty America at a different historical moment: the height of the civil rights movement...But in the midst of the hopelessness, Baldwin also saw a light in the darkness. He wrote of his conviction that human beings could save each other. Baldwin’s view of the world in 1964 resonates in so many ways with what we can see is going on in our country and the world today. Given the world that you’ve been handed, you’re going to be faced with some critical choices over the next four years about how you’re going to use your considerable talents and opportunities available to you at Harvard to create a better world. In this climate, you might think that the best course of action is to play it safe. To rely on the strategies you used in high school to succeed, and continue to make the same choices that got you here...One of the most important things that I want to tell you today is that you don’t have to prove yourself...We hope that your experience of college will not be one of showing the world what you can do, but what you want to do; that it’s not about being awarded a credential, but about discovering what needs to be done.
Also addressing the freshmen was Jenna Gray ’19, a sociology concentrator who spent this past spring studying in Copenhagen. She encouraged the students to consider studying abroad during the academic year (still relatively uncommon at the College), and spoke about learning to get around Copenhagen via bike, the dominant mode of transport there. “I worried: What if my bike hit the back of a car? What if I collided with another bike? What if I accidentally hit a pedestrian? Spoiler alert: all of those things happened,” she said. “But the real plot twist is that I was okay. And worrying about all that could go wrong, and trying to plan every step of the way, didn’t make me a better cyclist.”
“Navigating my way around Copenhagen on a bike taught me that in life, I’m capable of figuring things out while moving,” she continued. Her time there has helped her experience everyday life with greater joy, spontaneity, and fewer preformed expectations. “You’ve likely already internalized a million ideas about what college and Harvard are supposed to be like. Try to catch yourself when imposing them on your experiences here. Allow your four years at Harvard—or three and one semester, because you should really consider a semester abroad—to be what they may, without focusing too much on the future or outcomes.”