Amidst humid temperatures and slightly overcast skies, the Class of 2008 gathered Tuesday (June 3) in a steamy Memorial Church for one of the first in a series of Commencement week activities that would bring their undergraduate lives at Harvard University to an official close.

In the shadow of the church’s white steeple, the men and women donned customary black caps and gowns as they formed two lines and filed past The Rev. Professor Peter J. Gomes, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, who welcomed them with a solemn nod.

Earlier, in the Yard, the soon-to-be graduates took pictures of the John Harvard Statue as they processed past the landmark in front of University Hall.

Before the procession began, Brad Bagdis, the graduating captain of the football team who plans to work in finance in either New York City or Boston, called his choice to attend Harvard “the best decision of my entire life,” adding, “I’ve met so many good people, it’s definitely going to be tough to leave; but I’m very excited.”

The time-honored Baccalaureate Address, which dates back to 1642 and Harvard’s first graduating class, is a special event that brings students together with the University’s ministry and president for one final, somewhat relaxed goodbye before the formality that accompanies the official Commencement ceremonies on Thursday (June 5).

The students used their programs as fans and joked among themselves as they waited for the proceedings to begin in the sweltering, packed church.

One senior elicited a cheer of approval and a high-five from a friend as he flashed the New York Mets T-shirt he was wearing under his gown. Another told a classmate he would like to approach Commencement speaker J.K. Rowling, the high priestess of the literary world of magic, and try the familiar quarter-out-of-the-ear trick on her.

Gomes opened the traditional service with levity.

“It is my great pleasure in welcoming you to your last rites,” he said to loud laughter from the crowd.

The service included a selection of hymns and anthems by the Commencement Choir. Reflecting the diversity of the graduating class, several readings were given in the traditional language of a number of sacred texts, including Arabic, Greek, and Sanskrit, which were then translated into English.

In her first farewell to a Harvard graduating class, Harvard President Drew Faust counseled the young men and women who filled the pews to search their hearts for what would make them happy, and to pursue it.

Faust said she was intrigued by how many undergraduates and young recent grads she met after her appointment was announced in 2007 questioned her as to why she thought so many of their peers were opting for high-paying careers right after school.

“You are asking me, I think, about the meaning of life, though you have posed your question in code,” said Faust.

“You are at a moment of transition that requires making choices,” she added. “And selecting one option — a job, a career, a graduate program — means not selecting others. Every decision means loss as well as gain—possibilities foregone as well as possibilities embraced. Your question to me is partly about that—about loss of roads not taken.”

The question, remarked Faust, also concerns the notion of combining happiness with success. Finding a way to live a happy, meaningful life, one that offers comfort and satisfaction as well as a sense of purpose, direction, and fulfillment, one that makes a difference, will come only with time, said the historian, and only by taking chances.

“The answer is you won’t know until you try. But if you don’t try to do what you love — whether it is painting or biology or finance — if you don’t pursue what you think will be most meaningful, you will regret it. Life is long. There is always time for Plan B. But don’t begin with it.

“I think of this as my parking space theory of career choice, and I have been sharing it with students for decades. Don’t park 20 blocks from your destination because you think you’ll never find a space. Go where you want to be and then circle back to where you have to be,” said Faust.

“The meaning of your life is for you to make,” she concluded. “I can’t wait to see how you all turn out. Come back, from time to time, and let us know.”

Miriam Hinman, who plans to take a year off after graduation before applying to graduate school in archaeology, said Faust’s speech sent an important message.

“I think the idea of making sure that you are following the path that you really want to be on and shooting for your real goal instead of settling for something less is an issue that resonates with us all.”

Three seniors will pursue public service as Richardson Fellows