As the Class of 2011 was taking a step toward the future, the University was pausing to remember its past with a special degree for a member of the Class of 1665, one of the first Native Americans to attend Harvard College.

Joel Iacoomes, a member of the Wampanoag tribe, died shortly after completing four years of study at Harvard College but just before he was to participate in Commencement.

In a twist of historic proportions, the special posthumous degree for Iacoomes is to be received by Tiffany Smalley, who the same day becomes the first Wampanoag to graduate from the College since Iacoomes’ classmate, Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, received his degree 346 years ago.

“I feel honored and am humbled that I’ve been offered the opportunity to accept the degree on Joel’s behalf,” said Smalley, who is receiving the degree during Afternoon Exercises in Tercentenary Theatre, where dozens of members of the Wampanoag tribe were invited to attend. “I know he and Caleb, and all the Indian College students hundreds of years ago, helped pave the way for me and my education today. Now that we have come full circle, I feel blessed to be able to play any part in the acknowledgments of his outstanding accomplishments.”

In addition to recognizing Iacoomes’ achievement as one of the two original Wampanoag students at Harvard, the special degree commemorates the historical bonds between Harvard and the Native American community as the University prepares to celebrate its 375th anniversary.

“It is fitting that we honor Joel Iacoomes as Harvard marks the 375th anniversary of its founding,” said Harvard President Drew Faust. “With the presentation of this degree, we also recognize some of the commitments that were fundamental to the founding of Harvard: a commitment to a diversity of students, a commitment to the communities in which the College was founded, and a commitment to the power of education to transform lives.”

Harvard was founded in 1636. Its charter of 1650 cited Harvard’s mission to educate “English and Indian youth.” The Harvard Indian College, which Iacoomes attended, was founded in 1655. Iacoomes’ classmate and fellow Wampanoag, Cheeshahteaumuck, graduated from Harvard in 1665.

“The Aquinnah Wampanoag are delighted that this posthumous degree is being awarded to our own Joel Iacoomes,” said Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, chairwoman of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah). “Since he was from our island community, it means a great deal to us to see his extraordinary achievement recognized alongside his fellow tribe member, Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, the first Indian to graduate from Harvard.”

“Joel was a gifted scholar, and Harvard had a commitment to the Native American community,” observed Cedric Cromwell, chairman and president of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. “This posthumous degree brings us full circle. It’s motivational for Wampanoags, and I think it’s motivational for Harvard. It builds on our relationship.”

Two colleges, quiet times