Campus & Community

‘We are all teachers and we are all learners’

6 min read

Faust welcomes Class of 2011 at Opening Exercises

The threat of thunderstorms on Sunday (Sept. 9) persuaded planners of the Opening Exercises for the Class of 2011 to move the event from the tree-shaded lawns of Tercentenary Theatre to the varnished vaults of Sanders. The venerable auditorium, Harvard’s largest indoor venue, was filled to capacity by the crowd of freshmen and their parents.

Once safe from the prospect of inclement weather (which never materialized), the freshmen were treated to a program of encouraging exhortations punctuated by performances by the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum, the Radcliffe Choral Society, the Harvard Glee Club, the Kuumba Singers, and the Harvard Band.

Harvard President Drew Faust delivered the keynote address, a warm welcome to the new class, followed by a challenging invitation to partake of the educational riches available to them at Harvard.

The size and complexity of Harvard can be daunting, she said, so much so that “As a dean here once put it, the place ought to come with an owner’s manual. Or at least a map, a whistle, a compass, and a sandwich.” Although Faust did not promise that every freshman would be supplied with these accouterments, she did offer them some important considerations to keep in mind as they explored the University’s infinite byways.

First, she urged them to remember that Harvard is a research university, and an exceptionally large one at that. Its mission is not simply to impart what is known, but to expand the frontiers of knowledge, an activity in which undergraduates are just as welcome to take part as Nobel Prize-winning professors.

“As you get started at Harvard,” Faust said, “one thing to remember about a research university is this fundamental premise: we are all teachers and we are all learners. In every seminar and laboratory and archive, we cultivate the habits of civil and curious inquiry, of capacious mind and spirit, in order to reconstruct, re-vision, and reformulate what is known. Professors, graduate students, and undergraduates alike must believe in this double commitment of teaching and scholarship, and its continuum of discovery, and of learning.”

The second thing to remember about Harvard, Faust said, is its commitment to public service, which can be traced back to the school’s earliest beginnings and its Puritan founders’ intention to “prepare young people to serve the greater community.”

Today, students at Harvard have more opportunities to serve their community than ever before, whether by “running a local homeless shelter, teaching dance to fifth- and sixth-graders, living and working in a public housing project for the summer,” or engaging in international efforts such as investigating children’s rights violations in St. Petersburg, Russia, optimizing AIDS health-care delivery in South Africa, or working with Paul Farmer’s Partners in Health to improve health care in Haiti, Peru, Rwanda, and Russia.

This “cauldron of creativity” that is Harvard offers “unparalleled choice and opportunity” to both learn and serve, Faust said. While the number of options can be overwhelming, the doors are always open for undergraduates who wish to try out a new field. Faust related the stories of several students whose initial, uncertain steps soon brought them to the point where they were helping to make original contributions to their chosen field.

Lief Fenno ’07, for example, took Professor George Whiteside’s course on “DNA and the Molecules of Life” and discovered that he had a passion for the life sciences. This newfound interest led to a work-study job in the Organismic and Evolutionary Biology lab and then to research on stem cells with biology professor Douglas Melton. By his senior year Fenno was growing Parkinson’s disease cells in the lab, a breakthrough that has made it easier for scientists to study the illness.

“At the beginning,” Fenno said, “I didn’t know how to do this, but people were overflowing with helpfulness. One day I was asking for directions to the bathroom, and then I was asking to work in Professor Melton’s lab. At Harvard, anything you might need is there. The equipment, the expertise, the connections, they are all there.”

Junior Elizabeth Gettinger did not expect to have personal contact with her professors when she entered Harvard as a freshman, Faust said. But when she took a Core course in Mesoamerican Civilizations she received an e-mail from her professor, archaeologist William Fash, inviting her to participate in his summer field school in the ancient Maya city of Copàn. Her hands-on experience excavating Maya ruins led her to return the following summer and to take a job working in Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.

Faust urged the freshmen to follow the examples of these enterprising upperclassmen.

“Discover the byways and the rich troves of Harvard,” Faust said. “Do not wait. Start exploring now. Harvard is far more than its 10 Schools and the College. Think of it as the treasure room of hidden objects Harry [Potter] discovers at Hogwarts — libraries, museums, centers of all kinds.”

When the Opening Exercises were over, the students and their parents marched out of Sanders to the energetic playing of the Harvard University Band, crossed the still-dry Tercentenary Theatre to the steps of Widener Library, where all 1,600-plus members of the freshman class assembled for a group photo.

Nina Webb, the mother of freshman Alex Konrad, gazed at the rows of students, searching for her son’s face. She and her husband, Kerry Konrad, were both members of the Class of 1979. Remembering her own Opening Exercises 28 years ago, she was struck by both the similarities and the differences.

“It seems that the College is trying much harder to make the students feel that they’re part of the University,” she said. “It seems like a kinder, gentler experience. But it also seems like a lot of fun.”

On Wednesday (Sept. 12), Faust spoke before a gathering of new doctoral and master’s degree candidates at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS). She said that all of them, in their respective fields of knowledge, were dedicating themselves to changing the way we understand the world, and by the time they receive their degrees that new understanding will have become part of the fund of human knowledge.

“You will have discovered something new, something no one else understood or knew before in quite the way you will have captured it and explained it,” Faust said.

She ended by welcoming the GSAS students to the company of scholars.

“It’s a company in which I have spent my life, and I am so pleased that I made that decision. I hope that you will be pleased that you have made that decision as well. I look forward to watching you change the world, to change how we understand the world, both during your years here at Harvard and in the course you pursue in the years to follow.”

Incoming President Drew Faust will be formally installed as Harvard’s 28th president on Oct. 12, at an outdoor ceremony in the Tercentenary Theatre. An academic procession, featuring representatives of universities from around the world, will begin at 2 p.m. The installation will begin at 2:30 p.m. The event will be open to all faculty, staff, and students.