Campus & Community

English, Latin, graduate orators get a chance to make their voices heard

6 min read

This morning’s orations bring together a young literature scholar on the eve of public service, a classics concentrator on her way to medical school (after a year of studying archaeology), and a U.S. Army officer who served in Iraq.

In their own ways, the three orators represent Harvard’s diversity as it is measured by the immeasurable — the ineffability of experience. They represent the wide array of backgrounds that students bring to the University and the wide array of horizons that awaits them beyond Cambridge.

Thomas Dichter/English Oration

Standing on the dividing line between the future and the past, Thomas Dichter is thinking about service.

Dichter, a graduating Harvard College senior, will deliver the English Oration on Commencement Day.

An English concentrator from Quincy House, Dichter noted that Commencement is steeped in tradition and history, but it is also a unique moment to look at the future. During his speech, he will talk about memory and history and about how Harvard history parallels American history — and that certain obligations follow from that fact.

For himself, Dichter plans to spend the next year working to combat poverty for a nonprofit through the AmeriCorps program. He’s still awaiting a final assignment, but he’s interested in working in Philadelphia, possibly in a program to help people enroll in food stamp programs.

When asked to reflect on his four years at Harvard, Dichter said he hopes he’s become more open-minded. Academically, he’s changed his focus from politics to literature, though he says he’s found a subject at their intersection: the literature of prisons and how the soaring prison population in this country has affected American society.

Dichter, who grew up in Sudbury, Mass., said he is interested in pursuing that subject in graduate school, but wants to spend a year working before diving back into his studies.

Dichter is philosophical about the end of his college career, saying he doesn’t know how many of his classmates’ paths he will cross in the future, but that with his four years coming to a close, it’s time to do something else.

Katherine Douglas Van Schaik/Latin Oration


That’s the classical Latin word for “wonderful, miraculous, amazing” — all of which fairly describe Katherine Douglas Van Schaik ’08.

The Adams House senior will deliver the Latin Oration, the highlight of a unique scholarly path that began in girlhood. Van Schaik was 10 when she started studying the melodious ancient tongue, inspired by a teacher who once had a conversation, in Latin, with a Vatican monk.

“It’s a window into an ancient world,” she said, explaining the usefulness of an oration in a language few people speak any more. “It’s a window into a world that transcends the limitations of our own time. Through words in Latin, one can go back 2,000 years … to the foundations of the world in which we live.”

Latin is also a cool way to turn heads in a restaurant. Once a week this year, Van Schaik and a dozen friends from the Harvard Classical Club met for pizza, conversing in the tongue of Cicero, Virgil, and Livy.

Her oration is a five-minute meditation on the marathon, a race that has ancient roots; local expression (the Boston Marathon is the longest-running annual iteration); and special meaning at Harvard — an academic experience, said Van Schaik, that itself can seem like a marathon.

The 21-year-old from Columbia, S.C. — who finds the time to run five miles a day — has run a good race at Harvard, even in figurative terms. She will walk away with a Phi Beta Kappa key, a handful of honors (including a Hoopes Prize for her senior thesis), and with highest honors in her concentration, classics.

The slender and shy Van Schaik — whose euphonious name rhymes with “handshake” — also completed the requirements for a secondary field in molecular and cellular biology.

That explains, in part, why she has been accepted at Harvard Medical School, where Van Schaik would like to be the University’s first M.D./Ph.D. student to combine the study of medicine with research on ancient history.

But the Latin orator will take a year off first, to pursue a master’s degree in classical art and archaeology at King’s College, University of London.

Anthony C. Woods/Graduate Oration

Anthony C. Woods first visited the Harvard Kennedy School as a West Point sophomore, on a field trip with the military academy’s political science club. The group toured campus and met with faculty members in a range of fields. From that day forward, Woods said, “I knew I wanted to go to Harvard to further my education.”

Seven years later, Woods has fulfilled that goal, completing the requirements for a master’s degree in public policy. He’s also achieved something he hadn’t even considered as an undergraduate — the opportunity to speak at Commencement.

“I am really excited to be one of this year’s orators,” said Woods, who delivers today’s Graduate Oration. “This is a unique opportunity to share a message that I think is very important.”

Woods, who is a captain in the United States Army, will speak about the Iraq War. He plans to reflect on his own experience serving in Iraq, which Woods describes as a time when he “grew a lot as a person.”

“I want to speak the truth about what I see as some of the challenges we face,” Woods said. “Not only have American soldiers suffered, but Iraqi civilians are bearing the larger costs of the war. It’s a problem that we have to work together to solve.”

Though the challenges may be great, Woods said, they are not impossible to resolve — and he believes reflecting on the past can provide inspiration for the challenges of today.

“If we look at history, we realize that every generation has had problems that seem insurmountable,” said Woods. “But we have always overcome those problems with ingenuity and creativity, by finding a way to work together.”

Following Commencement, Woods will return to the Army for an additional five years of service. His time at Harvard, he said, has prepared him well for the difficulties that lie ahead.

“Leadership is a primary focus of the Kennedy School curriculum,” said Woods. “I have gained good insight on how to lead communities and organizations, a skill that will be useful in the Middle East and in Iraq as we help communities to get back on their feet and help leaders govern in the fashion that works best for them.”

For now, though, he’s focused squarely on the present.

“This is my opportunity to be a student and to speak my mind as a member of the broader Harvard community,” he said.

Orations reporting by Corydon Ireland (Latin), Alvin Powell (English), and Emily T. Simon (Graduate).