Campus & Community

Commencement orators talk the talk

6 min read

A journalist, a landscape architect, and a Latin scholar are today’s Commencement orators. They fulfill a University tradition dating back to 1642. They also embark on three journeys that hint at the wide array of academic paths leading outward from Harvard.


Lois Beckett ’09 drew on conversations with classmates to develop and refine her Commencement oration — which is no surprise, given this senior’s background in journalism.

“I love to learn by being out in the world and talking to people,” she said.

Beckett has been reporting for the Harvard Crimson since her first year at the College. She has also completed journalism internships in Ghana and India.

Her Crimson work covered a range of topics, including a series on the role of Harvard intellectuals in the Iraq War. But in thinking about Commencement, Beckett found that many of her conversations focused on uncertainty and instability in the current economic climate.

“Yes, Harvard students are privileged and very lucky … but we as much as anyone else have to deal with the fact that things we assumed to be true may not be true anymore,” Beckett said. “We have to deal with the question: ‘What does it mean to be responsible in a world that remains unsteady?’”

That question provided the inspiration for Beckett’s oration, and her discussions with friends and classmates across the College helped shape the talk.

“My speech has changed a lot based on what I’ve heard,” Beckett said.

This summer, she heads to Trinity College at Cambridge University in England to study domestic violence laws. The project is an extension of the reporting she did in Ghana and India.

“There is a huge gap between legislation and reality,” said Beckett, who will study the laws “on a more rigorous, intellectual level, so I can report on them in a more nuanced way.”

Despite the challenges facing the field, Beckett hopes to continue her career in journalism.

“I’d like to work for a local publication of some kind, preferably doing long-form narrative journalism,” Beckett said. “It’s a risky move in this economy — but it’s what I love.”


To Joseph Claghorn, Harvard Yard is more than stately buildings and centuries of tradition. It is a botanically diverse area of beautifying trees — red oak, honey locust, larch, blooming yellowwoods, and a few towering elms.

Observing the natural world comes naturally to Claghorn, a master’s candidate in landscape architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. In his graduate oration, he’ll draw on the metaphor of Harvard’s diversiform tree cover.

At the heart of Claghorn’s trope are the elm trees, once so numerous that Harvard Yard was called “the Elm Yard.” Close to a century ago, most of the elms died, infested by beetles and browntail moths. More elms were planted, but without consideration of a monoculture’s ecological vulnerability. Starting in the 1950s, Harvard’s elms died by the hundreds again, this time weakened by Dutch elm disease.

In nature, at school, and in the broader culture, said Claghorn, diversity is a pathway to strength and resilience. The same lesson might apply to goal-setting graduates as they fix on a career path, he said. “If we’re too single-minded, it can blind us to other possibilities.”

Claghorn himself — born in Los Angeles, raised in Pennsylvania and Georgia, and educated in Utah — seems a model of intellectual flexibility and resilience. A trekker and mountain climber who is fluent in two languages (and can get by in four others), he earned a degree in history from Brigham Young University, then a master’s degree in architecture from the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he graduated first in his class.

After a few years with bricks and mortar — including a period designing townhouses in Vietnam — Claghorn realized that his design destiny lay with the outside environment. He moved on to Harvard, which has the world’s oldest landscape architecture program. Four intense semesters of studio work took him to many threatened environments, including an idyllic archipelago in Sardinia and a slum in São Paulo.

In his first year, Claghorn heard the story of Harvard’s beleaguered elms, and of the diversity of plantings that saved the few that had survived.

“People think of buildings changing,” he said, “but not of the landscape around them changing.”


When he entered middle school, Paul Mumma ’09 had no interest in foreign languages. He chose Latin only to meet a school requirement, figuring he wouldn’t have to learn how to pronounce anything.

Today he will deliver a speech, in Latin, for more than 30,000 people. The irony is not lost on this cheerful young man from Summit, N.J.

“Here I am, eight years later,” Mumma said, “doing exactly what I said I wouldn’t do.”

Mumma fell in love with Latin after that first unwilling foray into the classroom. His passion for the language led him to a classics concentration at Harvard, and he has since studied ancient Greek, modern German, and Arabic.

Along the way, Mumma learned to pronounce the language that he once assumed he would never speak. “We have good linguistic and historical evidence that allows us to know how the Romans pronounced things,” he said.

In the fall, Mumma will head to Corpus Christi College at Oxford University to obtain a master of studies in Greek and Latin language and literature.

“It’s a shame that more people don’t study Latin and Greek at Harvard,” said Mumma, who sees classical languages as a portal to arts and humanities and to the world in general. “The more I learn, the more I think it is useful.”

For his oration, Mumma will draw on the “ages of man,” a frequent theme in Greek and Latin literature. He will apply it to the Harvard experience — a tongue-in-cheek view of the progress (or lack thereof) that characterizes the undergraduate experience between freshman and senior year.

He doesn’t have much public speaking experience, but Mumma hopes that he’ll be able to handle the crowd and draw some laughs.

“I’m one of six kids,” he said. “In that size family, if you made a bad joke you just got pushed around — so hopefully that honed my skills.”

He also has the benefit of observing past orators. As a member of Dorm Crew, the student-run custodial organization, Mumma worked at Commencement for the past three years. Each time the Latin orator took to the stage, Mumma’s fellow captains (as Dorm Crew leaders are called) would remind him that he could be up there in 2009.

“They called me the ‘great hope’ of Dorm Crew,” Mumma said, “and told me that it would bring honor to the team.”


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