Harvard’s leaders welcomed the Class of 2014 Tuesday (Aug. 31), in a convocation ceremony filled with pomp and circumstance. They urged the new students to use their College years as a time to experiment, learn, and discover.

The event, which took the place of standard opening exercises, was designed to give students a sense of Harvard’s history and the uniqueness of their College experience. According to organizers, the convocation was also an opportunity to help students get to know their classmates.

“We want freshmen to learn about the institution,” said Katie Steele, director for freshman programming. “But we also want them to feel inspired and to form connections with one another. The next time they’ll all be together will be Commencement.”

The students participated enthusiastically in traditions old and new, undeterred by a blast of late summer heat. Alumni marshals greeted the freshmen in the Old Yard and gave them class pins emblazoned with Harvard’s veritas shield, a traditional practice. In a more recently established ritual, Crimson Key Society members lined the main paths to Tercentenary Theatre and cheered as the students entered, and the bells of the Memorial Church heralded their arrival.

The freshmen took their seats and were treated to a program of music. The Harvard University Band performed an original fanfare composed by Jennifer Houpy ’12. The Holden Choirs — the Harvard Glee Club, the Radcliffe Choral Society, and the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum — followed a solemn invocation by the Rev. Peter J. Gomes with a soaring rendition of “Amazing Grace.” The Kuumba Singers performed the African-American spiritual “Ride On.”

The students received words of advice and perspective from Harvard’s leaders, who attended the ceremony in full academic regalia.

Evelynn Hammonds, dean of the College and Barbara Gutmann Rosenkrantz Professor of the History of Science and of African and African American Studies, delivered introductory remarks, praising the diversity of a class that “hails from 78 countries,” and encouraging students to use their time at Harvard to embrace new knowledge and friends. Hammonds told the freshmen not to be intimidated by the “many smart people here at Harvard,” and to reach out for help when they encounter roadblocks.

“Trust me when I tell you that there are many people here in the College who want to help you face whatever challenge you confront,” she said, “from learning how to master the dynamics of the classroom and new and unfamiliar ideas, to figuring out which of our nearly 450 student organizations you might want to join — or even help in figuring out how to manage your day to make sure you can do all the things you want to do during your short time here.”

President Drew Faust, the Lincoln Professor of History, encouraged students to explore a world of ideas, “whether you find yourself teaching ‘The Great Gatsby’ to students in Shanghai; evaluating micro loans at a bank in Rwanda; leading dance workshops for Cambridge public school students; studying the plasticity of the hippocampus in our new partnership lab in Bangalore; or breeding small reef fish in a New Zealand ecology lab.”

Faust also urged students to leave their “comfort zones,” and take risks. The purpose of a Harvard education, she said, is to make students familiar with the process of exploration and the mistakes and missteps that accompany it.

“Find that part of you that will take a chance on an idea or an ideal,” she said, “the part of you that is willing to fail … Our job is to help make this willingness for risk and invention become second nature to you, so that your idea of success includes some failure, so that you allow yourselves to become uncomfortable as you try new things.”

Students also heard from Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Michael Smith, the John H. Finley Jr. Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Dean of Freshmen Thomas Dingman, and Amelia Muller ’11, who gave a view from the other end of the College experience.

Robert Bowie Jr. ’73, president of the Harvard Alumni Association, welcomed the freshmen and said he was “here to serve you.” Bowie told the crowd that the next four years would be “the best time of your lives,” and he led the students in singing the commencement hymn “Fair Harvard.”

After the ceremony, students proceeded to the steps of Widener Library for a class photo. Freshman Taylor Foster praised the College’s second annual convocation. “I really liked it,” she said. “It made me feel part of the Class of 2014.”

Classmate Tyler Lewis said she appreciated the words of advice from the University’s leader, and promised to take them to heart. “The part about taking risks was good advice,” she said. “I plan to take it during the next four years.”