Before they began their academic lives at Harvard, the members of the Class of 2017 already experienced a taste of adversity, and demonstrated resiliency.
In April, the manhunt for the second suspected Boston Marathon bomber forced the lockdown of Cambridge and surrounding communities, the closure of Harvard University, and the cancellation of Visitas, the Harvard tradition in which admitted freshmen arrive for their first exposure to campus life. Instead, Harvard College students and incoming freshmen connected through a “virtual Visitas” online.
On Monday, Mother Nature forced the class to make a quick adjustment for another, newer Harvard tradition, Freshman Convocation. Because of the chance of strong thunderstorms, officials moved the convocation from outdoor Tercentenary Theatre into Memorial Church and Sanders Theatre.
But challenges have a way of bringing members of a class closer together, which President Drew Faust and the rest of the convocation speakers stressed is critical to success at Harvard.
“The most important and powerful part of the next four years will be about being a part of this community and about being together,” Faust said.
She went on to tell the freshmen that every encounter at Harvard should be viewed as an opportunity.
“One of the reasons Harvard has thrived for nearly 400 years is that this community has provided an environment in which individuals of talent, curiosity, and intellectual ambition have interacted, influenced, and taught one another in ways that could not have been scripted or predicted,” she said. “We bring you here to create the conditions for serendipity.”
“Harvard isn’t just a repository of history and knowledge, and you aren’t here just to receive your quota of information. Harvard is a dynamic place — a constantly evolving place — because of its people,” said Smith, the John H. Finley Jr. Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
New Harvard College interim Dean Donald Pfister continued the theme of community building. He said that although the freshmen come from more than 60 countries and 49 states — making the class “one of the most diverse groups ever assembled at Harvard” — the students probably have more in common with their classmates than they realize.
“In coming to this College, you have done more than enroll in a school. You have joined a community. Forming a real community from a wildly miscellaneous collection of strangers requires work, and a lot of thought,” Pfister said. “Community, the sense of belonging and of sharing, will be fundamental to your life at Harvard.”
Dean of Freshmen Thomas Dingman opened the convocation, while the Rev. Jonathan Walton, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, delivered the invocation.
In the student salutation, Erin D. Drake ’14 recalled how what she believed would be her path as a freshman changed immediately once she experienced all that Harvard has to offer.
“I was focused on what I want to do over the next four years, not who I wanted to be. Do what matters to you,” Drake suggested. “The question for you is: What are you going to do with the privilege of going to Harvard College?”
Students also heard from Harvard Alumni Association President Catherine Gellert ’93 and listened to performances by the Kuumba Singers, the Harvard University Band, and the Holden Choirs.
Faust stressed that the connections and friendships made now and over the next four years will last a lifetime.
“I can promise you, because I greeted the Class of 1963 on the steps of Widener Library during reunions back in May, you will still be important to each other — maybe even more important to each other — 50 years from now.”