Campus & Community

Into the unknown

4 min read

Faust, deans urge freshmen to embrace discovery, surprise

Surprise, discovery, connection.

Under the glow of a September sun, members of the Class of 2019 were welcomed into Tercentenary Theatre on Tuesday by cheering upperclassmen in crimson football jerseys that read “Advising Matters ’19.”

A recent tradition that’s quickly become a vital part of Opening Days, a series of orientation events that began on move-in day last week, Freshman Convocation extends a formal welcome to new students.

“Your work for the next four years is about discovery: discovery of the world and its past and future; discovery of one another and discovery of yourself,” President Drew Faust told the 1,664 students who have come to Cambridge from 79 countries — everywhere from Algeria to Zimbabwe — and from 49 of the 50 states (sorry, Wyoming!).

“Don’t base your choices on what will impress or astonish others,” she said. “Take advantage of Harvard to surprise yourself. Make sure that you’re a different person by May of 2019.”

Michael D. Smith, the Edgerley Family Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, urged the freshmen to accept that there will be moments when they experience “discomfort” — and assured them that that’s OK.

“Harvard isn’t just a repository of history and knowledge,” he said. “You’re not here to learn dry facts. You’re here to grow as a person, and that may lead you to
question a prior, closely held belief or expose you to a disagreeable idea.

“The discomfort you feel is perfectly natural. What you do next is what matters. What you do next will define you as a person, and it will strongly influence how much you enjoy your time here at Harvard.”

As is his tradition, Smith challenged students to repeat a simple phrase when feeling tempted to compare themselves, often unfavorably, to others: “Don’t compare, connect.”

“Comparing ourselves to others can push us to work harder, to learn more, to be better human beings. But sometimes it can also lead us to making less of the incredible opportunities before us,” he said.

“Harvard, I hope, will shape you as you learn and grow here, but equally important, you and who you are will shape Harvard and those around you. But you can only do this important work if you connect with each other.”

Rakesh Khurana, Danoff Dean of Harvard College, worried that today’s intense college admissions process can make many feel like their future happiness is somehow won in a life-or-death battle akin to “The Hunger Games.”

“The process can easily put you in the mindset that education is a zero-sum game, that getting high grades is the ultimate measure of success in life, and that it is noble to present oneself as having everything figured out at 17,” he said.

But Harvard College is not like high school: It’s not a time “to jump through yet another series of hoops and prove yourself,” Khurana cautioned, urging students to embrace their years here as a “transformational” period of intellectual, social and personal exploration, not a “transactional” experience that follows some resume-building script.

“You all belong here. And we hope your experience of College will be not be one of showing the world what you can do, but rather [of] discovering what you want to do and also what needs to be done. And figuring out how you can use your talents to create the life you envision and the world you envision.”

Exercises included greetings from Paul Choi ’86, M.B.A. ’89, president of the Harvard Alumni Association and presentation of the class banner; welcome remarks by Freshman Dean Thomas A. Dingman ’67, Ed.M. ’73; and performances by the Harvard University Band, the Kuumba Singers, the Harvard Glee Club, Radcliffe Choral Society, and Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum.

Referencing the lists freshmen received last week detailing the many notable students who once lived in their rooms, Faust declared:

“This is now your place. Claim it. Make it your own. You are now Harvard. A year from now, 100 years from now, newly arrived freshmen will sit where you are sitting and will have received lists with your names on it. They will wonder what you did here, what you loved about the place, how you made your mark, where you ended up, and how you changed Harvard for the better.”