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The ending as beginning: Commencement ’18

Looking back on 2017–18

Campus & Community

The ending as beginning: Commencement ’18

Harvard graduates wave books.

Campus & Community

The ending as beginning: Commencement ’18

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Graduates celebrate in the Yard under the trees on a (rare) perfect New England day

Harvard’s annual Commencement is both a conclusion and a start for those graduating. But the day also is a gathering of the far-flung Crimson clan under tents and trees in a party atmosphere. Below are snippets from the festive day from start to finish, with the most recent moments at the top, presented as snapshots of the 367th Commencement.

Sunrise on life after graduation

The most memorable Commencement week moment for Govind Bindra ’18 was not when he received the diploma that he held proudly in his hands at Mather House ceremonies. It came when he watched the sun rise three days earlier with the people he feels closest to, his roommates.

“We have been together and stayed together since freshman year,” Bindra said. “The friendships I have with them, these are the kinds of friendships I intend to keep for a lifetime.”

He came to Harvard from Tennessee to study chemistry, but what he learned was that people are what makes an experience.

“Despite what I learned developing my major, the most significant thing Harvard has taught me is that it’s the diversity of people and sharing this experience with them that is profound,” he said.

And he’ll take that spirit to look ahead.

“I’ve decided for myself I’m not going to leave my best years here,” he said. “We are moving on now, and I can’t wait to see where our paths take us.”

— Deborah Blackwell

Razaak Eniola, Jr. hugs his mother
Jaina Lane

“I’m really happy and really proud,” said Razaak Eniola Jr., hugging his mother after receiving his diploma. George Li (from left), Jaina Lane, and Samuel Lam stand in line at Winthrop House.

Photos by Rose Lincoln and Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographers


‘Your next step is up to you’

When Claudette Taylor came to the United States from Jamaica more than three decades ago, she never dreamed that her grandson would become a Harvard College graduate. But she stood proudly by Razaak Eniola Jr. ’18 Thursday, as he talked about how his grandmother has always inspired him.

“Knowing where my family has come from, knowing their stories, knowing their sacrifices to bring me where I am today, I’m really happy and really proud,” he said.

Taylor arrived alone to New York City and earned money by cleaning floors, working hard to follow her dream.

“I got my green card, went to school, became a medical assistant, and started working in a hospital,” she said. “Years after that believe it or not, I went on and got my master’s in health care management and health services administration. Then I started teaching as a professor at Long Island University. This is a real immigrant story.”

Although Eniola concentrated in the history of science and mastered Chinese, his path may also lead him toward health care. He’s surrounded by family in that field. Eniola’s father practices internal medicine near their home in Salisbury, Md., his aunt is a nurse, her husband is a doctor, and an uncle is an X-ray technician.

While Eniola is considering pre-med with a focus in health care policy for his postgraduate work, his grandmother had her own words of wisdom for him on his special day.

“Do something in the medical field, because there will always be sick people,” she said. “But I’m just so proud of you, so happy, and your next step is up to you.”

— Deborah Blackwell


Sea of graduates in Harvard Yard.
Creative mortarboard.
Creative mortarboard.

Photos by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer


An end, yes, or maybe a beginning

When Darlington Nwaudo ’18 first saw his diploma after exiting the podium during Kirkland House’s afternoon Commencement ceremonies, he could not decide if graduating from Harvard is an ending or a beginning.

“I am so excited and feel that it’s crazy that it all comes to an end right now, and everything that I’ve been working for the last four years is here in this diploma,” he said.

But his parents weren’t concerned. Originally from Nigeria, they felt nothing but excitement that their son had received his degree in molecular and cellular biology. He hopes to become a surgeon.

“After four years, he is standing here with his diploma,” said Jane Nwaudo, Darlington’s mother. “It’s just amazing.” She is excited that her son will be moving closer to their home in St. Paul, Minn., to attend medical school at the University of Chicago. “It’s driving distance,” she said.

After a few minutes, Nwaudo decided his diploma represented much more than just an ending or a beginning.

“I’m so thankful for this opportunity, to be able even to study here, to have all the incredible faculty, the incredible experience,” he said. “I just feel so lucky.”

— Deborah Blackwell


John Lewis speaks.

Congressman John Lewis speaks.

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer


With staff and top hat, the sheriff’s view

There are lots of longstanding Commencement traditions at Harvard, but few are as dramatic — or as boisterous — as the one that Peter Koutoujian M.C./M.P.A. ’03, gets to lead every year.

As Middlesex County sheriff, he heads the morning processional of University presidents past and present (and this year a president-elect), followed by members of the Corporation, the provost, and Overseers, through the Old Yard and into Tercentenary Theatre.

Then, after a solemn walk across the stage, Koutoujian obliges the provost’s ritual command to “Pray, give us order.” Wearing a top hat, the sheriff pounds a silver-topped staff three times on the granite steps, and with a “Let’s get ready to rumble!” style gusto faces the crowd and delivers the precious words that students and their proud families have longed to hear at graduation:

“As the high sheriff of Middlesex County, I declare that the meeting will be in or-duhhhh!”

“Everyone enjoys that moment so much,” said Koutoujian of his let-it-rip emphasis on order, using a British-ish accent that he calls “channeling my inner John Harvard.”

“It’s incumbent upon the sheriff to set the tone for the entire Commencement,” he said.

Peter Koutoujian.

Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian says he channels his "inner John Harvard" while leading the morning processional.

Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

A former state representative, Koutoujian first attended Commencement when he earned a mid-career master’s degree from Harvard Kennedy School in 2003.

“I don’t really remember much of that day because I was just overwhelmed” by all that was going on, he confessed.

But since Gov. Deval Patrick appointed him sheriff in 2011, he has been able to relive Commencement again and again, from the stage.

“Now, I get to enjoy that day in a way that I appreciate completely differently, and wish I had appreciated more as a student.”

Though the sheriff’s role, which dates to the 17th century, is mainly ceremonial, it wasn’t always that way.

“At one point, these graduations were quite celebratory, meaning that it wasn’t even just the students, alumni, and families that would attend the graduations, but the public would attend because there weren’t many opportunities to have local festivities,” Koutoujian said. “So they’d really get out of hand, and they’d need the sheriff to maintain order. That’s how it started, and that’s why I’m asked to give order.”

Even today, two to three dozen county deputy sheriffs and officers work in tandem with Harvard and Cambridge police during Commencement, he noted.

Then there was that one time in 2013 when real life intervened, and order was called for.

Koutoujian said he was making his way back from the Kennedy School’s graduation event and came upon a man assaulting a woman in the middle of Harvard Square as stunned bystanders looked on in horror. Still dressed in his top hat and tails and without a weapon or handcuffs, the 6-foot, 6-inch sheriff (that’s before the hat) confronted the man and, using his loudest Commencement voice, ordered him to stop.

“And it worked!” said Koutoujian.

So far, there haven’t been any Commencement disasters like forgetting his lines or breaking the staff. In fact, there have only been memorable moments of the best kind, like getting complimented by Aretha Franklin, or getting a hug from Oprah Winfrey. One treasured memento is a photo of 2017 honorand James Earl Jones clapping his hands and laughing joyously as Koutoujian opened the Morning Exercises.

“One of the great voices of our time, celebrating my announcement!” he said in disbelief.

Still, Koutoujian is careful to stick with the script and not get carried away with his yearly 15 seconds of fame.

“The event itself is much more important than the people who are participating in it. So when you’re mindful of that, that you’re really just playing a role in an historic event, you understand it’s not about you at all, it’s about Harvard University.”

— Christina Pazzanese


Overview of Harvard Yard during commencement.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer


Making good on her goal

Standing outside Winthrop House, Queen Lane reminisced about her daughter Jaina’s dreams of coming to Harvard.

“She used to tell people she wanted to go to Harvard, and people would say, ‘Yeah, sure.’ She did it. It’s a dream come true for her.”

A chemical and physical biology concentrator with a secondary in Global Health, Jaina will attend medical school at the University of Virginia in the fall. She plans to become a pediatric reconstructive surgeon, a career she chose in middle school after learning about Operation Smile, an international nonprofit that repairs children’s cleft lips and cleft palates.

For Jaina, saying farewell to Harvard, a moment that had come on fast, could wait just a little longer.

“It hasn’t hit yet,” Jaina said. “Maybe when I go home, it’ll hit me and I’ll realize I had graduated. For now, I’ll enjoy my last night at Harvard.”

— Liz Mineo


Graduates walk past John Harvard Statue.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer


Flowers for graduates, opportunity for vendor

For the past 25 years, Commencement Day has been a special time for David Greenberg. Greenberg is among a handful of flower sellers who set up shop near Harvard’s gates with carts of colorful bouquets.

Presenting flowers to graduates and parents alike remains a popular tradition, said Greenberg, a Worcester resident who also sells graduation bouquets at Boston College and Boston University.

For Harvard’s Commencement, Greenberg gets up at 4:30 a.m. to drive in from Worcester to find early parking on Massachusetts Avenue not far from Johnston Gate. His cart is filled with roses, spider mums, lilies, alstroemerias, carnations, and chrysanthemums. The most popular bouquet, a mix of roses and lilies, sells for $25. Greenberg said he does a brisk business at Commencement, selling between 100 and 150 bouquets, and he makes sure he never runs out of flowers.

And in the best American capitalist tradition, when it rains, he sells umbrellas. At last year’s Commencement, held amid a pounding rainstorm, he sold nearly 100 of them.

Greenberg said he enjoys being part of the festive atmosphere. and he welcomes the chance to trade his wares for joy. “I can’t tell you how much I make, but Harvard should let me sell flowers inside and get a percentage,” he said, showing that, as an astute businessman, he’s still thinking ahead.

— Liz Mineo

David Greenberg sells flowers outside Harvard Yard.

David Greenberg sells flowers outside the Yard.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer


Drew Faust and Larry Bacow during commencement.

Drew Faust (from left), Lawrence Bacow, and Bill Lee proceed to the stage.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer


Overview of Harvard Square.

Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer


Determined learner

Bonnie Seymour’s road to Commencement was longer than most. Not in terms of miles, since the journeys of parents from around the world beat her commute from Rhode Island. But Seymour’s trip was a different kind of long, starting in the fourth grade, when she could neither read nor do simple mathematics.

“It was difficult, I would shove my work in to the desk so no one would know,” she said.

Seymour, graduating with a master’s in museum studies from the Extension School, was diagnosed with a learning disability and, luckily, received guidance from people who were able to puzzle out how she learned best. Her reading and math skills improved right away, and she would go on to earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of Rhode Island.

“I am excited, this is kind of a big deal,” said Seymour, making her way into Tercentenary Theatre. “When I was younger, it was discovered I had a learning disability and they told me I probably wouldn’t make it to college. Now I’m getting a master’s. Ha! Ha!”

— Alvin Powell


GSD students take flight

It’s a Commencement tradition that soon-to-be-grads from the different Schools carry props into Tercentenary Theatre to signify their discipline. Some are obvious — like the inflatable globes waved by Kennedy School students or the children’s books by Ed School grads — and some less so.

This year, students from the Graduate School of Design hung their hats with Legos, signifying the crucial role of design in building. Students in the master of design studies program had included small bird’s nests next to the Legos.

Class Marshal Charles Newman explained that the nests represented migration, referencing to the students’ broad-based discipline, which required studies at various Schools.

“This symbolizes our seasonal, if not daily, migration to different desks,” Newman said. “We would set up shop in one School and then move to the next.”

— Alvin Powell

Graduate with Lego mortarboard.

GSD graduate Karen Mata sports a colorful Lego mortarboard along with many of her classmates.

Jon Chase/Harvard Staff Photographer


Harvard commencement.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer


At Mass Hall, it’s about the hats

Katie Tiger is not sure who started the tradition, but she has embraced the Commencement Day custom of Mass Hall staffers donning impressive hats.

“When I first started here almost seven years ago, someone said to me, ‘Oh, everybody wears hats in Mass Hall on Commencement Day,’ ” said Tiger, an executive assistant to President Drew Faust. “I got very excited and started hat shopping with my colleague, who was the provost’s assistant at the time,” and she convinced others who hadn’t been aware of the tradition to get aboard.

Now, every April, Tiger organizes an office shopping trip to Salmagundi, a specialty hat shop in Boston. At least half a dozen colleagues join in the fun, trying on many hats, critiquing each other’s choices, and over time developing a millinery collection. (Cha Cha’s House of Ill Repute in New York is also a Tiger favorite.)

The staffers spend most of the day in Mass Hall, ground zero on Commencement Day, in a constant swirl of activity, as they greet University officials, guests, alumni, and VIPs who are their own ceremonial hats and robes. The staffers don’t have their own official Commencement garb to wear, so donning their hats makes them feel festive and part of the day.

Katie Tiger and Trearty Bartley wear fancy hats at commencement.

Katie Tiger (left) and Trearty Bartley.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Amber Hubbard shows off her elaborate hat.
Theresa Lungu shows off her elaborate hat.

Amber Hubbard and Theresa Lungu.

Photos by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

“When I put the hat on, it’s just about being part of the ceremonies and being into it,” said Theresa Lungu, the reception and correspondence coordinator at Mass Hall. “It’s like, ‘Ooh, it feels like I’m graduating!’ ”

Lungu was new to Harvard last spring when the annual hat-shopping call went out. She eagerly got on board and found the camaraderie irresistible. “I was new, so to be included, for me, was — I really felt at home. OK, I’m part of Mass Hall. It was really great,” said Lungu.

Being in Harvard Yard, sharing in the rich pageantry and the spirit of the celebration, is fun.

“It’s such a special day for the entire community here, so it’s nice to be part of it and celebrate with them,” said Tiger. “Whoever started this tradition, I thank them, because it’s a great idea.”

— Christina Pazzanese


Graduates file past the John Harvard Statue.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer


At Kennedy School, wishes for future

After the Morning Exercises in the Yard, newly minted graduates of the Harvard Kennedy School headed to JFK Memorial Park for their own festivities under a giant tent.

Archon Fung, academic dean and Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government, told the graduates during his introductory remarks that “It is up to you to invent new ways forward because many of the old ways have lost their purchase.” Fung emphasized the importance of “lifting every voice” and leading by example. “The world desperately needs your creativity.”

Dean Douglas Elmendorf then urged the graduates to “stand up for knowledge and against ignorance and fabrication,” echoing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Class Day remarks the day before. He called for the graduates to exhibit integrity and courage, and even to “sit down” when necessary, to listen to others’ perspectives, especially when those perspectives provoke disagreement and thoughtfulness.

— Katie Gibson


Sea of graduates in Harvard Yard.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer


Some fond — and noisy — farewells

Commencement is one of the rare moments when the deans of all the Schools and faculties are in one place at one time. As such, it’s a fitting occasion for final farewells to outgoing leaders.

This year, Provost Alan Garber bid farewell to Michael Smith, Edgerly Family Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, for “11 years of distinguished leadership.” (Smith is returning to teaching.)

He also thanked Dean James Ryan, who is departing Harvard to take up the presidency of the University of Virginia, for his four years of service at the Graduate School of Education.

Ryan received the most raucous sendoff, since several GSE grads had brought vuvuzelas to the ceremonies. After the wild rumpus subsided, it was perhaps appropriate that the dean introduced this year’s graduates by reading from Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are.”

— Alvin Powell


Graduates let inflatable globes loose.

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer


A few laughs with that degree

The conferring of honorary degrees, during which Provost Alan Garber introduces each recipient to President Drew Faust with a sometimes humorous preamble, is an important part of  Commencement. This year, seven degrees were awarded, including one to Harvey Fineberg, whose career has included stints as dean of the Harvard School of Public Health and president of the Institute of Medicine. He also held a position near and dear to Garber’s heart.

“In 1997,” Garber said, “he was named to what many regard as the single most exalted academic leadership position in all of higher education. I refer of course, to the role of Harvard University provost.”

Faust later piled on the humor, solemnly intoning as she conferred Fineberg’s Doctor of Laws, “Dexterous herder of Crimson cats, superlative exponent of human health, caring leader with a common touch. His given name is Harvey, but to us he’s always Harvard.”

— Alvin Powell

Harvey Vernon Fineberg (from left), Rita Dove, and John Lewis.

Harvey Vernon Fineberg (from left), Rita Dove, and John Lewis.

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer


Where next? Wherever the RV takes us

Morgan Barraza can confidently claim to be unique in how she’ll celebrate her degree. Barraza, who received a master’s in education learning and teaching, will take a recreational vehicle first to her wedding and then back home to the Salt River Pima Reservation in Arizona, stopping to see friends along the way.

Barraza, a Native American and member of the Salt River Pima, said that commencement ceremonies were extra special because several family members, including her grandmother, who was in the hospital for when she received her undergraduate degree from Columbia, were able to attend.

“For her to be able to come here and see me, it’s a huge privilege, not only to our families but also to our particular communities,” Barraza said. “I want to return to my community and continue teaching.”

— Alvin Powell


Singing in the old and new

Music has been an integral part of Commencement for generations, as it was today at Tercentenary Theatre. In keeping with tradition, the Commencement Choir performed a version of Psalm 78 set to music by the 18th-century composer William Tans’ur. The piece has been part of Commencement since its inception. But the choir also made room for the new.

“We are … sisters of mercy, brothers of love, lovers of life, the builders of nations,” reads one of the refrains in the composition “We Are …”  by Ysayë Maria Barnwell, a former member of the a cappella group Sweet Honey and the Rock. (The piece was a fitting choice, having also been performed at freshman convocation for the Class of 2018.)

The song was not only a stylistic departure from other works in the Commencement program, said Director of Choral Activities Andrew Clark, who leads the Commencement Choir, but also a reflection of “the Harvard of today.”

“This particular song really speaks powerfully to the continuum of inheriting the wonderful traditions and values and identities from our ancestors and those who came before us, but also projecting and putting forth our own hopes and aspirations for the future,” he said.

“It was a piece that President Faust enjoyed as well,” Clark added. “So given her last Commencement with us, we thought we would perform it.”

— Colleen Walsh


Making his parents proud

For the parents of graduating senior Guillermo Gomez, the celebration was full of tradition and pomp, but also dreams and promise.

A native of Fort Worth, Texas, Gomez grew up one of four siblings in a working-class family. His parents Salvador and Francisca Gomez immigrated from Mexico in 1995 seeking better opportunities.

Salvador, a construction worker, and Francisca, a housekeeper, beamed with joy and pride as they stood in the Yard watching morning exercises. “I always knew he was going to do it,” said Salvador.

Commencement marked the first time the couple visited their son in Cambridge. On Saturday, parents and son will travel back home before Guillermo starts the next phase of his life.

— Liz Mineo

Salvatore and Francisca Gomez pose with their children Ismael, Emily, newly minted graduate Gillermo, and Salvador Jr.

Salvatore and Francisca Gomez pose with their children Ismael, Emily, newly minted graduate Gillermo, and Salvador Jr.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer


Musical tribute

Joshuah Campbell ’16 and Harvard friends perform “Sing Out, March On,” a special tribute to Commencement Speaker John Lewis.


‘Don’t get weary in your well-doing’

Between crack-of-dawn wake-up calls and the official graduation ceremony at Tercentenary Theatre, seniors poured into Memorial Church for a farewell service led by Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church Jonathan Walton.

In his remarks, Walton urged the students to remember the “commitment to a moral ideal,” developed and nurtured over their four years at Harvard, as they begin their next chapter of their lives.

“Regardless of your vocation or avocation, don’t get weary in your well-doing,” he said.  “When you witness others making peace with a mediocre status quo. When you feel yourself falling asleep to the lullabies of entitlement. And when you see mendacity and duplicity become markers of success and social promotion, remember that you have a higher call to service and sacrifice.”

Standing up for what is right won’t be easy and it won’t necessarily bring accolades and awards, said Walton, but it will lead to a life of meaning.

As has become his custom, Walton began the annual service by snapping a series of selfies with the graduates to cheers and applause. He closed with what has become his familiar blessing.

“Be swift to love. Make haste to be kind. Be quick to compliment and be slow to criticize, and if you do criticize do so constructively. Love yourself, because loving yourself is a precondition for loving your neighbor. And when we do all of these things we might begin to approximate what it means for us to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before our God.”

The remarks resonated with Pforzheimer resident Abdurezak Shemsu.

Walton’s message of “taking what we have learned here and trying to be leaders, and to try and do things that actually have impacts in our communities, especially, is really motivating,” said Shemsu, who concentrated in economics with a secondary in global health and health policy.

Long term, Shemsu hopes to enroll at Harvard Business School to pursue his interest in social entrepreneurship. “That’s the dream,” he said.

— Colleen Walsh

Memorial Church filled with graduates.

Jonathan Walton leads the farewell service in Memorial Church.

Johnathan Walton
Abdurezak Shemsu.

Walton's speech resonated with Abdurezak Shemsu.

Photos by Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer


Forward thinker

As he has for the past few years, Donald H. Pfister, Asa Gray Professor of Systematic Botany, posted himself at the green dais to the left of Mass Hall to serve as head wrangler of the mass of cap-and-gown-clad Commencement participants. Looking out at the students, alumni, and dignitaries filing into Tercentenary Theatre for the morning exercises, Pfister, with a note of kind urgency in his voice, asked the president’s division to “move forward.”

This year, he also had a trick up his sleeve — or, more precisely, in his ear. Pfister looked a little like a secret service agent, sporting a wired earpiece.

“I got here at about 6:30 and picked up my radio,” said Pfister. “This is the first year we’ve used [them]. We coordinate from Sever Quad … so I can talk to the person on the other side of the Yard and say, ‘Is everything lined up, are we ready to go?’”

— Colleen Walsh


Their ‘Golden Hour’

One of Commencement’s most delightful traditions are the many banners and trinkets waved by graduates as their degrees are conferred upon them. Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) graduates wave books during Commencement.

Among those books were publications from Our Golden Hour, the children’s publishing company founded by graduate Maung Nyeu, Ed.D. ’18. As a child in Malaysia, Nyeu was punished for speaking his local Marma language. His company publishes children’s books based on stories collected by indigenous children from around the world with the aim of revitalizing endangered indigenous languages and reviving vanishing cultures of indigenous peoples.

“I am happy and humbled that HGSE is making these children’s books available for new graduates to wave during the Commencement ceremony,” said Nyeu. Few get to see their books in print at all, never mind brandished by their friends and classmates during one of the happiest moments of their lives.

— John Michael Baglione