Conan O'Brien.

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Conan arrives, and the crowd goes wild! (Not really)

5 min read

Comedian joins Houses, departments in day honoring seniors

Comedian and late-night talk-show host Conan O’Brien ’85 addressed the Harvard College Class of ’20 Thursday as part of an afternoon of virtual ceremonies that captured the joy, poignancy, and humor of the day.

Acknowledging the less-than-ideal scenario of celebrating via Zoom until an in-person Commencement is safe, O’Brien hammed it up, opening with archival footage of cheering crowds, stunt-flying fighter jets, blasting cannons, and a water-saluting tugboat celebrating his speech.

“As you sit here today, or stand, or microwave a burrito, or ride a Peloton, or recline uncomfortably in your childhood bed, or mine Bitcoin, or Google ‘Who is Conan O’Brien?,’ you are witnessing many firsts in today’s ceremony,” O’Brien said in a message recorded as he stood, attired in T-shirt, shorts, and Birkenstocks, before a podium on his sunny backyard lawn.

A history and literature concentrator and two-time president of The Lampoon, O’Brien thanked Harvard for his honorary degree in “bosonic string theory and condensed-matter physics” (as the words “No idea what he’s talking about” flashed underneath) and gave a shout-out to the day’s true heroes, the IT department. (“Really nice compression, guys. Beautiful, very little buffering.”)

He acknowledged that the ceremonies were not typical but that all involved were doing their best to make up for it. “Trust me, we are taking steps to make today’s Commencement feel as authentic as possible,” he joked. “In fact, right now, Harvard is charging each of you $50 for parking in Cambridge.”

Eric Cheng '20, First marshal.
Urshella Hishaam ’20.

Program marshals and graduating seniors Eric Cheng and Urshella Hishaam help to host the ceremony.

Other lighthearted moments came in a photo montage of the years’ highlights and a Faculty Dean TikTok. Then O’Brien set aside his jokes, telling seniors: “You’ve been handed more than your share.” Reflecting that they were born in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, he said, “You’ve only known a world beset by terrorist hate. You’ve grown up with mass shootings and school lockdowns. Horror was completely absent from my childhood. You have now witnessed two economic meltdowns of stunning proportions.

“You are remarkable examples to my children of how to be smart, brave, and yes, resilient in a scary world,” he said in his concluding wishes.

Danoff Dean of Harvard College Rakesh Khurana also spoke about how proud he was of the senior class, though he began by sharing his sorrow for all the losses, large and small, that the global pandemic had wrought for the students, their families, and the world.

“But even as we grieve for what you have lost these past few months, today is a moment to think about what lies ahead and to ask yourself: How are you going to move forward with hope into a world that looks different from the one you were preparing to enter?

“This is a hard moment, but it is your moment, and I am confident that you will rise to the occasion,” he said. “Your education has prepared you for what lies ahead.”

Graduates celebrated remotely throughout the day with their Houses and, in some cases, their academic departments. From the empty dining hall, Dunster House Faculty Deans Sean Kelly and Cheryl Chen and Allston Burr Resident Dean Michael Uy hosted a live Zoom ceremony to honor their students. Almost 350 participants, including House staff and tutors, students and their loved ones, gathered to watch remarks by Kelly, Chen, and Uy, and to toast one another.

Kelly, who is Teresa G. and Ferdinand F. Martignetti Professor of Philosophy, said the seniors were “the first class we saw through an entire cycle [as Faculty Deans],” and that they were grateful to have had the chance to share beloved traditions such as the red-tie dinner, the goat roast, and, more recently, virtual trivia nights and senior dinner.

“While your College days did not end in the way you would have liked, I hope you will still remember your time here fondly, and eventually with the passage of time, the 7½ semesters on campus will be more salient to you than the last half-semester away from it,” added Chen, a senior lecturer in philosophy.

Brian Farrell and Irina Ferreras, faculty deans for Leverett House, toast the graduates.

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Professor Brian Farrell and Oakes Ames Herbarium curatorial assistant, and Irina Ferreras.

Uy read out the names of the graduates, and students raised their hands to be spotlighted. Many were gathered with their families, wearing graduation robes and hats, waving Harvard flags, flanked by balloons, and covered with confetti (and champagne).

The Department of Statistics marked the day in several ways. In the morning, it posted a video tribute to its graduates, featuring students, faculty, a unicorn Squishy, and senior lecturer Mark Glickman performing “Happy Graduation” (to the tune of “Happy Birthday”) on guitar.

Later in the day, the department held two Zoom receptions celebrating the department’s newly minted graduates. At its event for Ph.D. students, department leaders gave congratulatory remarks before members of the dissertation committees spoke about the impact of each graduate’s work.

Luke Weisman Miratrix, a department affiliate from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, spoke about mentoring Nicole Pashley, who is starting as an assistant professor in statistics at Rutgers University next year.

“She’s been one of those students who self-mentors to a large extent,” Miratrix said. “The first day she arrived in my office she clearly told me some things that worked well for her and some things that didn’t. For example, she told me that she liked to listen and then go off and think … What I didn’t realize at the time was that when she went off to think, that meant generating pages and pages of mathematics, which I would then have to read when she came back.”

Pashley, who watched the event from her apartment in Cambridge with her husband, Oliver, said she hopes to keep up that work ethic next year, and maybe even pass it on to her future students.