In the University’s first-ever virtual first-year Convocation, President Lawrence S. Bacow on Tuesday urged the Class of 2024 to “find your way to heal this world.” Bacow made his address from his home study midway through the live-streamed event, a welcome of hope but sober awareness that it comes amid a lingering pandemic and an explosively contentious period in America’s history.
With music and speeches, themes of unity and social engagement ran throughout the hour-plus ceremony, greeting the new class of 1,421 students from 55 countries, some of them in residence on campus and others in their own homes. The speakers emphasized that despite the climate of political and social unrest and the necessity of social distancing, Harvard remains one community.
Bacow noted the nature of that community, its inclusivity and also its inherent duties. In doing so, he also gave the incoming first-years, at least those eligible, their first assignment: “Register to vote. Inform yourself of the candidates and the issues, and cast a ballot,” he said. “It’s the first responsibility of citizenship in democracy, and at Harvard we take this responsibility very seriously.”
That responsibility will not end in November, he continued. “Find your cause and fight for it. When you see something wrong, try to right it,” he said. “Always remember, anything worth doing tends to generate discussion and debate.” Debate, he pointed out, is part of the Harvard experience. “Every conversation that deepens your understanding of something that’s important to you even if — especially if — it is the perspective of someone who disagrees with you, is education, too.”
Offering resources and reassurance, the day’s other speakers welcomed the new class even as they too challenged them to engage. Following the traditional tolling of the bells of Memorial Church — which, in other years, would have rung in the parade of first-years — Rakesh Khurana, Danoff Dean of Harvard College, acknowledged the unusual nature of the gathering. Invoking J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” he recalled the hobbit Frodo Baggins’ lament about the evil in the world, followed by the wizard Gandalf’s words of advice and consolation: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”