Class Day

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard file photo

Campus & Community

Bacow tells seniors COVID-19 brought losses, but also growth

4 min read

President offers poignant reflections during Baccalaureate Service for Class of ’21

University President Larry Bacow counseled graduating seniors in a poignant speech during the Baccalaureate Service on Tuesday to acknowledge the losses they’d suffered but also celebrate the wisdom and growth gained during the pandemic.

“Every day since March 10, 2020, has reminded you that life — in the abstract and in the concrete — is both tenuous and uncertain,” Bacow said during the event honoring the Class of 2021, which was broadcast on “Every day has challenged and tested you, has created uncertainty and unease, has brought forth doubt and in some cases disaffection. Every day has given you a chance to give in, to throw in the towel.

“Yet here you are. Despite what the past 379 days have served up, you have endured. You have fulfilled your requirements, completed your work, and finished what you started. On our campus, across the country, and literally around the world, you have adapted to unexpected circumstances. You have created community and embraced opportunity — not the ones you imagined when you entered Harvard, but the ones you needed when the world changed on all of us, almost overnight.

“And that is something to celebrate, something to acknowledge and to cheer. Challenge is a given. For some generations, it is doled out in fits and starts. For other generations, it is heaped upon them in an instant.”

In his address, Bacow talked about how the global pandemic changed things utterly. Some seniors lost loved ones, he said, while others endured physical, mental, and financial struggles, but all were “deprived of the simple joy of being together” and “experiencing senior year as a class.”

All those struggles, said Bacow, brought hard-won lessons. “I suspect because you have had to overcome so much during the past 379 days that you have probably grown in unexpected ways,” Bacow said. “How many of you have reconsidered what truly matters to you? How many of you have tossed aside your prior neat and tidy five-year plans? How many of you have become bolder and stronger, willing to stand up for equality and justice, eager to defend the truth?”

The Baccalaureate Service, a Harvard tradition since the 18th century, is part of the three-day festivities honoring this year’s graduating class. The late Rev. Peter Gomes, an honored and beloved former Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church and Plummer Professor of Christian Morals, once said that the Baccalaureate “next to Commencement itself, is perhaps our oldest public occasion.”

Typically, the service takes place at Memorial Church and includes anthems, prayers, blessings, and scriptural readings from various religious traditions read by members of the graduating class, along with a presidential address. This year, due to COVID-19 restrictions, the service was taped and assembled by Jeffrey Blackwell and Jesus Romo Llamas, Memorial Church staff members. It featured archival recordings of the Harvard University Choir; prerecorded pieces from this year’s participants; and a prelude and postlude that assistant University organist and choirmaster David von Behren recorded in a church in Nebraska.

Stephanie Paulsell, Interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church and Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies at Harvard Divinity School, presided over the service. She urged the seniors and their families to rejoice in their achievements and celebrate the milestone.

“If we were on campus, we’d be crowded now into the Memorial Church,” said Paulsell. “It would be a grand occasion — everyone processing in their robes, a trumpet fanfare to welcome President Bacow, a choir in the balcony. This Baccalaureate will be different, but I hope that it offers you and your community of family and friends a few quiet moments of reflection in the midst of celebrations that I hope are full of joy, wherever you are in the world.”

In closing his speech, Bacow encouraged the senior class to be decent and kind, to keep the friendships and relationships they formed in their College years, to “support one another during all of life’s passages,” and to be willing to be change direction and “remain open to serendipity.”

He said he hopes to celebrate the Class of 2021 in person.

“When humanity has this pandemic in its rearview mirror, I want to see you,” said Bacow. “I want to shake your hands and hear the stories you one day will tell your grandchildren about your extraordinary senior year. But — most of all — I want to watch you march into Tercentenary Theatre — reveling in the pomp and circumstance that should have been yours later this week — and I want to thank you in person for facing adversity this past year with remarkable grace, goodwill, and grit. Until then, enjoy your last moments as undergraduates and savor all that you have gained in wisdom, knowledge, friendship, and self-understanding over these past four years.”