As faculty, staff, and University leaders joined with graduates to celebrate the achievement behind Harvard’s first-person Commencement since 2019, the Gazette’s writers and photographers did their best to keep pace with the joyous events on the ground.
‘Do some good’
A roar went up from the crowd when Danoff Dean of Harvard College Rakesh Khurana assured his listeners that the morning service for seniors, one of the College’s oldest traditions, would last only 15 minutes.
But the quarter of an hour brought laughs and many meaningful moments of reflection. In his brief remarks, Matthew Potts, Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church and Plummer Professor of Christian Morals, provoked a loud response when he urged his audience to “do well.”
“And I don’t mean go and make a lot of money when I say, ‘do well,’ although if you do, that’s great, good for you, please be generous to the poor,” Potts said to laughter and cheers.
“When I say do well, I mean do good, do some good,” he continued. “You are or will shortly be the world’s finest and most accomplished graduates, so do some good with what you’ve been given.”
Tracy K. Smith, a professor of English and of African and African American studies, read a poem she’d composed for the day. Smith, who won a 2011 Pulitzer Prize for her collection “Life on Mars,” said she writes poetry “to better comprehend the feelings and also the events that we live with. Language and imagination make these things both realer and less fearsome to me. And so, in many ways a poem is a wish or a prayer for the capacities necessary to keep living and to be more useful and more compassionate to myself and to others.”
Her five-stanza work “Soaring” included these lines:
History is granular — like rubble or gravel. The young — well, some — ascend without struggle to the daze of dominion. It is brief. Like anything, the soul must sleep, rage, grieve.
The young — some ascend through struggle to whatever strength the age requires. Like anything, the soul weeps, raves, gives itself over to life’s churn and return …
Khurana elicited a heartfelt “Awwwwwwww” from students when he told them, his voice breaking, “You guys are so beautiful, I just really want you to know that.
“Before you close this chapter of your life and open the next one, just pause and enjoy this moment,” he continued. “Think about where you were four years ago, where you are today, and all that came in between, and embrace every second of this special day.”
Another side of Maggie Rogers
In the early months of the pandemic, Maggie Rogers, a Grammy-nominated songwriter and producer, relocated to the coast of Maine and spent time reflecting on music, her structure around music, and her responsibility to her audience. Her next stop was Harvard Divinity School.
“I wanted to create a structure that could last me a lifetime in a moment where I was dealing with an immense amount of burnout and friction between what I actually wanted to do and the box I felt my career had put me in,” said Rogers. “I found that in my career, even though my training in life is as a musician, I was constantly put in this sort of nontraditional ministerial position where I was being asked for moral and spiritual guidance even though that wasn’t the job I signed up to do.”
At Harvard, she focused on the spirituality of public gatherings and the ethics of power in pop culture. She was curious, she said, about the relationship between artist and audience, and what that power structure and dynamic look like. “I was thinking about this world in which people are moving further and further away from traditional religion, but yet are seeking to be connected to both something bigger than oneself and to each other.”
Each year on the eve of Commencement, the Divinity School holds a multireligious service at Memorial Church. Students offer prayers, readings, and music drawn from the wide array of faiths and backgrounds represented within the School. Rogers, who leaves with a master’s degree in religion and public life, made a performance of “Over the Rainbow” her parting gift.
Celebration in song
The message was simple and fitting: “Take the dive.”
In a special rendition of the song that made her a viral sensation, Julia Riew and five classmates encouraged this year’s graduates to plunge headfirst into the next part of their lives.
“When you’re facing any sort of moment where you’re leaping into a new stage of your life, it can be really scary and it can be really exciting,” said Riew, who composed “Dive” as part of “Shimcheong: A Folktale,” the Disney-inspired musical she created for her senior thesis. “At the end of the day, the only way forward is to just take the dive.”
The rearranged string version of the song was performed by Riew, Natalie Choo, and Sydney Penny on vocals, William Yao on violin, and Ethan Cobb on the cello. Junior Anna Gong also played violin.
Riew opened the song and belted out the first chorus before alternating lyrics with Choo and Penny encouraging students to appreciate the moment and look forward to what’s on the horizon.
Take one step and take it in before you say goodbye … andnow, it’s finally time. I’m running toward the world I’ll soon call mine …
There was no Korean Disney princess, so Riew created her own. Since releasing her first video about the project, she has received notes and support from all over the world. Riew plans to move to New York following graduation and will continue developing “Shimcheong,” which is based on a Korean folktale.
“It’s really exciting to be surrounded by my best friends and my family on such an important day,” Riew said. She explains that in the musical, the song comes when the character is about to explore a new place. “In many ways, I think that translates to this moment.”
John and Chris Rota describe themselves as best friends. Father and son share a tight bond over sports, movies, and motorcycles. Now, they will bond over another significant moment: Harvard graduation.
“It’s like a generational achievement for us and for my family,” said Chris, Class of 2020, whose father received his Kennedy School M.P.A. as a member of the Class of 2021 on Thursday, ahead of Commencement ceremonies for the classes on Sunday. “Being able to do it with my dad, who’s kind of my hero and somebody that I have always respected so much, is pretty special.”
John is a lieutenant on the Massachusetts State Police. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s at Western New England University and last year was a recipient of the 2021 Harvard Bradford Fellowship Program for Excellence in Public Administration. Chris was a varsity lacrosse player at Harvard and moved to New York in 2020 to work as an investment banker.
John and Chris have long had a tight, almost inseparable relationship that continues to this day. They routinely speak on the phone, and John recently showed Chris how to ride a motorcycle.
On Thursday, John was all smiles as he reflected on lessons from his son about continuing to improve himself through education.
“Chris inspired me to keep it up, keep chasing my dreams,” said John, who used Chris’ lacrosse bag as his bookbag all year. “It’s been a unique thing — following in my son’s footsteps. … I’m actually reverse-legacy.”
It had been two years since Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian opened Commencement by striking the steps of Memorial Church three times with his silver-tipped staff and declaring, in his deep baritone, that the meeting should be in “Oooooooooorder!” As he waited for his big moment, Koutoujian, dressed in his ceremonial tails and top hat, called Commencement “one of my very favorite days of the year.” He said the role offers him the chance to step back and enjoy the ceremony, unlike when he was part of it as a Kennedy School student 20 years ago. Being in the middle of the action, connecting with friends, and worrying about family was overwhelming, he recalled. “I don’t remember much from my own graduation. But I remember everything from the years I get to sit on stage and listen to these incredible speakers … and then to see the pure excitement on not just the students’ faces, but on their families’ faces, and all of the faculty here at the University. It’s a wonderful experience to be part of.”
One is the loneliest number
Carlos Alvarez was sitting by himself under a Dunster sign in the Old Yard, looking a little lost, but he was still taking the moment in stride. He’d found the chair by chance and took a seat hoping he might be able to reconnect with the parents of his girlfriend, Maria Him, who was graduating from the Harvard Extension School with a master’s degree. Alvarez and Him’s parents had made the flight from Panama for the event, and he had been lucky to get into the Yard when a woman who was expecting and didn’t want to try to fight her way through the crowds offered him her ticket at the gate near the Science Center. He’d lost Him’s parents in the shuffle, and without any cell service, had decided to just take a seat and wait, his “Congratulations” balloon, bouquet of flowers embellished with a small sparkly graduation mortarboard, and plastic Harvard Coop bag by his side. But Alvarez remained upbeat and said he felt inspired by the moment and the locale. “Harvard is amazing. Just like the movies. I just want to lie down in this green grass, look at the trees, and think about writing a novel.” Asked if he thought he might be able to find his friends, Alvarez wasn’t hopeful. “I don’t think it’s going to happen,” he said. “I don’t even remember what they were wearing.”
As the ceremony got underway, husband-and-wife marshals Jim Courtemanche and Kamala Soparkar posed with friends near the John Harvard Statue and reveled in the moment. They had each been on campus for their own College graduations — his was in 1982, hers in 1987 — and they’ll be in the Yard again on Sunday to celebrate with their daughter Katharine, a member of the Class of 2021, a second time. Last year, on the day Katharine’s ceremony would have taken place, the family hiked into the Grand Canyon at sunrise and grabbed pictures of her in her black cap and gown on a rocky ledge. “We had a real remote virtual Commencement,” said Jim. The family expects to be back on campus when their son Marc graduates with the Class of 2024.
Every year, the maestro of Morning Exercises, caller Donald Pfister, stands on his usual wooden riser in front of Harvard Hall waving a small wooden stick trying to get dignitaries, faculty, graduates, and others to line up for the processional into Tercentenary Theatre.
He is not the only one so employed, or so armed. While they look like Harvard-branded magic wands, the little crimson, black, and sometimes gold batons are special signifiers of the day, custom-made for and by volunteers from a group of Harvard alumni, known as “the Happy Committee,” who assist with crowd control each year.
“No two are alike,” said Robert Blacklow ’55, showing off his one-of-a-kind baton, as he sat with Donna Gibson Stone ’66, co-chair of the committee, and Robert Phifer ’69, a member for 20 years “at least.”
This is Blacklow’s 35th Commencement as a volunteer. At age 88, he said he is the oldest member still working the ceremony.
“It’s fun, it’s an honor,” he said. “The real problem I have now is that most of my friends of my age are gone.”
That’s what friends (and family) are for
At Mather House, families sat together at tent-covered outdoor tables, waiting patiently to reunite with the new graduates as they straggled in from Morning Exercises. Next would come the main events: receiving those well-earned diplomas and enjoying some lunch.
A particularly impressive cheering section turned out for Araoluwa “Ara” Omotowa, a government concentrator who also received a citation in Chinese. About a dozen family members and friends flew in from Washington, Maryland, Texas, and the family’s home in Idaho Falls, Idaho, to show their love and support for Omotowa, who interned at Harvard Law Review and eventually plans to attend law school.
“I feel happy, thankful, proud,” said her mother, Omotayo Omotowa, as she scanned the crowd looking for Ara.
The family only immigrated to the U.S. in 1998 but are well-versed in the quirky rituals of Harvard Commencements. Ara’s older brother, Ibukunoluwa, who was also in attendance, graduated from the College in 2018.
Rise and shine — now!
When it’s time to graduate, who minds the searing bleat of bagpipes or a six-piece New Orleans-style brass band to get the morning juices flowing?
While others were leisurely milling about, Leverett House seniors dressed in their caps and gowns hit Quincy Street just before 7 a.m., led by Faculty Dean Brian D. Farrell in his crimson robe and the aforementioned marching band, bound for Harvard Yard.
Not to be passed by, both literally and figuratively, on this most sacred of days, the bagpipers outside Quincy House quickly sounded the alarm and in a blink of an eye, the graduates from Quincy lined up in formation and stepped into the street, cutting off the quickly advancing Leverett House, whose mascot is, of course, the rabbit.
Every year, a small group of electricians, plumbers, and trades staff from Harvard Campus Services gather in front of Quincy House to watch the scene, cheering on each House as they parade by, sometimes even high-fiving students.
Though they demurred on picking a favorite, William Dyer, David Abreu, and Peter Antonuccio said they’re maybe a little partial to Quincy House, since their shop is there.
After two years without an in-person Commencement, Dyer said what many were feeling: “It’s good to have everybody back.”
Her favorite teachers
That Sydnie Cobb would invite her two teachers to graduation was always a given.
“They taught me since pre-K until 10th grade,” said Cobb, who concentrated in social studies.
On Commencement Day, Cobb shared a celebratory lunch with her family at Winthrop House. With them were Aprile and Deanna Thomas, twin sisters who founded Twins’ Academy, a private school in Lithonia, Georgia, that homeschooled Cobb for 13 years. The Thomases were elated. Their school has graduated more than 300 students, but Cobb was their first Ivy Leaguer.
“I’m levitating,” said Aprile. “My heart is full. Sydnie is an example of how your students can inspire you. She has shown us the power of what we do. Teachers do matter. I tell all teachers everywhere: ‘Keep going. You do make a difference.’”
For her part, Deanna said they saw in Cobb a commitment to education and a drive to succeed from an early age. “This was a dream of Sydnie’s since she was a small child, and we helped her make it happen,” said Deanna. “She has inspired so many other children. It’s absolutely amazing.”
After graduation, Cobb will move to New York to work for The New Yorker. A former writer for The Harvard Crimson, she’s looking forward to her new gig. She will help write articles, research and edit, and scout new talent.
For Cobb, the event was bittersweet. “I’m very sad to be leaving Harvard, especially since our time was truncated, but another part of me is so hopeful and excited for the future,” she said.
But she also expressed her confidence that “the friendships that I made here are going to endure different cities, jobs, and life phases.”
Sharing in the joy
At the entrance of Dunster House, workers Nelson Vega and Pali Viera were busy helping students and guests dispose of their dishes after their celebratory post-Commencement lunch.
Vega, who hails from Venezuela, and Viera, from Honduras, have been working for the past five months doing janitorial work. On Thursday, they were in charge of collecting trash and making sure the setting was ready for Sunday’s Commencement to honor the Classes of 2020 and 2021. As they tied bags of trash, they were laughing and seemed to be enjoying themselves.
The two said were pleased to be part of such a festive event, and cheered by the joy of the families and the students. “We’re treated well, and people appreciate the work we do,” Vega said. “That’s why we smile.”
Enjoying both pomp and circumstance
Prateek Pinisetti, a computer science concentrator, enjoyed the pomp and ceremony of the Morning Exercises.
“I really enjoyed the procession, all the speeches, and everything” said Pinisetti, a Dunster House resident. “It’s really special to be part of it after two years of virtual graduations.”
The week of Commencement had been very busy with lots of events to attend, including the affinity celebration for the AAPI/APIDA (Asian American Pacific Islander/Asian Pacific Islander Desi American). Pinisetti enjoyed all of it, but he especially loved being able to celebrate with his family there at Dunster House.
Pinisetti was thrilled to see his cousins Aarika Guruju, 11, and Vedik Guruju, 9, who are spending the summer in Boston and were excited to take part in the celebration. For Aarika, seeing Prateek graduating from Harvard was “very cool.” For his part, Vedik said he is interested in computer science and may follow in his cousin’s steps.
After graduation, Pinisetti, who hails from Arizona, will work as a software engineer in Chicago.
Ready for graduation — and not
For Rachel Eason, an economics concentrator, graduation came too soon.
“I still remember when I was a freshman on campus, and here I am,” said Eason, a Winthrop House resident. “Four years really passed by super-fast.”
Eason was busy attending many events as part of Commencement week, but she especially cherished the moments in which she was able to hang out with friends and reconnect with classmates she hadn’t seen in a while. Most of all, she was grateful her class was able to have an in-person graduation ceremony.
“I did worry in 2020, when we got kicked off campus, that Commencement was not going to be in person,” said Eason, who will move to New York to work at Morgan Stanley. “I was definitely hoping it would be in person. I’m so glad it is.”
One last look
Like many students on Commencement Day, Brianna Duncan-Lowey, who graduated with a Ph.D. in virology, was revisiting all her favorite places on campus.
Accompanied by her parents, her brother Colin, and her husband, Duncan-Lowey stopped at the iconic John W. Weeks Bridge to take photos with her relatives who came from New York. It was a joyful moment for Duncan-Lowey.
“I just moved two months ago,” she said. “It was so nice to be able to come back and see everybody in person.”
Duncan-Lowey, who received the Harold M. Weintraub Graduate Student Award for 2022, will start a postdoctoral fellowship at Yale University in the fall.