Larry Wilmore

“Focus your life on what your actions should be and where you need to show up, and no matter what happens, keep showing up,” said Larry Wilmore in his address to the Class of 2023.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Seriously, grads: Don’t be afraid

4 min read

Comedian Larry Wilmore warns against power of fear in Class Day address

Live with intention and don’t let fear keep you from being the person you want to be, Larry Wilmore told the Class of 2023 on Wednesday.

“Be fearless in your lives,” the Emmy Award-winning writer and comedian urged graduates during his Class Day address in Tercentenary Theatre. “I want you to do the things you never imagined you could do. I want you to be the people you always knew you should be. I want you to create the world that we all wish it could be. And I want you to have all the happiness you are absolutely intended to have.

“Fear is usually the culprit that prevents us from doing the things in life that we are meant to do but are afraid [to do] for whatever reason,” he added. Though it can come from anywhere, “the most paralyzing type of fear always starts inside of us.”

Wilmore, best known for his wry observations on race, politics, and society, advised seniors to put time and intention into their lives. “Focus your life on what your actions should be and where you need to show up,” he said. “And no matter what happens, keep showing up. Show up in your own life the way your parents showed up for you.”

Wilmore first gained notice on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” as its “Senior Black Correspondent” from 2006 to 2014, followed by “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore,” which ran for two seasons in 2015-2016. He currently hosts a weekly podcast, “Larry Wilmore: Black on the Air.” Behind the camera, Wilmore has made a significant impact as a creator, producer, and writer on some of the most critically acclaimed shows of the last two decades, including the ABC series “Black-ish” and its college-themed spinoff, “Grown-ish,” which stars Yara Shahidi ’22.

Long before his TV success, Wilmore, like many college students, went through a “what am I going to do with my life” crisis. Though he wanted to go into show business — “the dream” — he had lots of family, friends, and others advising him to “be practical.” Heeding their advice, and needing money, Wilmore took a summer job selling books door-to-door in Rhode Island and Fall River. It wasn’t long before he realized he wasn’t cut out for sales and that many of the people he met seemed unhappy with their lives, he said.

Salma Elsayed.
Hudson Miller,

Salma Elsayed and Hudson Miller were presented with the Ames Award, given annually to two seniors for their outstanding, unsung contributions to the community.

Photos by Scott Eisen

“I vowed to myself that I would choose happiness and fulfillment above all else in my life’s direction,” he said. “I knew it didn’t matter how much money I made, how much status I had, or what kind of things I could accumulate. I had to pour myself into doing something meaningful or there was no point.

“I decided to choose a path for myself and whatever I did for a living was a physical manifestation of that path,” because when you live life with intention, the path you choose “doesn’t feel like work.”

Rakesh Khurana, Danoff Dean of Harvard College, noted the difficult road the pandemic-era Class of 2023 traveled on the way to Commencement. He urged students to adapt, as they have over the past four years, to the surprises and detours life holds and to embrace serendipity.

In an era in which so many experiences are customized and curated by artificial intelligence, students should “diverge from the expected path,” Khurana said, and try to recognize that even seemingly mundane moments in everyday life — “the impromptu conversations on the shuttle bus” — can sometimes be life-changing. “I hope you will seek out what is new and unfamiliar because it is in the uncharted territories that true growth and true transformation await,” he said.

The ceremony included the presentation of the Ames Award to Salma Elsayed and Hudson Miller. Elsayed was honored for her dedication to the Harvard Square homeless shelter, where she is staff director, while Miller, a Marine Corps veteran, was recognized for his efforts helping veterans attend college. The award is given annually to two seniors for their outstanding, unsung contributions to the community.

Classmates also paid tribute to two seniors who died in 2022, Arda Cataltepe and Sergio Diaz.

Class Day is traditionally a less formal opportunity for graduating College students and their families to gather during Commencement week. Past speakers have included Michelle Wu (2022), Joseph R. Biden Jr. (2017), Will Ferrell (2003), and the first Class Day speaker, Coretta Scott King (1968).