No single idea, emotion, theme, or image defines Commencement — the details behind the degrees are as richly varied as the faces and voices that fill Harvard Yard. Here, we happily touch the surface.
Taking his time
The walk from the Kennedy School to Sever Quadrangle, where students stopped before filing into Tercentenary Theatre, took longer than usual — an hour to cover just a handful of blocks — but Jayaram Ravi was grateful for the extra time with friends and classmates.
“I’m excited for the events today and what’s next, but I’m also nostalgic and a little sad that this is the last time we’ll be together,” said Ravi, who received a master’s degree in public policy. “These are the people I started with and the people I’m going to sit by in Commencement.”
Still, he was looking forward to his next adventure. “I’ll be joining the State Department as a diplomat,” Ravi said, “honoring Kennedy’s legacy of a more global America, one that’s open to the rest of the world.”
For Mary Joan Nnamdi, a widow from London, the chance to watch her son earn a Harvard degree couldn’t have happened without help from a supportive community.
Surrounded by her children and grandchildren, the mother of four said that financial aid allowed Patrick Emedom-Nnamdi to pursue his doctorate in biostatistics under Jukka-Pekka Onnela and Junwei Lu of the Harvard Chan School. Emedom-Nnamdi will remain at the Chan School for an additional year of work, his mother said.
“I am very, very excited and I cannot express my gratitude to all of you that have made it possible for my son to graduate,” she said. “When I come to Harvard, I see love. All kinds of tribes, all kinds of people from all over the world, I see at Harvard.”
Dad, husband, doctorate
Joe Salvador Cortez snuggled his 7-month-old daughter on the Red Line, his black graduation gown bunching under the baby carrier.
His daughter smiled at other passengers, taking in the crowded train full of graduates heading to Commencement exercises.
Cortez and his wife, Helen, flew in from Los Angeles for the events and to celebrate Cortez graduating with his doctorate of education leadership.
“This week has been a lot of celebrations, a lot of love, and a lot of reflections around the last three years,” Cortez said. “When I came into the program, I was not married; and I’m leaving the program married with a seven-month-old baby.”
The first year of his program he completed remote from LA; his second year was on campus; and his final year he moved back to California for his residency.
As for what’s next, he’s not sure. For now he just wants to savor his daughter’s early years. “I’m not in a rush,” he said.
Mather roommates reminisce
The group of graduates stood, proudly holding their Mather House standard as they waited for the procession to begin.
Megan, Elizabeth, and Kylie reminisced about sharing monkey bread with faculty deans at open houses each month, and how forthcoming and generous everyone was about sharing experiences and inviting each other into their Houses.
After living together for three years, the three said they would miss one another as they spread across the country to pursue their careers.
Megan’s mom, Joann Welsh, said she’s seen her daughter grow so much over the years. She came with her husband and other daughter from Mishawaka, Indiana.
“Just dropping her off freshman year, the tears [are there] because we live in Indiana, so we’re a little bit farther,” Welsh said. “Now, the tears are because I don’t want her to leave. … But I know there are big things ahead for her.”
Those other schools
Good-natured ribbing between Ivy League rivals is a longstanding feature of the day.
While awarding an honorary degree to Michael Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Provost Alan Garber characterized Mullen’s post-Navy employment at Princeton as teaching “from time to time at a humble institution off Exit 9 of the New Jersey Turnpike — a university that, fittingly, is best known for its basketball team.”
Similarly, Jennifer Doudna, a Nobel Prize recipient for her role in discovering the CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technique and a former faculty member at Yale, was described as having risen “through the faculty ranks at an obscure university in the pizza capital of southern Connecticut.”
The pipes, the pipes are calling
A trio of burly bagpipers in plaid kilts had the solemn duty, or unenviable task, depending on your point of view, of ensuring seniors at Lowell House didn’t oversleep on Commencement Day.
Kevin Wiseheart, Ross Ketchum, and Campbell Webster had staked out their spot by 6 a.m. so they could begin cranking out Scottish classics like “The Rowan Tree” and “Cabar Feidh.”
They later regrouped on a busy Science Center Plaza, where graduates had lined up to enter Harvard Yard and undergraduates sat together under a white tent listening to Dean Rakesh Khurana detail the sequence of the ceremonial events.
Without playing a note, the bagpipers were inundated with requests for group photos and selfies from delighted students and visitors. Wiseheart, whose been rousting Lowell House seniors since 2009, wasn’t unfazed by it all. “It’s usually a highlight,” he said with a smile.
‘It’s felt like all their efforts immigrating to the country paid off’
Graduation was a dream come true for Ezechukwu Nduka.
“I actually wanted to come to Harvard since I was 5 years old. My dad told me about Harvard,” said the neuroscience concentrator, who was born in Nigeria and came to the United States with his parents. “So obviously, coming here was a dream. Graduating now, it doesn’t really feel real. And I know it’ll hit me once I get on the flight home.”
Nduka grew up outside of Chicago with his four siblings. His parents both work in the medical field. His mom is a neonatologist, working with premature babies in a neonatal intensive care unit, and his dad is a nurse.
Waiting for the two to cross the yard to the Science Center Plaza where he and his four siblings were sitting, Nduka said they are thrilled by his accomplishment.
“They’re super excited, definitely a couple of days of just celebration. Just happiness for me because I’m the first kid coming to America and stuff like that,” he said. “It’s felt like all their efforts immigrating to the country paid off for them.”
Nduka said he will be taking a gap year to do neurobiology research, and hopefully next year will find a neuroscience Ph.D. program.
“I’m on the path to where I want to be to get to my goals,” he said.
Natalie Nguyen and Nicholas Ang — both receiving master’s degrees in public health — see each other as “chosen family.” They both took a year off medical school. They both come from communities that have struggled — Nguyen in Southern California and Ang in Michigan, just outside Detroit. And they want to give back.
“When you grow up isolated and alone in your hometown, you don’t know what you can do and how you can change the way that things are,” said Nguyen, who is returning to Weill Cornell Medicine in New York. “Meeting everyone [at Harvard] and seeing what they’re doing opened that up for me.”
Before heading to grad school, Nguyen spent time working with the unhoused around Los Angeles, witnessing firsthand the challenges they face. “Seeing how our systems are not built for everyone to succeed made me want to do something about it,” she said.
Ang, who will return to Williams Beaumont Medical School at Oakland University, said he had a rocky start in grad school but feels he learned much.
“I grew up in a public system too. And I never felt like I could be in this space and work with people like this. At first, I had major impostor syndrome but these people are just like me, and they just want to see a better world,” he said.
He added that he came to see his academic experience as a two-way street, one that offered him useful lessons and allowed him to impart some.
“We carry the stories of the people that we come from, the communities we come from, and I feel like being able to bring the stories here in this space and then come back to our communities and try to make an impact on the problems we saw when we were there — that’s powerful.”
Finally, his own Commencement
Simba Gandari, who moved to the U.S. from Harare, Zimbabwe, in 2007 to pursue his education, first experienced the pomp and circumstance of Commencement in 2019, when he watched his cousin, Sharon Makava, graduate from Harvard Business School.
“It sparked an interest, I fell in love,” Gandari said of Makava’s commencement. “I said, ‘One day, I want to end up here.’ It took me three years, but I got here eventually. In a full circle moment, she’s here for my graduation, too.”
Gandari, who received a master’s degree in education leadership, organization, and entrepreneurship, wants to improve higher education access for students of color. Some of the turns in his own path have given him a unique perspective, he said.
“I can speak many languages in higher education, so if students want to go the community college route, I can speak that language,” said Gandari, who holds degrees from Piedmont Technical College in South Carolina and Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee. “If they want to go the Catholic, four-year university route, I can speak that. If they want to go to an Ivy, I can now speak to that, too.”
Getting the call
Trina Hoang was chatting with her roommates from Winthrop House (traditionally the last to process into Tercentenary Theatre) in the Old Yard while they awaited marching orders and for Commencement ceremonies to officially begin.
Hoang, a psychology concentrator with a secondary in economics, was also waiting to find out whether she got into a one-year master’s in management at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, her top choice for graduate school. She thought the decisions would be made by Thursday.
Suddenly her phone lit up. “I saw a call from Durham, North Carolina, and thought I should pick it up,” she said.
After a few missed words and explaining to the caller, “Sorry about the background noise, I’m graduating,” Hoang hung up and yelled, “I got in!”
Hoang, her roommates, and a few teammates on the Harvard softball team, where Hoang was an All-Ivy League shortstop this season, began jumping up and down, squealing with delight, and hugging. They posed for a group photo to capture the moment.
“What a day!” someone said. Indeed, what a day.
Awed by their daughter
When Riley Thompson’s employer encouraged her to pursue her master’s degree, she stepped up to the challenge and enrolled at the Harvard Extension School, her father, Bryan, recalled. For four years, including through the worst of the pandemic, Riley studied for a degree in liberal arts while also working full-time.
“She’s very proud of her competence and rightfully should be,” Bryan said. “She always underestimated herself. She’s always accomplished everything she’s ever set her goals to.”
Thompson’s mother, Ginger, advised her daughter to “relax,” but joked with her husband that Riley would probably soon return to the classroom to begin course work for a Ph.D. In any case, she’s grateful to the Extension School for supporting Riley’s ambitions.
“I just think about the entire experience of being able to take people who are working full-time and let them achieve something like that is just amazing,” she said. Her husband added, “It’s not just Harvard. She lives in Boston. The Boston environment and the Boston people make it a supportive environment. A shout-out to Boston and Harvard.”
‘Excited to be a dentist!’
As Jessica Murphree, who earned a D.M.D., saw the procession start, she sprinted off, yelling to her parents, “It feels great. I’m excited to be a dentist!”
Her parents, Kristina and Jacob, have visited her a few times in the past from Omaha, Nebraska, but this was their first Commencement.
As they watched their daughter take off, her parents explained that she couldn’t be late as standard bearer for her class.
“She gets to carry a giant toothbrush!”
First time last time
If you’re going to make your first trip to Harvard before graduating, no more auspicious time than Commencement week. Sarah E.G. Tehan spent 5 years working on a master’s in legal studies from Harvard Extension School.
Primarily because of COVID, she had never set foot on campus, completing the entire course of study remotely from her hometown of Sherman, N.Y., an Amish village by the Pennsylvania border, near Lake Erie.
She decided to make the trip and brought along her service dog, Murphy, a handsome, 2-year-old Golden Retriever sporting a crimson Harvard tie. It was Murphy’s first experience with big crowds, but he seemed to take it all in stride. “A lot of people give us looks everywhere we go because he’s super cute,” Tehan said.
Tehan originally studied interior design at Virginia Tech and worked for a while in the field but hated it. She always wanted to go to law school and figured “now is as good of a time as any” to change careers. Now that she’s graduated, Tehan plans to go into politics in Western New York, and eventually would like to work at the U.N.
Going the distance
It took five years for Elena Stemler to earn her master’s degree in psychology from the Extension School. Stemler, like many extension students, worked while she learned and threw in some travel as well. A native of Mannheim, Germany, she took a mix of in-person and remote classes in the United States before returning to her home country to finish her studies from afar.
Back in Cambridge for Commencement, this time with her husband and 2-year-old son, Stemler had nothing more ambitious planned than a day of taking it all in: an early breakfast with classmates, the procession into the Yard, the joy of students and families, and the tradition and ceremony of graduation.
“I loved taking the courses,” Stemler said. “It was a lot of work because I also worked full time. It took me a while, but I loved every part of it.”
Twice as nice
Quoc Dang was about to receive a master’s in design studies, but it wasn’t exactly an academic milestone. He already had a bachelor’s and master’s in architecture and had been working for a few years in construction. His goal was to get more involved in making the industry more sustainable.
Still, his mother, Mi Hang, and father, Van Thanh, were not going to miss the celebration and were more than happy to make the arduous 24-hour trip from Vietnam to Cambridge to see their son graduate.
Dang said his father came from a family of farmers and was the only one of his eight siblings who went to high school. One generation later, Dang and his brother both have advanced degrees and work in the U.S. and Australia, respectively. “That is the proof of education,” he said.
All about the people
Graduation is bittersweet for Nate Rubright, who received his master’s of divinity. Rubright spent the first of his three years online amid the pandemic. He feels like only in the last year have he and his classmates gotten to fully experience being part of the community.
“At first I was really lamenting that I’m not going to have all these great books to read,” Rubright said. “But really, it’s talking about those things with people that are from all over the world and have these awesome experiences.”
After graduation, Rubright won’t be going far; he’ll continue his work in college ministry in the Boston area and is considering starting a church with other Divinity School graduates.
In many ways, his Harvard experience gave him the confidence and clarity to pursue that vision. “There’s a self-formational piece that Harvard can give you,” he said. “The community here can’t really be replicated anywhere else.”
‘Rough journey’ had a bright side
For Dunster House resident Angie Delgado, Thursday’s festivities were a long time coming.
“It’s been a rough journey, with everything that’s happened,” said Delgado, a human development and regenerative biology concentrator. “But it paid off. It feels good to be here today.”
Delgado, who hails from Orlando, Florida, stayed on campus during the pandemic, taking online classes. There were stretches of loneliness, she said, but she grew closer with her roommates, building cherished friendships.
“The times I spent with my block mates and friends are the best times that I’ve had at Harvard,” said Delgado, who plans to work in clinical research in preparation for applying to medical school. “Even normal days with them felt great. I felt I was at home because of my friends. I didn’t think I would find that here.”
Designing a career
Niko Tian wrestled with a red, heart-shaped aluminum balloon attached to her cap. Her mother tried to untangle the string, while Tian answered a phone call, trying to get everything together before running off for the procession.
She is graduating with a master’s in design studies. Her parents flew in from northeast China to celebrate her achievements with her husband and 7-year-old daughter.
The last two years have provided a protected space for her to explore what her career could look like as she shifts from architecture to working in the real estate industry.
“It’s opened another page for me,” Tian said. “The school has prepared me for this transition.”
Friends to the end
Jason Jorge, who concentrated in astrophysics and Earth and planetary sciences, made time for travel during his Harvard years, visiting Brazil, Italy, and Germany. Even so, the highlight of his College experience was friendship.
“This place is the place it is because of the people that are here,” said Jorge, a Winthrop House resident from Southbury, Connecticut. “The people that I sat with in physics class in my first freshman class in my first semester, I blocked with them and I’m graduating with them today. I don’t think I would have gotten all the way to the end without them for sure.”
An aspiring climate analyst, Jorge said he was overwhelmed and excited after Morning Exercises. “It’s bittersweet,” he said. “I didn’t think we’d be able to have this. I was kicked off my freshman year from campus, because of the pandemic, and I remember leaving and not really thinking we would come back. So being able to do all this is awesome, for sure.”
Time to leave home
Halima Badri, a psychology concentrator with a secondary in folklore and mythology, was overjoyed as she received her diploma at Lowell House. “I’m very grateful to have gone here,” said Badri. “It was always my parents’ dream. It’s amazing to share this moment with my family. It just feels surreal.”
Badri said she was also grateful for the friends she made at Harvard and for the relationships she built with her co-workers at Widener Library. She felt at home at Harvard, she said.
“I’m getting emotional,” said Badri. “I found my best friends at Harvard. All the people I met at Harvard have really shaped me. It is so sad not being able to be in this place anymore with all the people I have come to love.”
‘Scary and exciting’
On the day of his graduation from Harvard, Roberto Ponce, who grew up in Texas the son of Mexican immigrants, was proud of his achievement but also wrestling with its repercussions.
“It’s overwhelming and hard to grapple with what it means to be a Latino who is a Harvard graduate,” said Ponce, who concentrated in Near Eastern languages and civilizations with a secondary in Portuguese. “It’s scary and exciting.”
The Winthrop House resident enjoyed the time he spent with his roommates, who came from Brazil and Turkey. “I’ve gotten to know people from all walks of life that have made me the person I am today.”
Ponce plans to stay in Boston to figure out his next move. “I’ve got a lot of different opportunities in front of me that I want to explore,” he said. “I’d like to have time to focus on something that aligns with my values.”
Sound + vision
Even without front-row seats most visitors can clearly see and hear what’s happening during Commencement thanks to the dozens of speakers hanging from towers and trees and the many video walls erected around the Old Yard and Tercentenary Theatre.
To ensure there are no glitches technicians spend almost a week before the event setting up and testing the equipment and then rehearsing to make sure it all works as planned, said Ryan Kelley, lead audio engineer for High Output, the firm that runs the sound, video, and lighting at Commencement.
There are 30 different zones with their own separate controls and a streaming control room in the basement of Memorial Church that communicates with Kelley and his colleagues working in the Yard to ensure the production is smooth.
Kelley stands behind a sound board located about halfway between Widener Library and the stage in the middle of graduate seating and makes adjustments. Colleagues roam the Yard to let him know whether things are too loud or soft for audiences closer to the main stage as well as those watching from behind Sever Hall or over by Lamont Library.
The goal is for this team to remain invisible. “If no one notices I’m here, I think that’s a good sign.”
The friends he never met
The pandemic is now in the rearview for many students, but for some, Commencement brought to mind an enduring effect of the crisis: fewer chances to make friends.
Omar Shareef, a joint computer science and philosophy concentrator from Winthrop House, said he felt cut off from classmates during a year of remote learning. He dove into campus life when he returned, determined to make the most of his remaining time.
Still, during a week marked by excitement and optimism for the future, his mood was sometimes bittersweet. “I just realized how small my social network is,” said Shareef, who will head to medical school at the University of Pennsylvania in the fall. “There are so many people I have yet to meet. … It definitely added a shade of sadness.”