Baratunde Thurston.
Campus & Community

Class of 1999 elects Baratunde Thurston as chief marshal of alumni

Writer, TV host, comedian, commentator to join in 125-year-old tradition

4 min read

A collection of stories covering Harvard University’s 373rd Commencement.

Baratunde Thurston ’99, an Emmy-nominated host, producer, writer, public speaker, and New York Times bestselling author who uses his gift of compelling storytelling to inspire others to improve the world, will serve as chief marshal of alumni at this spring’s Harvard Alumni Day celebration, the Harvard Alumni Association announced today.

Weaving together threads of race, technology, democracy, and climate, Thurston approaches difficult and complex conversations with a blend of humor, wisdom, and compassion. His search for truth, understanding, and love shines through in his impressive body of work.

“Through his work, from his activism to his philanthropy, Baratunde exemplifies the power of using one’s platform for positive change.”

Ty Moore.
Ty Moore, HAA president

“Baratunde is more than just an inspiring philosopher-comedian; he is a real community-builder,” says HAA President Ty Moore ’06. “Ever since his undergraduate days, he has been creatively engaging people in interesting conversations — prompting folks to expand their thinking, see things from divergent viewpoints, and question previously held beliefs — ultimately bringing people closer together. Through his work, from his activism to his philanthropy, Baratunde exemplifies the power of using one’s platform for positive change.”

Having been elected by his classmates to serve as chief marshal — a role with a 125-year-old history — Thurston will perform a number of ceremonial duties, which include leading the alumni parade as part of Harvard Alumni Day and hosting a special luncheon with University leadership, alumni leaders, and other dignitaries, including this year’s Harvard Medalists.

Thurston is the host and executive producer of the PBS television series “America Outdoors With Baratunde Thurston”; creator and host of “How to Citizen with Baratunde,” which Apple named one of its favorite podcasts of 2020; and a founding partner of the new media startup Puck. His comedic memoir, “How to Be Black,” is a New York Times bestseller. In 2019, he delivered what MSNBC’s Brian Williams called “One of the greatest TED talks of all time.” Additionally, he has worked for The Onion, “The Daily Show,” and advised the Obama White House.

Thurston also serves on the boards of Civics Unplugged and the Brooklyn Public Library. He lives in Los Angeles.

Widely lauded for his influence, Thurston has received numerous accolades, such as the iHeart ICON Social Impact Award, a nomination for the Independent Documentary Award,induction into the SXSW Interactive Hall of Fame Award, an Emmy nomination for the Spotify series “Clarify,” and the Council of Urban Professionals Thought Leader Award.

A philosophy concentrator, Thurston was active on campus as an undergraduate, participating in activities such as the Black Students Association, The Harvard Crimson, Harvard Computer Society, Phillips Brooks House, Black Men’s Forum, Signet Society, and Dorm Crew. He has remained active as an alumnus and served as the keynote speaker for Unity Weekend in 2021, a three-day conference hosted by the HAA in celebration of Harvard alumni of color.

“I’m deeply honored, thrilled, and humbled  to be chosen as chief marshal by members of the greatest class in the history of Harvard College,” shared Thurston. “The lessons I learned at Harvard are outmatched only by the quality of the people I met there, including my fellow nominees, and the quantity of bathrooms I cleaned doing Dorm Crew. During these times of extreme peril and extreme possibility, it will be great to gather at reunion to celebrate, commiserate, collaborate, and dance without injuring ourselves. I sincerely look forward to wearing a big hat and waving a stick around on Alumni Day, now as part of my ‘official responsibilities.’ Long live Nine Nine.”

Alumni Day is a University-wide, global event that honors alumni impact, citizenship, and community, and is celebrated alongside the Harvard and Radcliffe College Reunions. All alumni are welcome to attend the Alumni Day gathering on May 31, which will feature the traditional alumni parade, a speaking program with special guests and a Yard party with lawn games, food trucks, and more. Virtual celebration options will also be available for those unable to attend in person.