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As it Happened: Harvard Commencement 2023
In his final Commencement as University president before departing Massachusetts Hall at the end of June, Bacow said that he, like the Class of 2023, is “wondering what the future holds.”
Bacow said that his Harvard education raised his own expectations for himself.
“At my Commencement, I never imagined that someday I would be standing here giving the final remarks at your Commencement,” he said. “I hope — as you find your way through life — that you will have similarly pleasant surprises.”
Bacow concluded his speech by saying goodbye to Harvard.
“To the Class of 2023: thank you, farewell, and godspeed,” he said, returning to his perch in the Holyoke chair as the audience rose to their feet in applause.
The sheriff once again took the stage — this time to declare the meeting adjourned — as the Memorial Church bells tolled in the background. The Harvard University Band also struck up a festive tune as the recessional began.
With that, Harvard University’s 372nd Commencement exercises drew to a close.
Just as Hanks was about to rise for his speech, Garber interrupted with another “surprise” — a group of students from the Hasty Pudding Theatricals performing a 3-minute musical skit recapping Hanks’ filmography.
“Tom Hanks is like a box of chocolates,” the performers concluded, referencing “Forrest Gump,” the movie that helped Hanks win his second Oscar. “You never know what you’re gonna get.”
“Dr. Hanks, top that,” Bacow joked by way of introduction.
Clad in Harvard’s graduation regalia and boasting a new honorary Harvard degree, Hanks stepped up the podium to deliver his address to the graduating class.
“It’s not fair, but please don’t be embittered by this fact,” Hanks began. “That without having done a lick of work, without having spent any time in class, without once walking into that library — in order to have anything to do with the graduating class of Harvard, its faculty, or its distinguished alumni — I make a damn good living playing someone who did.”
“It’s the way of the world, kids,” he said.
Hanks poked fun at the student speeches that preceded his Commencement address.
“I don’t know much about Latin. I have no real passion for enzymes, and public global policy is something I scan on the newspaper just before I do the Wordle,” Hanks said, as audience members chuckled. “And yet here I am closing — closing for Josiah, Pallas, and Vic.”
Hanks called on graduates to not remain indifferent in the face of those seeking to spread “alternative facts” in an attempt to undermine the truth.
“Propaganda and bald-faced lies will erode over time,” Hanks said. “Idolatry and imagery lose luster and effect.”
“Ignorance and intolerance can be replaced by experience in the wink of an eye, but indifference will narrow the vision of America’s people and make dim the light of Lady Liberty’s symbolic torch,” he added.
Following the deans’ presentation of their degree candidates to the president, Corporation, and Board of Overseers, Bacow conferred six honorary doctorate degrees.
Garber introduced the first four candidates and Bacow announced their new degrees: Admiral Mark Mullen with a doctorate of laws, Nobel Prize-winning chemist Jennifer A. Doudna with a doctorate of science, radio executive Hugo N. Morales ’72 with a doctorate of humane letters, and historian David Levering Lewis with a doctorate of laws.
While introducing Lewis, Garber noted that Lewis was also celebrating his 87th birthday on Thursday. The thousands assembled in Harvard Yard serenaded Lewis with an abridged version of “Happy Birthday.”
Garber continued his introductions, with Bacow presenting biochemist Katalin Karikó with a doctorate of science and finally Commencement speaker and acclaimed actor Tom Hanks with a doctorate of arts.
“As the President of the United States said in presenting him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he ‘has always saved his best role for real life,’ earning ‘the best title you can have’ — ‘a good man,’” Garber said of Hanks. “Having him here makes this a beautiful day in our neighborhood.”
After Garber finished his lengthy introduction for Hanks, the crowd rose to its feet in a standing ovation for the actor affectionately known as “America’s dad.”
Bacow then invited Hanks to the lectern to deliver the Commencement address.
Bacow finished conferring degrees upon 9,110 graduates during the 372nd Commencement.
During the degree conferral portion of the ceremony, HMS Dean George Q. Daley ’82 also congratulated his son who graduated from the College on Thursday.
“By virtue of the authority delegated to me as a parent, I wish to express my love and pride for my son, Nicholas E. Daley ’23, graduating today in the Harvard Class of 23,” he said, his voice uneven with emotion.
Before Bacow conferred degrees on the College’s summa cum laude graduates, University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 asked the students to approach the stage on the steps of Memorial Church.
As the students celebrated, Tom Hanks stood up from his chair and went down a line, giving the summa cum laude graduates celebratory fist bumps.
Overall, 1,850 graduated from Harvard College, 1,020 from Harvard Business School. 60 from the School of Dental Medicine, 469 from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, 151 from Harvard Divinity School, 715 from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, 1,476 from the Harvard Extension School, 711 from the Harvard Kennedy School, 800 from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, 765 from Harvard Law School, 479 from Harvard Medical School, and 614 from the School of Public Health.
University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 took the podium to begin summoning deans of Harvard’s schools to present their candidates to the president, fellows of the Harvard Corporation, and the Board of Overseers.
Garber then introduced President-elect Claudine Gay to the podium, acting in her capacity as outgoing dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences one last time to give an overview of the degree conferral portion of the ceremony.
Gay was welcomed to the microphone with thundering, lasting applause from the students. When the applause died down, she quickly said to them, “This is your day, not mine.”
Harvard College senior Arhan Kumar ’23 sang the national anthem before Harvard University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 delivered a land acknowledgment.
After two prayers from University chaplains, outgoing President Lawrence S. Bacow delivered opening remarks.
“To everyone who is assembled here today to celebrate the Class of 2023, welcome,” Bacow said.
Bacow also called on the graduates to stand up and give a round of applause to their guests and loved ones sitting in the audience who helped them throughout their journey.
“Welcome to all, for our joyous gathering. Now, let’s actually begin,” he said.
The Latin Salutatory — delivered by Josiah Ethan Meadows ’23 — was titled “The Value of a Harvard Education.” In his spirited intonation, Meadows greeted the audience, acknowledged Commencement speaker Tom Hanks, and elicited cheers from the students by calling on each College House during his speech.
During his speech, Meadows paid homage to how the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted the class’ college education, forcing them to shift to remote learning for over a year.
“Some of us spent great effort meditating on the principle of the philosopher René Descartes, Cogito, ergo sum — I think, therefore I am,” he said. “But soon, all of us learned a similar dictum: Covido, ergo Zoom.”
Bacow then introduced Pallas Chou ’23, who delivered the Senior English address entitled “Enzymes.”
“I love enzymes,” she began.
Chou also reminded the graduating class that through a year of “ups and downs,” they all played a role in “shaping each other.”
“Just as enzymes bring molecules together to catalyze chemical reactions, I have seen so many of you bring people together to catalyze change,” Chou said. “As we leave Harvard, we will continue to shape and be shaped by the world around us, serving as enzymes of Veritas.”
Kicking off the graduate student addresses, Vic Hogg, a student at the Harvard Kennedy School, spoke about how their Harvard education almost derailed when they were shot in a carjacking accident.
“While I waited for the EMTs, my mind was racing and all I could think about was ‘I’m one semester from graduating. Will my family have to attend my funeral instead of my Commencement?’” Hogg said. “‘Am I really going to die before I’ve even gotten started?’”
Hogg also urged their classmates to recognize the strength of the bonds formed during their time as students on campus.
“In the process of chasing your dreams, you will need people to comfort you, to coach you, to tell you that there’s spinach in your teeth,” they said. “Look to your left and right—maybe those people are sitting beside you today.”
Harvard University’s 372nd Commencement has officially begun.
Striding to the podium, Middlesex County Sheriff Peter J. Koutoujian struck his scepter on the ground three times and bellowed, “As the high sheriff of Middlesex County, I declare that the meeting will be in order.”
All students and guests took their seats and the President’s division concluded with Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow taking his seat in the notoriously uncomfortable Holyoke Chair.
Attendees will listen to student orators deliver their speeches. Then, the University provost and all the school deans will introduce the candidates, and the president will confer their degrees before the awaited Commencement speaker Tom Hanks takes the stage.
As Harvard College seniors continued processing into Harvard Yard, Commencement speaker Tom Hanks, University President Lawrence S. Bacow, and other members of Harvard’s top ranks greeted each other and took selfies — mostly with Hanks — on the steps of Memorial Church.
Dressed in a Harvard graduation cap and robe, Hanks’s apparel is reflective of the honorary degree he will receive during the ceremony.
The Commencement exercises are expected to begin momentarily.
Accompanied by the sounds of bagpipes and “Fair Harvard,” the Yard exploded with festive cheer. Shouts and whistles erupted from proud loved ones as long lines of advanced degree students processed into seats in front of Tercentenary Theatre.
The 7,260 advanced degree students graduating from Harvard today have quickly turned the once-empty Yard into a blur of black and red as they take their seats and wait for the ceremony to begin.
Raucous sounds of applause spontaneously burst from the graduate student section as Harvard School of Public Health affiliates use the plastic clappers they received from the school as a prop gift.
Graduate students traditionally receive small props from their respective schools, many of which hold symbolic meaning as they prepare to embark on their professional careers.
The red plastic clappers from HPSH have a sticker reminding their owners that “handwashing is a cornerstone of public health.” Harvard Kennedy School graduates were gifted small inflatable globes, Harvard Law School students received gavels, the Graduate School of Design gave out legos, and the Graduate School of Education students held children’s books.
Harvard Law School graduate Andrew Hyun explained that the gavel is “supposed to be a symbol of the justice we’re supposed to carry forward.”
While most graduates arrived with bare black caps, others opted for a more commemorative approach.
Katherine A. Lutz, who is graduating from the Graduate School of Education, donned a cap adorned with flowers and a Winnie the Pooh quote: “A Grand Adventure is About to Begin.”
“I’ve always decorated all my caps — all high school, undergrad, and now grad,” she said. “My high school cap was a Winnie the Pooh quote, so [I] did full circle and ended with one again.”
About to receive her master’s in Human Development and Education, Lutz felt the quote applied well to Commencement.
“I’m about to go out into [the] real world,” she said. “It’s time for the next big adventure.”
Some students wore colorful stoles that they received during University-wide affinity celebrations earlier this week that honored graduates representing LGBTQ+, Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Arab, and pan-Asian identities, as well as those with disabilities and from first-generation, low-income backgrounds.
In about 15 minutes, the ceremony will officially kick off as the Middlesex County Sheriff calls the Commencement exercises to order.
The doors to Harvard Yard have officially opened, and families have been swarming in.
Tercentenary Theatre stands a sea of white plastic chairs, University staff rushing through the rows with last-minute adjustments.
But some of the first seats taken by parents and guests were not the white chairs, but the steps of Widener Library. Belinda J. Reinis and Kevin A. Reinis sat on a picnic blanket as they perched themselves at the top of Widener steps to watch their daughter graduate from Harvard Divinity School.
Belinda Reinis said it was their first time at a Harvard Commencement ceremony, but they did their research ahead of the event by asking a friend of a friend for seating advice.
“They said to come with a blanket because the cement is cold and to be at the top of the library steps to get the best view,” Reinis said. “So far so good.”
Chantel Pagan and her five-month-old baby, Keziah, flew in from Dallas, Texas to congratulate her husband Joel Pagan Castillo on graduating from Harvard Extension School. They sat with Joel’s brother Albert Pagan — who made the trek from Tulsa, Oklahoma — right behind a white barrier separating families and the soon-to-be graduates.
“This morning he had shared that he was just overwhelmed with the reality that it’s finally here,” Chantel said of Joel. “It’s been a long time in the making — semester over semester, one class at a time, for five years.”
Chantel added that she is “so excited” and “so proud” of her husband’s milestone and that he has been “extremely dedicated” in getting to this point.
“You cannot really see all the work that it takes, like the study sessions till 2 in the morning and the papers,” Chantel said. “So a big sacrifice but well worth it.”
Albert said he’s “overwhelmed with joy, gratitude, and feeling blessed” to watch his brother receive his degree.
Out at the edges of the Yard, graduates have begun gathering, swaths of crimson and black preparing to process to their seats.
In the background, the Commencement Choir — with students from various musical clubs across campus — is warming up to serenade the arriving audience.
Decked out in her graduation regalia, Yishu Li stood out from the crowd of parents and families. Having just completed her master’s degree in Human Development and Education at the Graduate School of Education, Li had been awake since 4 a.m., eagerly awaiting the chance to enter Harvard Yard.
Draped in black and crimson robes, Li said it was “so exciting” to be standing in line — she had already been there for 20 minutes. As a first-generation student, Li was particularly grateful to have her mother with her as she graduates.
“If I’m not here, my mom’s not gonna be here at all,” she said.
Robert N. Sorensen stood first in line outside Widener Gate to enter Harvard Yard, arriving at 4:45 a.m. with his two children. Sorensen said his early arrival was less about snagging the best seats in the house and more about “participating fully” in the ceremony with his wife, who is graduating with a master’s degree in history.
Sorensen said that even Tom Hanks, the Commencement speaker, is just a nice supporting act.
“He’s second fiddle to my wife for sure,” he said.
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