Commencement 2023


President Mark D. Gearan
Commencement Valedictory Address
May 21, 2023

As we prepare to close the Exercises of Commencement – a word about you and the life you will lead.   Mary and I have had the very good fortune to get to know this extraordinary senior class since returning in the fall.

Proud of your accomplishments, grateful for your friendships, impressed by your interests and awed by the energy, purpose and resolve that you have tackled problems and challenges.  You are well prepared.  You are ready.  And this world needs you.

But in thinking about your future – I’ve also been reflecting back as my return to HWS prompts flashbacks – or what Adam Grant calls vuja des of things familiar but seeing them with a different lens.  And, I have been thinking about your graduation as I have been thinking about my own college graduation as I am assisting my own class prepare for our reunion as I have done every five years since graduating.

Part of the Harvard reunion tradition is the publication of what is called ‘The Red Book’ – in which classmates are invited to send in written updates from the past five years.   The collection of Red Books is a fascinating glimpse into individual journeys, lessons learned, hopes fulfilled and dashed.

In reading my Red Book which arrived a few months ago – and in thinking about your Commencement and your futures – I was reminded of the observation that the philosopher Kirkegaard offered:

            Life can only be understood backwards,
            But it must be lived forwards.

In a simple sentence – Kirkegaard sums up the challenge of life.  We must live our lives going forward, but to truly understand it and to assist in living a meaningful life – it is understood looking backwards to those lessons, triumphs, disappointments.

So I thought some of my classmates reflections might be useful to you as you begin this next chapter of your life moving forwards.

My graduating class was more than 1,600 students – and our Commencement was a drizzly day listening to the Soviet dissendent Alexander Sozenitsyn speak for one hour in Russian with English translation.  Thank you Alan Khazei! 

But back to the Red Book –

Fortunately, the Red Book is frequently populated by whimsical stories, inside jokes and gentle ribbing over the years.

One classmate wrote about his college roommate – now a prominent neurosurgeon:

“I think you will agree that the past five years have been most unusual. Starting with Dr. Cantor disrobing on the dance floor at our last reunion! While I have seen his act many times going back to our time in college, I should have recognized it as an omen for the unexpected times to come.”

Others provided updates on their lives:

“At my high school reunion, the stars aligned, and I connected with a woman I have known since sixth grade.  Our twisting divergent paths somehow left us both available now and we are in a thousand-mile relationship between Middletown, CT and Pensacola, FL. Additionally – my barber, therapist, and dentist that I have had for decades have all retired. My daughter said:  all the people who care for your head are gone.”

The past five years have highlighted political writings more so than previous editions:

“Raising observant, curious, and creative kids in America these days has required opening my own eyes and questioning stories I once held to be true.  As a result, my opinions no longer fit neatly within the polite liberal circles where I have been accustomed to roam….  I’ve lost some friends and guides yet found new ones in surprising places.   Life is more prone to mystery and awe than ever before.”

Or this from my classmate Phyllis:

“The murder of George Floyd and so many others made me reflect on how little I understood how deeply rooted racism remains.  I had a similarly naïve perspective about women when I was in college, feeling confident that I would not suffer any different treatment in my career due to being a woman.   When we graduated, I was certain that we were beyond that.  Well I was wrong then about women and I remained wrong about race.  The year 2020 marked the beginning of a learning journey I am still traveling.”

Or another:

“I considered opining about contemporary politics, the assault on free speech and other things on my mind. Then I channeled Bush 41 and thought ‘nope, wouldn’t be prudent’. My dad who died a few months ago at age 92, would always say:  ‘Take the high road – the view is better.’

Classmates reflected on their careers:

“For me, careerism wasn’t the answer – that was too conventional for my artistic side – and I have had many adventures and unexpected teachers, as a result.”

Or some changes of heart about their careers:

“Early in my career, I believed in private sector solutions to our health care costs and access.  I am now fully in the single payer camp.   I am probably a good example of the adage that you cannot convince someone of anything when their salary depends on believing the opposite.”

Or another who wrote that he only went to medical school to support himself as an artist – as he said of his plan: “Sacrifice seven years to train, then work two thirds time, live frugally and save carefully and I would eventually be free to transition to life completely focus on art.”

This year he provided an update:  

“The plan turned out to be a good one for me. Pediatric emergency allowed me to focus on diagnosis and immediate treatment. By working shifts, I earned less but had my time completely free when not on duty; I kept painting and exhibiting. Thirty seven years later at 7:35am on October 27th – my plan came to fruition. I finished my shift gave away my stethoscope and books, turned in my license…..My landscapes are fully of light.  My figurative paintings, by contrast, are psychologically and emotionally dark.”

Or some still working on it:

“Weren’t we supposed to be complete, pedigreed people – wrapped in crimson ribbon and ready to face the world upon receiving our Harvard diplomas?...If yes, I blew it.  I must confess I remain a work in progress.  Which is maybe what our education was really all about.”

But what comes across most clearly is the gratitude my classmates feel for the importance of relationships in their lives.

“These haven’t been easy years – dealing with losing family members or health problems or trying to salvage a frail and faltering democracy in the face of so much damage.  But the splendor outweighs the pain in this life and there is still so much to look forward to and so many ways we can continue to grow and change for the better each and every year.   Every precious, precious irreplaceable year.”

“In a time of turmoil and division, I am grateful for the serenity and love that surround me. My comfortable, secure life is unavailable to too many people and I try never to forget how lucky I am.”

And this from a friend who drive and ambition was noteworthy even as undergraduates. His journey since our graduation resulted in considerable professional success but he also faced enormous tragedy – his first wife dying in childbirth leaving him the father of triplets and his second wife succumbing to cancer. Here is what he wrote:

“What have I learned in the past five years? Most importantly I’ve learned that my relationships with my family and my closest friend matter the most to my life. It’s not about my career, it’s not about making more money, its not about climbing up the next rung on the corporate ladder, but its about being the best husband, father, son and friend that I can possibly be. It’s about getting outside of myself and doing things for others.”

And another classmate wrote:

“What would I go back and tell my younger college self?   Don’t work so hard and don’t take life seriously. Let yourself be happier. Cultivate and maintain relationships; given them the time and effort they deserve.  The good life is buildt with good relationships.

In many ways my classmates corroborate an eighty five year long study of 268 graduates of Harvard College tracked since 1938.  It is the world’s longest study on happiness.  The researchers found that close relationships are far more important to happiness and health – both brain and body – than money and fame.  The ties of relationships protect people from life’s challenges– and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ or even genes.

And one need look no further than the stage in front of you and the four Honorary Degree recipients and Commencement speaker - to observe the power of relationships, the embodiment of service and lives lived for others.   The Colleges have bestowed on each of them our highest honor – a decision made with care and intention to say to each of you on your graduation day – these individuals in different fields, different sectors, different locations have made a difference.  They have kept relationships at the center of their lives.  And they have led lives of consequence.

At my first Valeditory Address at Commencement several years ago – I urged students to look at the passenger side mirror on the car when you are driving out of Geneva.  It reads – ‘Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.’   I said to those graduates – that that would be the case for HWS – it will be closer than it appears.  In the friendships made, the knowledge you’ve gained, the perspectives that are broadened and the relationships and experiences that have shaped you.  HWS will be closer than it appears.   Come back to this special place.  It will need you – and you will need HWS.

And oh – in case you’re interested, here is what I wrote in my Red Book entry:

“My Red Book entry this time includes an unexpected but welcomed return to HWS Colleges in August. It was a change I did not anticipate, but I am excited to return to a place Mary and I have served for 18 years, where we raised our daughters, Madeleine and Kathleen, and where Kathleen graduate in 2021. I am honored to serve as president again – Grover Cleveland jokes notwithstanding!

My five years at Harvard was an enormous privilege first as President in Residence at the Graduate School of Education and then as Director of the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School.  I was inspired by Harvard undergraduates and their purposed commitment to public service and politics. 

Only Hobart and William Smith could have pried me out of the Harvard and the Institute of Politics as that is the place that introduced me to the world of politics and government with a $500 summer stipend to intern in Washington.

I look forward to continuing to work with this dazzling generation of college students – a cohort full of energy and promise. Indeed, the hope of the world.”

Thank you and congratulations to the Class of 2023. Go forth and do great things!