Commencement Speakers Prepare To Impress

Zayed M. Yasin ’02 will challenge seniors to apply the concept of the jihad to their lives after graduation during his Commencement speech June 6.

Yasin is one of three students recently named as the student orators for this year’s Commencement.

Harvard Law School student Avery W. Gardiner, Leah J. Whittington ’01 and Yasin are scheduled to address a crowd of 32,000 in the Tercentenary Theatre.

“It’s a little intimidating, but I’m looking forward to it,” said Yasin, biomedical engineering concentrator and former president of the Harvard Islamic Society (HIS).

The speakers were selected through a competitive audition process, according to Commencement Director Grace C. Scheibner. Any Harvard degree candidate is eligible to deliver a commencement oration, which must be less than five minutes in length.

Yasin, whose speech is entitled “American Jihad,” said University Marshal Richard M. Hunt had encouraged him to apply early this year while they were discussing HIS.

“This has been a very difficult and meaningful year, and I felt that I had something to share with my class,” Yasin said.

For this year’s prospective speakers, the competition began in the middle of March when the panel of faculty judges held an open orator’s workshop, Scheibner said. About 60 students submitted an entry form and a typed copy of their proposed speech to the Commencement Office in early April.

The pool was then whittled down to 40 students, who delivered their speeches on April 16 before an audience of friends and faculty judges. Five or six speakers in each category—graduate, English and Latin oration—made it to final auditions on April 25.

“It was a very constructive process, in that I got help from the judges,” said Yasin. “It involved a lot of different feedback at a lot of different levels.”

Yasin, who was notified of his selection soon after final auditions, will speak about “the Muslim concept of jihad as righteous struggle.”

After addressing popular misconceptions of the concept, he said, he will talk about jihad “as a kind of charge for graduating Harvard students as we go off...into whatever engagement we have with the world.”

Whittington’s speech, meanwhile, will be delivered as it has been written—in Latin. Scheibner said that the Latin oration was part of Harvard’s first commencement in 1642. The tradition of student orators goes back even further, she added.

“In medieval times, students hoping to obtain degrees had to defend their theses,” she said. “Nowadays, the three student speakers at Commencement represent all of their classmates.”

—Staff writer Divya A. Mani can be reached at mani@fas.harvard.edu.