Speaking before a crowd Sunday afternoon at the city of Cambridge’s 37th annual celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Dean of Harvard College Evelynn M. Hammonds recalled an experience in which she and a professor overcame their differences in pursuit of science.
She was one of six black students working toward an engineering degree at the Georgia Institute of Technology, as well as the first African-American student and the first woman with whom her professor had worked.
“We had absolutely nothing in common, and our first interactions were very, very tentative,” she said. “I didn’t know if I was going to make it through the term.”
But Hammonds persevered, and on Sunday, she said that their mutual passion for their work on laser technology broke down barriers.
“We recognized that the only thing we had in common was that laser,” she said.
Hammonds added later that “over the years, I’ve learned how to find that common ground in every institution that I’ve worked in.”
Hammonds was the keynote speaker at the event, which was held at the Central Square branch of the Cambridge Public Library and included a wreath-laying ceremony commemorating the civil rights activist.
Hammonds’ speech came two weeks after the University announced a donation to the Cambridge Public Library. As part of Harvard’s 375th anniversary celebration, the University said it would give 400 books to the city’s two branches, paralleling John Harvard’s gift to the fledgling college in 1638.
In her speech, Hammonds used her personal experience to explain the importance of overcoming differences through collaborative learning. She lauded King’s message of establishing a “beloved community” based on brotherhood, love, and justice—values that she said she hopes to foster at Harvard.
Hammonds added that Harvard is one of the most diverse communities in the world, forcing students to encounter differences in race, class, and sexual orientation.
“We have to make explicit that we value difference, and we respect it,” Hammonds said, while adding that Harvard also values “the freedom to dissent.”
As an example, Hammonds said that “the student who is an evangelical Christian may have a really hard time accepting an out homosexual student as a roommate or a classmate and vice versa.”
Hammonds said it is the College’s responsibility to teach students “how to respectfully disagree while they learn to think critically about their differences.”
In an interview with The Crimson after her speech, Hammonds cited the Sustained Dialogue program—a year-old initiative that brings together undergraduates to discuss issues such as class, race, religion, gender, and sexuality—as an example of steps the College is taking to foster King’s values at Harvard.
“We believe that students should talk about community, values and differences, and we realize that it’s not so easy to do so,” she said.
—Staff writer Nathalie R. Miraval can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Rebecca D. Robbins can be reached at email@example.com.