In his first major speech to undergraduates since he assumed his role as dean of the College, Rakesh Khurana reiterated his call for students’ four years at Harvard to be “transformative” and further laid out his vision for what such a college experience would look like.
Addressing freshmen gathered on the Science Center Plaza for the annual Convocation ceremony Monday, Khurana posited that students’ experiences at the College could prove either “transactional” or “transformational,” depending on whether they choose to stay in their comfort zones or branch out. He argued that the freshmen in the audience should opt to challenge themselves by choosing courses not based on perceived difficulty but on interest and asked them to socialize with students whose backgrounds differ from their own.
“A transformational college experience might look like this,” said Khurana, the Cabot House co-master who took charge of the Dean’s Office this summer. “It’s rooted in the ideal of intellectual exploration, in the pursuit of connecting with people who are different from you and learning from them, and in the process of reflecting on what you’ve learned and deciding what kind of person you want to be.”
“Instead of focusing on material goals—med school, Wall Street, business school, Kennedy School [of Government]—we focus on the path,” he later added. “You take the courses that are difficult, that interest you, not just the courses that you think you should take.”
Specifically, Khurana cautioned students to avoid focusing on their resumes: “If you see Harvard as another four years of building your resume while your life is on hold, you’re going to miss out on the best that this institution can offer and the best that you can contribute,” he said. “College is not a stop on the way to the rest of your life; this is your life.”
Khurana, just two months into the job, has described his hope for the College to serve as a “transformative experience” for students several times before. In Monday’s speech, however, he offered more details about that vision, although he did not discuss what he personally would do to foster such an environment.
University President Drew G. Faust, the highest-profile speaker in a lineup that also included Dean of Freshmen Thomas A. Dingman ’67 and Harvard Alumni Association President Cynthia A. Torres ’80, joined Khurana in warning freshmen against resume-building. Instead, she called on students to “surprise” administrators and themselves by taking advantage of resources on campus to succeed in other ways.
Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Michael D. Smith, for his part, did not diverge from his usual advice to incoming students. As he has in past years, Smith told freshmen, “don’t compare; connect” when interacting with their classmates.
The ceremony, while not interrupted by rain as previously forecasted, was a warm one. Seated under the large tent in the Plaza, students cooled themselves from the heat and humidity with makeshift fans made from folded ceremony programs.
A Harvard alumnus in attendance collapsed during Dingman’s closing remarks, abruptly cutting the ceremony short as freshmen shuffled toward Widener Library to take their class photo. By the time medical personnel arrived, the man had recovered.
—Staff writer Madeline R. Conway can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @MadelineRConway.
—Staff writer Steven S. Lee can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenSJLee.