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Champagne Parties on Beer Budgets

By Terri E. Gerstein

MY FAMILY is ready. Two parents, two step-parents and a brother have requested three days off from work, adding up to 15 vacation days in honor of my graduation.

Three hotel rooms are reserved, too. "That much?" my father asked. He had stayed at a Boston hotel before, during another time of the year when the rates aren't jacked up for Commencement. It gave him unrealistic expectations, I'm afraid.

Harvard administrators beam with pride as they tout the huge diversity of the student body. Yet at Commencement--the culmination of students' Harvard experiences--the University is entirely inconsiderate and disrespectful of that diversity. Every year, Harvard organizes a Commencement celebration worthy of the days when only the wealthiest members of society could attend.

Unlike most universities, Harvard schedules its commencement not on a weekend, but on a Thursday. Class Day and the other senior family activities take place on a Wednesday. Many students' families must travel great distances in order to attend Commencement; they cannot easily return home in time for work on Friday morning. Nor would they want to, as some parents have never been able to visit Harvard before.

The graduation schedule requires students' families, in most cases, to take off three days from work--a huge financial strain for many families. Also, most working people receive only a limited amount of vacation time. Attending Commencement may take up three days of a five- or ten-day allotment.

After four years of paying astronomical tuition bills, after four years of proudly noting that "My little one goes to Harvard," most parents would not dream of missing Commencement. The difficulties are surmountable, but they are real nonetheless, and Harvard could very easily remedy them.

FIRST, Harvard could change the date of Commencement from Thursday to Friday, Saturday or even Sunday. Certainly this proposal flies in the face of years of tradition. But the value of archaic tradition pales before the value of making Harvard accessible to students of all socio-economic backgrounds.

Along with the cost of missing work, Harvard parents of all incomes are socked by the phenomenal cost of nearby hotels, most of which require reservations for Commencement months or years in advance. Some even require a minimum stay of three days. The Harvard Motor Lodge, among the cheapest of nearby hotels at $98 per double room per night, is usually unavailable to the parents of poorer students, because it gives preference in reservations to guests who have stayed there before.

A reasonable alternative to forcing parents to shell out $150 to $250 per night is for Harvard to make vacant dormitory rooms available to parents for a small fee, as many colleges around the country do and as Harvard does for alumni returning for their reunions.

A fee of $50 or so would save parents money and be sufficient to pay for a second round of dorm-crew cleanup. (It should be much less difficult to clean up after a family's three-night stay than a student's year-long mess.) The fees could also cover the expense of hiring work-study students to perform the administrative chores involved, such as taking reservations and assigning rooms. If not enough dormitory rooms are available, the University could make the option open only to families of students receiving financial aid.

Finally, the College should reform the celebrations surrounding Commencement to gear them toward families of modest means. The senior clambake ("Lobster or prime rib, clams, corn soft drinks, beer and more!" my schedule announces,) costs $25 per plate. For the nuclear family of two parents, two children and a pair of grandparents, this meal adds another $150 to the already substantial cost of Commencement.

Perhaps lobster, prime rib, clams and beer actually cost this much. If so, then such a menu should not be part of Senior Week activities. A less extravagant meal--one within the budget of poorer familes--would be a far more democratic way to celebrate.

WHO should be responsible for getting these changes enacted?

University administrators will probably happily announce their willingness to speak with students about changing the date of Commencement, and they will expect students to devote their time to forming committees, taking surveys and attending meetings--and nothing will come of it. This is unreasonable. The administration should take the initiative and change the date of Commencement.

To create a dorm/hotel system, students and administrators should work together. Students can take surveys to determine demand; with that know-ledge, they can make a proposal. Then, the administration can go forward with making its abundant dormitory space available for Commencement.

Students themselves should work to lower the cost of Senior Week activities. Elected Class Committee members sponsor Senior Week events and work with the Alumni and Alumnae Associations to plan them. These students should plan all Senior Week activities with a paramount concern for making them inclusive and accessible to all seniors.

Students should also ask those smiling would-be Class Marshalls how they propose to reform Commencement, and then vote accordingly.

After shelling out tens of thousands of dollars for their children's Harvard education, parents should not be excluded or unnecessarily burdened by the expense of Commencement. If Harvard really values having a diverse student body, it should be respectful and considerate of that diversity at the end of four years.

These changes would not just be good for students and their families. When Harvard students leave their alma mater believing that their needs have been respected, they are more likely to show their gratitude with contributions.

Happy graduates make for large endowments. Clambakes don't.

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