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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained
For most of the 1,600 seniors donning caps and gowns today, Commencement marks the end of four years alongside their friends in the Class of 2003.
But even for those who have not taken the traditional eight-semester path through college and whose original classmates won’t be tossing aloft their mortarboards with them, today’s ceremonies will still bring satisfaction.
Whether their college career has spanned five years or a mere three—or even if it will continue in the fall—the students say they are happy with the paths they have taken to reach the finish line today.
Leif Ericson ’02-’03 returned to Cambridge this fall with one more year to complete after taking off last year to pursue a stint in minor league hockey.
In coming back to Winthrop House, Ericson says he felt somewhat isolated since few of his Housemates had lived there when he was last enrolled in the College.
“I felt a little bit out of touch,” he says. “I definitely wasn’t as involved with the House or with students in the House as I was when I was a student before.”
Ericson had originally planned to live off-campus but wound up floating when those plans fell through.
Michael J. Skey ’02-’03, who also took a year off, experienced similar feelings of absence this year.
He spent months abroad in Sydney, Australia while his original classmates completed their junior year. Once they graduated, Skey found he had to gain footing in unfamiliar territory when he returned to Cambridge this fall.
“When I got back I wanted to hang out with my class, so I never got to know the kids in this class,” he says.
And though Skey says he feels lucky to have been a member of the men’s heavyweight crew team this year since it provided a ready set of friends, “I still consider myself part of the Class of 2002.”
But while both Skey and Ericson have experienced their share of difficulties integrating into another class, they say they have ultimately enjoyed their experiences all the same.
“I needed to get away for a year,” Ericson says, explaining the time off provided a welcome respite from the constant pressure of academic work.
“The year off gave me a mental recharge,” Skey says. His time off motivated him to broaden his academic horizon beyond the academic and career path—economics and consulting—on which he had focused during his first two years.
Ericson also says he was able to stay close to several good friends in the Class of 2002 who remained in the Boston area. He will even get to walk in Commencement today alongside his original Winthrop House roommate, who also took time off.
The Speed Demons
On the opposite end of the spectrum are students like Gretchen R. Passe ’03, who have sped through their college career in three years.
Passe says she has always expected to graduate today. One of the deciding factors in her decision to come to Harvard was the opportunity to graduate early through advanced standing.
While most undergraduates eligible for advanced standing either never take advantage of it or use it to earn both a bachelors and masters degree in four years, between 30 and 50 students typically will use it to shave off a year of college.
The decision to graduate in three years was less straightforward for others.
For Teri T. Kleinberg ’03, it was a matter of never taking time off. Kleinberg had planned to use advanced standing to take a leave before graduating with the Class of 2004. But when this past semester began and she had yet to take a sabbatical from Cambridge, Kleinberg says she decided she might as well graduate a year early.
Kleinberg says she is leaving Harvard on a high note, having satisfied her goals and having enjoyed her college career. In contrast, she notes that many of the seniors who have taken the traditional four-year route wind up jaded.
“I’ve not been counting down the days to graduation for the entire year like a lot of seniors,” she says.
Kleinberg also notes that having firm post-graduation plans gave her the luxury of graduating early. Kleinberg will travel around the world on a Finley Traveling Fellowship to write a cookbook. She plans to enter a masters program at Oxford the following year.
Passe says she views the lure of graduating in three years more as a matter of dollars and cents—an opportunity to save the cost of a fourth year of tuition.
“Forty-thousand dollars is a lot of money,” Passe says. “Since there are a finite amount of resources in the world, I thought it would be hard to justify [a fourth year]. Harvard is a wonderful education, but I don’t think I could have personally benefited from the resources of a fourth year.”
And while Passe says she would have passed up her fourth year regardless of her options for next year, she will attend Harvard Law School next year. She will even remain a resident of Lowell House in exchange for helping to run formal House events.
Despite their official inclusion in the Class of 2003, those graduating early express some awkwardness about their situation, similar to that articulated by Ericson and Skey.
“In some ways, I feel like an imposter senior,” Kleinberg says.
So Close, Yet So Far
Included in today’s ceremonies are a few who will be back next semester, despite following the motions of graduating.
For Max R. Morange ’03, a semester spent harvesting grapes and olives on organic farms in France and Italy means he will have to return in the fall to complete his requirements.
But traveling abroad was part of the deal he struck with himself in deciding to go to college so close to his hometown of Acton, even if he would not be able to receive academic credit.
His experiences in the fall of 2001 included working on one of the world’s only farms that milks donkeys and living in a castle in Tuscany purported to be haunted by a ghost.
“I wouldn’t exchange my time in Europe for another four years at Harvard,” Morange says. “Mentally, it was far more stimulating being away in Europe than anything I’ve done here.”
Morange says he plans to treat next semester as a transition between college life and the real world. To that end, he plans to live off-campus with two of his graduating roommates.
“I’m really looking forward to having one foot in and one foot out,” he says.
But even though Morange is satisfied with his decision to spend a semester abroad, Morange says he’s less than thrilled about today’s ceremonies.
“The whole graduation thing is a little bittersweet. When it all comes down to it, it’s a blank diploma.”
—Staff writer Daniel P. Mosteller can be reached at email@example.com.
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