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Graduation from the Inside

Sitting on the steps of Memorial Hall overlooking Harvard Yard, I read through my notes on microeconomics in preparation for my summer program  final, all the while listening to a passing tour recounting Harry Widener’s exploits and the traditions governing the Yard during Commencement. I kept pinching myself at the thought of having reached this pinnacle of academic learning and the real prospect of graduating in a year’s time. I was caught between my own quiet reflection while simultaneously being an actor in this most grand of scholarly environments.

Graduation would be a majestic affair. The thought of being escorted through the winding lanes of Cambridge from the Kennedy School to the Yard by the sounds of a bagpiper was enough to give me goosebumps. I thought of the regalia of our degree, our joining the ranks of elite Harvard men and women having come before us since 1636, and the arrival of those dearest to us in Cambridge from all over the world to applaud and share in our accomplishment. There was pride for sure—for one master’s degree candidate colleague this had been a dream in the making for 40 years—but it was hopefully not false pride, checked in any case by a keen sense of humility in being a small part of such brilliance of thought, of tradition, of Veritas.

When graduation finally arrived, expectations were resoundingly trumped by an experience that was very different. Some friends thought they would be overwhelmed to tears, but there was only joy, laughter, and good camaraderie. If our procession was to be an orderly, reflective affair, it was anything but. Just about everyone broke ranks, eager to share the moment with colleagues soon to be dispersed all over the world, talking over bells chiming in our honour, almost oblivious to the traffic making way for us. The bagpiper? I said hello at the start and then must have fallen too far behind in the progression to hear much more than a murmur of a sound foreign to our experience.

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Only a Japanese friend called for more sobriety when at the Yard, when we started thumping our Earth-modelled balloons up to the air in celebration following President Drew G. Faust’s investiture of Kennedy School graduates. My friend made sure he caught his balloon and held onto it as if it were some prized possession. I belted mine away, and catching as many as came my way, sent them off again on their merry way in quick succession. With whose balloon I remained in the end, after how many rounds it went up and down and from hand to hand, is hardly the point; the significance was that the little miniature globes went around, which in our context represented taking a voyage around the world.

“You take care of my soul sister,” were my parting words to a graduating American colleague married to a classmate from Latin America during our time at Harvard. This was more than friendship; the ties binding many of us more properly befitted a family. She still had a year to go. We envied them; even for the stale food and crammed lunch queues at The Forum’s cafeteria. There was always the possibility of extending the program, but graduation beckoned, less so the life after, in the depths of a recession not seen since 1929. The noise filling those hallowed halls of learning, our soirees at each other’s digs or out on the tennis court which also witnessed the “popping” sound of my torn Achilles tendon, could not be replayed. It was time to move on, knowing that by doing so we would remain.

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Graduation, as the culmination and arguably the ultimate representation of our time at Harvard, was about being on stage. As actors and actresses in a hugely dynamic and fast-paced play that was much of our own creation — principally through the relationships that bind us still to that time and place — we were rarely observers. And when we did look, we did so as insiders, like the photographers amongst us at graduation. Observing became part of the act. And the act was always real, because we were authentic; the costume we sported at graduation was worn with naturalness, without pomp or show. That was what earning our crimson and black meant.

Fernando Gutierrez-Eddy, MPA, graduated from the Harvard Kennedy School in 2009.

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