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A Letter to Harvard Seniors

By Erika L. Christakis

Dear Seniors:

This is a time of celebration for all of you but also a time of reflection, ambivalence, and even anxiety. I know that some of you are sad to leave Harvard; others can’t get out the door fast enough. I know, too, that you have all had very different hopes and dreams, and very different college experiences, so it’s hard to find something meaningful to say to such a diverse and wise group of people.

When I graduated from Harvard College 27 years ago, I was filled with trepidation and sadness, not joy. I remember sitting in a packed Memorial Church on graduation morning, as some of you may be doing now, with a feeling that I had squandered the supposedly best years of my life. I felt I had made a mess of some fairly big things: a thesis, boyfriend, and job plan, among them. I wished that I could have a do-over of college, even though the prospect of staying on even another day beyond graduation was distasteful to me. I’m sharing this because I am well aware that while some of you have had great triumphs over the last four years, quite a few of you have struggled, too. Some of you have faced illness or academic difficulties or heartbreak. Some of you have been disappointed, in yourselves or in others. Some of you have felt that you didn’t deserve to be here or that you never really fit in.

But what I want to tell you is this – and it has special meaning for me as I prepare to leave Harvard myself this summer: no matter how you feel about Harvard College, you are all united in the amazing fact that you made it through this extraordinary, sometimes maddening, life-changing institution. And whether you found the journey a stroll in the park or a slog through a parched desert, or a little of both, the fact that you made it through is what matters.

When you look back in a decade or two, you may be surprised to find that your memories have begun to blur and change. Those of you who loved Harvard may see more of its chinks and cracks. Those of you who hated it may begin to feel a bit more generous.  But however you narrate this episode of your life, the main thing that matters is that you made it through.

You may think your relationship with Harvard is over now but, really, it’s just beginning – and not only because the Alumni Association can always find you. Harvard will follow you for the rest of your life and, if you are smart about it, you’ll let Harvard tag along next to you and you won’t worry too much about what it means or what people think of it.

Don’t make too much of a fuss about Harvard College one way or another and you may find that it treats you pretty well over a lifetime. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. You may find, as I did, that the word “Harvard” can make your CV miraculously levitate to the top of the pile at a job interview for which you are totally unqualified. You may find, as I did many years ago while working in a village in rural Bangladesh, that the word, “Harvard” can literally save your life when you are near death. Or you may find, as I did, that the man of your dreams secretly always wanted to marry a Radcliffe girl. And most important of all, you may find, as I have found again and again, that the magic word, “Harvard” gives you the confidence and resources to reach out and lift someone up who really needs lifting.

Bravo for getting through. Well done. Enjoy that word, “Harvard” that is now forever connected to your name. Don’t take it too seriously. But do take it a little seriously. You’ve earned it. Congratulations and very best wishes to all of you.

Erika Christakis ’86 is an outgoing Co-Master of Pforzheimer House.

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