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Why We Wear Caps and Gowns

A Letter from the Class Marshals

By Riya N. Patel and Katie F.G. Wu

Dear Class of 2017,

There are few things at Harvard that seem as over-the-top as the long black cloak you picked up the other day. Perhaps you dread the scratchy hat and you doubt how you are going to precariously balance it on your head. After all, it’s made of cardboard. The tassels will probably slap your neighbor in the face every time you turn your head. Get ready, Class of 2017, we’re all going to feel it as we don our caps and gowns shortly.

There are reasons we wear regalia, and it is not just to add the pomp into the Pomp and Circumstance. We’d like to believe that it serves as a visual reminder of our relation to one another during this Commencement Week. Silly, yes. Extraneous, perhaps not.

Just a little over a week ago, both of us emerged from the rainy woods after an incredible weekend on the Senior Outdoor Reflection Trip. In just a short 48 hours away from the hustle and bustle of campus, the woods made quiet reflection possible. Thinking holistically about the past four years, we both were struck by the diversity of experience among our classmates. Simultaneously we were overwhelmed by an immense appreciation for the shared place that brought us together. We arrived back to campus, like many of you, feeling refreshed and rejuvenated for the final countdown.

And then, Class of 2017, we crushed Senior Week. We repped our House colors as we faced each other one last time at Senior Olympics, sang our hearts out at Senior Soirée, and took that last chance with Match ’17. Throughout it all, we reconnected with fellow Expos classmates and deepened existing friendships. We were painstakingly aware of the “lasts” as we counted down the hours. Now, as we turn in our sloppy late nights for early mornings in our caps and gowns, we are here to celebrate the culmination of this phase in our lives.

Yet Senior Week and Commencement are just a small part of the journey we have taken these past four years. We often remember the big moments and commemorative ends of an experience, sometimes forgetting the minute details of entire chapters. Late night Felipe’s runs, impromptu snowball fights, daily walks through the Yard, hours spent talking to roommates in the dining halls—these small memories summed together create a lived experience.

The diversity in our experiences is striking, however, and undoubtedly, there are undoubtedly ways in which class unity at a place like Harvard seems impossible. Our concentrations dictate which libraries or labs we live in. (At least we’ll always have Lamont as a shared home though—Lamonsters, unite!) Our Houses build our friend groups, and we create our identities around extracurriculars or organizations we are a part of—not to mention the long distance relationships forced by the Quad/River divide. For many of us, the paths we walk each day are so different. Because of this, sometimes we feel like strangers.The “still waiting to catch a meal sometime” skeleton meme tells it all.

On Thursday, seniors, we are entering a new chapter. We will wear the same gowns and tassels, and we will sit side-by-side in a Yard that has witnessed hundreds of graduations before ours. Despite living 1,600 unique Harvard experiences, these robes remind us that circumstance—these past four years at Harvard—will forever be an adventure that we lived together. Simply put: We are members of the Class of 2017.

And it is with this sentiment that we are catapulted into the world beyond Harvard’s gates. For nearly 18 years now, academic calendars have served as the blueprints of our lives. For many of us, now is the first time that we are uncertain of what comes next. Without a paint-by-numbers path to guide us as before, we’re left to figure it out for ourselves, and the apprehension is as real as ever. Though we may not know where we are living next year or what the future holds, what we do know is that we’ll always have each other and this community we built together.

As we look back, it’s clear that we have been fundamentally shaped by those around us. As a good friend once put it: imagine yourself as clay, just beginning to dry. As we continue to form ourselves—to stretch and to mold ourselves with each passing year—we have added bits of clay with each interaction and conversation. These experiences don’t just stay with us; they keep us malleable, ready to be changed by all that we may encounter.

We, Class of 2017, are about to fan out into all corners of the world. And as we move forth, we’ll remember that day we wore the same caps and gowns, smiling back on the moments we shared over our four years together. Though we may be entering an uncertain future, we carry comfort and inspiration knowing we’ll always be the Class of 2017.

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