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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, an award-winning novelist and one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2015, called on graduating seniors to pursue the truth and use the power of their Harvard degrees to change the world at the College’s Class Day exercises Wednesday.
Adichie, who served as a fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in 2011, interspersed her message about the importance of honesty with jokes about whether Harvard was better than Yale—where she attended graduate school—as well as what she called the “grand snobbery sweepstakes” of elite American institutions of higher education.
“If I were asked the title of my address to you today, I would say ‘above all else, do not lie.’ Or, ‘don’t lie too often.’ Which is really to say, tell the truth. But lying—the word, the idea, the act—has such political potency in American today that it somehow feels more apt,” she said.
Adichie’s statements come in light of increasing skepticism about the value of the truth in the current political climate. She also argued for the importance of truth and balanced coverage in journalism.
Adichie opened her remarks with an anecdote about a presenter who once, after devotedly practicing the proper pronunciation of Adichie’s name, accidentally introduced her as “chimichanga.” She said the moment taught her the importance of understanding the origin of ideas and actions.
“The point of this story is not to say that you can call me ‘chimichanga’—don’t even think about it—the point is that intent matters, that context matters,” she said. “We now live in a culture of calling out, a culture of outrage. And you should call people out, you should be outraged. But always remember context and never disregard intent.”
She also joked about the College’s motto—often cited by Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, who spoke before her—which calls on students to be “citizens and citizen leaders.” Adichie likened what she called the phrase’s vagueness to some Harvard students’ reluctance to admit they are students and graduates of the school.
“I don’t even know what ‘citizen leader’ means,” Adichie said. “It sort of sounds like a Harvard graduate saying, ‘I went to college in Boston,’ which, by the way, has to be the most immodest form of modesty. Please, Class of 2018, when you’re asked where you went to college, just say Harvard.”
Offering words of wisdom to graduating seniors who may not yet know what they want to do, Adichie reflected on her journey to literary acclaim. She quoted well-known television producer Shonda Rhimes regarding the importance of continuing to try until one finds an occupation at once enjoyable and successful.
She also admitted she often procrastinates while working on novels, at times resorting to online shopping to avoid work. She said she believes procrastination is rooted in fear and said she understood how students who might feel similarly.
“I’m actually thinking of starting a society of esteemed procrastinators, and I suspect that many of you would probably sign up,” she said. “Procrastinating is a form of fear and it is difficult to acknowledge fear, but the truth is that you cannot create anything of value without both self-doubt and self-belief. Without self-doubt, you become complacent. Without self-belief, you cannot succeed. You need both. And there is also the fear of measuring up, of keeping up, which for you might be heightened by the heavy weight of all those Harvard expectations.”
She ended by repeating a saying in Igbo—a language spoken in her native country of Nigeria—about valuing one’s own place in the world and the pace at which one discovers their self-worth. The crowd, which had laughed along and cheered throughout, met her parting words with a standing ovation.
Student speakers took the stage before Adichie to offer both serious and humorous reflections on their time at Harvard. Jin K. Park ’18, who spoke as the Harvard Orator, discussed his path to Harvard as an undocumented immigrant. Roughly 65 undocumented students attended Harvard this past academic year.
Ivy Orator Carolina S. Brettler ’18 joked about “RJCTN 10a: ‘An Introduction to Reality,’” a class title she fictitiously invented to explain the resilience required to make it through college and face the world after leaving Harvard’s gates.
First and Second Class Marshals Berkeley E. Brown ’18 and Wyatt M. Robertson ’18 opened and closed the celebration with speeches asserting their gratitude for the classmates, faculty, family, and friends who helped them reach graduation. Incoming Harvard Alumni Association President Margaret M. Wang ’09 spoke about her time at the College and welcomed the Class of 2018 into the organization.
Blockmates and friends of Luke Z. Tang ’18 and Alexander H. Patel ’17-’18 read poetry and speeches in commemoration of the two men, who passed away in the fall of 2015 and this past fall, respectively.
The event concluded with a group of student vocalists who sang an ode for the Class of 2018 to the tune of the University’s alma mater “Fair Harvard.”
Long-serving member of Congress and civil rights activist John R. Lewis will speak Thursday afternoon at the University's 367th Commencement ceremony.
—Staff writer Jamie D. Halper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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