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Congratulations to the Class of 2020! I remember that sweltering day in June — back then Commencement was in June — the pride my family felt, the mix of elation and wistfulness shared with classmates, and the wonder and anxiety of leaving Harvard Yard for a future uncertain. You likely feel similar emotions even amidst the circumstances that abruptly sent you from campus weeks ago.
It is true that you are moving forward in a world forever transformed. In what ways, we still don’t quite know. Much like the climate crisis bearing down on all of us, COVID-19 has brought to light the existing fragilities and disparities that persist in just about every aspect of civic life from how we work and go to school; receive our food, housing, childcare, access healthcare and transportation; and even how we vote. Confronting those realities has been painful and challenging. But in this moment lies tremendous opportunity, for society and for each of you. With the degree you now hold, well-earned and to be celebrated, you have both the power and the privilege to go forth and make the most of that opportunity — the opportunity to build a world that better serves the interests of all of humankind. Since so many existing norms have been destroyed or at least disrupted, you will be part of building in new and better ways. As you go forward, I hope you consider a few things.
First, there’s a difference between working in public service and working for the public interest. I work in public service, and I deeply value the work of those in public service and know that we need bright, capable graduates to join our ranks. But working for the public interest means that regardless of where you work, you invest time, energy, and even treasure to make your communities stronger and to make sure that every person regardless of zip code, race, income, religion, or country of origin is treated with dignity and respect. In whatever field or profession you find yourself, I hope that all of you will work for the public interest.
Second, your communities and support systems are important. You’ve learned that from the friends you’ve made here. Maintain those connections as you move forward and build new ones. Last spring, I lost my Kirkland roommate, teammate, and best friend to cancer. Never did I imagine a woman and mother so young, fit, and healthy could be taken away. Don’t wait for funerals or pandemic-inspired Zoom calls to reconnect with people. Take care of your friends and support networks and make time to do that regularly. You will hopefully go through more ups than downs, but either way, you will be richer for those relationships.
Third, challenge yourself. Many of you are perfectionists and have pushed yourselves hard for as long as you can remember. That’s not what I’m talking about. Rather, challenge yourself by confronting your insecurities and the self-doubt that will inevitably creep in from time to time. You have more strength and resilience within you than you’ll ever know. All you need to know is that it’s there.
Finally, embrace empathy. In my job as Attorney General I’m constantly confronted with problems that sadly seem to stem from a lack of empathy. Whatever you do, wherever you go, try to see life through the lens and experience of another person, especially a person different from you. How many people can speak to the experience of being a grocery store clerk, personal caregiver, or bus driver? How many times have we looked past them or not noticed them before coronavirus? Take the time to see one another, talk to one another, and listen to one another. It will help us build a better community and government if you do.
You’ve worked hard, you’ve earned it, and you should celebrate as much as you can in this socially distanced moment. But remember, it’s not the degree that’s special — it’s the opportunity to make the most of it.
Maura T. Healey ’92 is the Attorney General of Massachusetts.
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