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Bacow Confers 1,542 College Degrees in Harvard’s First Virtual Graduation

Harvard's Commencement exercises normally take place in Tercentenary Theater.
Harvard's Commencement exercises normally take place in Tercentenary Theater. By Allison G. Lee
By Sydnie M. Cobb and Michelle G. Kurilla, Crimson Staff Writers

In Harvard’s first online commencement ceremony, University President Lawrence S. Bacow conferred 1,542 bachelor of arts and bachelor of science degrees to the Class of 2020.

Bacow awarded 8,174 degrees and certificates to students across Harvard’s 12 schools — including the College, the University’s graduate schools, and the Harvard Extension School.

The degrees, which were conferred over live-streamed video, would have been conferred in Tercentenary Theatre under normal circumstances. Harvard postponed its in-person 369th Commencement Exercises as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Harvard has only ever cancelled or postponed a commencement in the event of war or plague.

Michael J. Phillips ’20 and Sana Raoof ’12 gave this year’s English student speeches.

In Phillips’s speech, titled “The Keys and the Canvas,” he said he first arrived at Harvard grounded by the question: “Will Harvard change me?”

He shared a story from his own move-in day. As his parents said goodbye, Phillips said, his mother left him keys engraved with the words “believe,” “fearless,” and “inspire,” and his father told him that he imagined his life as if it were a canvas, encouraging him to imagine new possibilities.

Phillips said the experience of realizing those possibilities was bestowed upon graduates before they all arrived in person at Harvard.

“Harvard will change you, but let it continue to change you,” he said. “Let it make you keenly sensitive to injustice. Let it make you more empathetic to struggle. Let it embolden you to make change. Let it make you all of these things because to become anything else would be to forfeit any meaning in being a Harvard graduate.”

Raoof, a graduating Harvard Medical School student, delivered an address titled “This View of Life.” In the speech, Raoof discussed the parallels of biological and personal evolution.

“Challenges are the building blocks of not only biological adaptations but also personal evolution,” Raoff said. “The greater the adversity, the greater the need for evolution on all scales, from the individual to the nation.

Raoof shared an anecdote about the personal evolution of her grandfather, Abdul Raoof, who grew up as an orphan in India and studied diligently to earn a scholarship to Columbia University, where he would go on to earn his Ph.D.

“Education gave him freedom, so he became an educator. Hungry in childhood, he provided food for his students. Homeless in his village, he housed people under his own roof,” Raoof said. “In these ways, from so simple a beginning, my grandfather’s life evolved a mission. It was not his Ivy League degree but his experience at the bottom of society that propelled him.”

Raoof ended her address by urging graduates to use the disruption of coronavirus as a mechanism to spur their own personal evolution.

“We are once again at a challenging moment, but let us remember that challenges inspire evolution, an evolution that Harvard graduates can direct. How can we adapt to serve our communities or future generations?”

The ceremony also included a performance by world-famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma ’76 and a musical interlude by Ashley M. Lalonde ’20 and Madeline A. Smith ’14.

After the student speeches and performances, University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 introduced the deans of Harvard’s 12 schools, who presented their degree candidates to Bacow.

Following the conferral of degrees, Bacow introduced the principal speaker, Washington Post Executive Editor Martin “Marty” Baron.

A seasoned journalist, Baron boasts a resume that includes work at the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and the Miami Herald. Prior to his role at the Post, he served as editor of the Boston Globe for 11 years.

Baron said a free press is important because it holds the government and other institutions accountable.

“Only a few months ago, I would have settled for emphasizing that our democracy depends on facts and truth, and it truly does,” he said. “But now as we can plainly see, it is more elemental than that. Facts and truth are matters of life and death.”

Baron also warned about moments in history when governments have attempted to silence journalists and the dangers such silence poses.

He ended his speech emphasizing the necessity for truth in society, referencing Harvard’s motto “Veritas.”

“At this university, you seek the truth with scholarship, teaching, and dialogue, knowing that it really matters,” Baron said. “My profession shares with you that mission— the always arduous, often tortuous, and yet essential pursuit of truth. It is the demand democracy makes upon us. It is the work we must do.”

Interim Pusey Minister of Memorial Church Stephanie A. Paulsell delivered the benediction following Barton’s address, urging graduates to seek freedom in each facet of their lives.

“As you graduate into a changed world, I pray that you will find the freedom that this moment in history surely holds.” Paulsell said. “Freedom, even from what you expected your Harvard degree to mean, and the freedom to make it mean more.”

The ceremony ended with the University Band and student singers crooning the alma mater “Fair Harvard” and sending a congratulatory message to the graduating class.

—Staff writer Sydnie M. Cobb can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @cobbsydnie.

—Staff writer Michelle G. Kurilla can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @MichelleKurilla.

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