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In Harvard College’s first-ever virtual graduation ceremony, the Class of 2020 celebrated its achievements and commemorated its losses with a colorful address from comedian Conan C. O’Brien ’85 on Thursday.
After the coronavirus crisis sent undergraduates home for the remainder of the semester and shuttered campus in March, the University decided to award degrees and honor the graduates with a virtual ceremony. The live-streamed celebration for graduating seniors immediately followed a University-wide event, during which Washington Post executive editor Martin “Marty” Baron addressed graduates.
O’Brien is best known for hosting the late-night talk shows “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” “The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien,” and — since 2010 — “Conan.” As a Harvard undergraduate, he served as president of the Harvard Lampoon, a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine.
“Harvard has been graduating students for nearly 400 years,” O’Brien said in his speech. “This is the first one where the commencement speaker is standing on a spot where his dog urinated seven minutes ago.”
“Yes, this commencement will be very different as you sit here today, or stand, or microwave a burrito, or ride a Peloton, or recline uncomfortably in your childhood bed, or mine Bitcoin, or Google, ‘Who is Conan O'Brien?'” he continued. “You are witnessing many many firsts in today’s ceremony.”
O’Brien broke from his comedic tone to acknowledge all that the Class of 2020 has endured in their lifetimes and praised their resilience. He cited 9/11 terrorist attacks, mass shootings, two economic meltdowns, climate change, and the 2016 presidential election, in which many seniors voted for the first time during their freshman years.
“Cynics like to mock the supposedly spoiled or shallow youth of the new millennia, but you have seen and survived so much,” O’Brien said. “And you've responded with wit, creativity, righteous anger, activism and a gritty determination to take the reality you've been handed and make it better.”
“10 weeks ago, you were told to leave your dorms immediately, get your stuff, get out — something no one has said to me since my first marriage,” he added. “And since that day, you have found ways to stay safe under absurd and confusing circumstances.”
In addition to O’Brien’s speech, the undergraduate event also featured a video made by class members, remarks from Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, appearances by the 2020 Class Marshals, greetings from faculty deans, and a number of “student-driven” features, including festive videos and musical performances.
Khurana said he grieved for all the significant losses the graduating class has faced in recent months, including loved ones and financial stability. He added that he also wanted to acknowledge the “smaller,” though still painful, loss of their final semester and all it would have entailed.
“You lost all the moments in between classes, those serendipitous moments that make up your lives at Harvard — time spent lingering with friends over meals in the dining hall, a chance to meet your senior thesis advisor for coffee, an encounter with someone you haven't seen in a long time,” he said.
While acknowledging such losses, Khurana added that this is a fruitful period for discovering resilience and deepening “wells of empathy,” which has become all the more important as the pandemic exposes and exacerbates social inequalities.
“I hope you will make the choice again and again to make a difference in other people's lives,” he said. “I hope that during this challenging moment, when it's often easier to articulate what we are against than what we are for, you will be inspired to step up to decide what you stand for.”
In addition to the virtual commencement programming, University President Lawrence S. Bacow previously assured the Class of 2020 that Harvard would host “traditional campus festivities that typically precede commencement” as soon as large gatherings are considered safe.
First Marshal Eric J. Cheng ’20 also promised his classmates in his opening remarks that the class committee would continue working with administrators and organizers to plan the traditional in-person commencement.
“Today is not a farewell. It is the first of many gatherings in which we celebrate each other with each other,” he added. “We will gather again in person and due time to celebrate fittingly and we will continue to do so for many years to come.”
Second Marshal Angelina Ye ’20 said in her closing remarks that though this virtual event was not meant to replace an in-person ceremony, it had its own eccentric merits.
“Every class can say they got the classic pomp and circumstance of a normal graduation. But we can say we got a faculty dean TikTok, a hype video, and Conan O'Brien, all while being able to avoid the blistering heat,” Ye said. “The fact that we got all of this on top of it in person graduation is honestly pretty cool.”
“It's unique, quirky — and dare I say — unprecedented,” she added.
—Staff writer Juliet E. Isselbacher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @julietissel.
—Staff writer Amanda Y. Su can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @amandaysu.
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