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When Anne was growing up in New York City, her mother would sometimes reminisce about a radio drama show she remembered from her own childhood called “Grand Central Station.” Each week, the show began with an announcer describing the massive train station as a “crossroad” of innumerable private lives, “a gigantic stage on which a thousand dramas play out daily.”
Since we became Faculty Deans a decade ago, and began each year to share our daily lives with hundreds of students, we have learned to think about Harvard undergraduate life as being a little like this.
These years have been a profoundly meaningful journey for us. We have eaten with students, sat in quiet companionship with them, hosted them, played with them, advised them, laughed with them, and, on occasion — thankfully, more rarely — weathered struggles, uncertainties, and even tears with them.
But perhaps most of all, the years of living in community with students has helped us to appreciate them as people with complex private stories that had previously been mostly invisible to us, back when we were ‘just’ a professor and a museum director.
Some students worked long hours at campus jobs, not just to help pay for their own needs or social activities, but because their parents expected them to send money back home to help with living expenses. Some stayed up most of the night to comfort a distraught friend, but still managed to make it to their organic chemistry lecture. Some came out to their parents, only to find they were no longer welcome at home for Thanksgiving.
There were always new stories: the student who grew up in a refugee camp; the student who looked after the mental well-being of struggling younger siblings in high school because parents, for whatever reason, could not; the student who was the primary English-language translator for their family, even after arriving on campus.
At Commencement, we tend to spend a lot of time celebrating the many visible triumphs of our students: the prizes and scholarships; the Phi Beta Kappa honors; the championship varsity games; the prestigious or incredibly cool jobs; the internships; the great medical, law, or graduate schools.
We don’t generally stop to think about the many students who blend into the sea of gowns, but for whom simply arriving at this point is the hardest and most important thing they have ever achieved. Their Harvard experience may not have been primarily about landing that great job or winning that plum prize (though some achieve that too). It may have been primarily about something else that we don’t generally give prizes for: resilience, showing up, giving back, grace, grit, compassion, and perseverance.
This, therefore, is an essay of appreciation for all of these students. Students whose time here has been defined by milestones that they may never share with their professors or future employers, and that may never end up in their letters of recommendation. The ones who did not maintain a perfect GPA, but who were there for that friend all night, or showed up for their families in the midst of finals week. The ones who arrived on campus burdened with sometimes difficult stories, but who then also came to realize that they didn’t have to be wholly defined by those stories — that they had the ability to become authors of new stories, stories of their own.
And here’s a thought: Maybe these kinds of students offer all of us a different kind of metric of success — one that measures the distance run and the promises kept, and not just the tributes won and the public acclaim received.
Maybe the most interesting question we can ask friends as they prepare to depart is not, “What was your concentration?” Or, “What are you doing next?” But, “What’s your story?” “What was your story when you arrived, what did it become, and what is it now?” Some stories are gifts, easily told and publicly celebrated. But others are hard-earned accomplishments, marked by twists and turns that fewer people will ever hear about.
This Commencement, as we look out with affection at the final senior class we will help graduate, we will be thinking about these quieter stories, these less frequently told stories, and feeling a special sense of pride.
Anne Harrington ’82 is the Franklin L. Ford Professor of the History of Science and an outgoing Faculty Dean of Pforzheimer House. John R. Durant is the Director of the MIT Museum at MIT and an outgoing Faculty Dean of Pforzheimer House.
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