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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained
Let me take you on a tour.
We’ll start at the heart of campus, right here in Harvard Yard. Turn to your right—no, not that right, your other right. Do you see it? It’s a beautiful church. Yes, the steeple is gorgeous and perfectly pristine. There’s a reason we’re starting here. This church defines the Harvard experience: Every year during Opening Days, the new freshman class gathers in front of its steps for Convocation. Four years later, that same class gathers here once more for Commencement. Even if a student never attends the morning services, Memorial Church is where the Harvard journey begins and ends.
Let’s turn away from Memorial Church now—there’s so much else to see, and you only have a few minutes. I know you might be surprised to see a church towering over this secular Ivy League campus. Don’t worry, you’re not the only one who divorces Harvard from religion. But while American millennials are the least religious generation yet, at least 60 percent of students in any given class at Harvard affiliate with some sort of religious tradition, from Mormon to Jewish to Muslim.
After today, you’ll realize that religion defines the Harvard landscape—both when you see it and when you don’t.
But come—let’s escape the Yard. If we make our way down Linden Street, the upperclassmen Houses will start coming into view. Adams House is all around us, and there up ahead is Lowell House, currently under renovation.
Oh, what’s that building, right in front of Lowell? That’s Harvard Hillel. The glass and unique architecture make the building distinctive, and there’s even a courtyard built within the structure. Yes, it’s not in the Yard, but it’s a prominent location nonetheless. Though it is open to all, Hillel serves hundreds of Jewish students on campus and there’s always kosher food available in the dining hall.
Let’s turn here. Do you see that steeple, right up ahead? That’s the Catholic Church, St. Paul’s. Almost one in five students in the current freshman class at Harvard are Catholic. The Catholic Student Association isn’t the only Christian student organization—it’s one of fifteen. If you go the other way, back towards the Quad, you’ll even find a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
It’s easy to forget how much diversity of faith and religious practice there is at Harvard. Unfortunately, you won’t find much conversation about religion here, even though religious spaces are featured so prominently. And look—we’re back in the Yard. Let me show you something you missed the first time around. Yes, I know you see Memorial Church. But let’s walk past it and swipe into Canaday Basement. This is the musallah—small, carpeted, and clean. It’s the prayer space for Muslim students on campus. In fact, it’s the only religious space for Muslims on campus, who number in the hundreds.
I’m going to be honest—when I arrived at Harvard, I didn’t expect to find many Muslims here. By chance, I ended up in a suite with two other Muslim girls, and we found a community that was large, vibrant, and diverse. And my exposure to religion didn’t end there. I made friends with Mormon students who were committed enough to their faith to say “no, thanks” to Harvard and take a mission for two years to an unknown place (meanwhile, I am afraid to take a semester abroad because of my fear of missing out #fomo). I found my religious peers tackling tough questions, like evolution, abortion, and interfaith relationships.
But I also found that while religion towers over this campus, conversations about it remain hidden underground.
Many students at Harvard (even religious ones) simply don’t realize that a critical mass of their peers are constantly considering matters of faith—issues and beliefs that many associate with small towns and backwards counties. As you walk through this campus, you see that Harvard is a diverse place. In all of these spaces that you’ve seen, so many Harvard students engage in all types of nuanced and difficult conversations. These students are varied: some grew up in religious households and are now reconciling that past with their beliefs now, some are finding faith at Harvard, some are searching and floating and letting their beliefs grow. All of them are here, all around you.
Not all religious organizations or religious groups are as prominent as the steeple on Memorial Church. Look around the Yard. So many of these students, your friends and leaders and peers, lead lives inextricably linked with faith. Not all of them are as easy to spot as a girl with a scarf on her head. But they exist. We exist. You see it now, don’t you?
So reach out. Break out of your mold, and drop by a church or prayer space. Let’s talk about religion. We’d be happy to have you over, and you’ll learn a little bit more about the campus you live in and the students you live among.
Shireen Younus ’20, a Crimson Editorial Comp Director, is a Government concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.
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