First, I’m going to apologize for taking so long to write this up. Things have been crazy for a while in my life. For one thing, it’s felt very good to be done with school. I’ve been catching up on a lot of things that I didn’t have the time to enjoy while I was working towards my degree.
For one thing, I needed to do a lot of cleanup around my house. I had tons of books and papers to file and it took me quite a bit of time to get everything straightened up. If you’ve ever had to clean out a garage, that’s what my office was like.
For another thing, I picked up a new hobby: Crossfit. I regret to say that whatever level of fitness I had before starting my studies, it was distinctly less once I finished. True to form, I picked a program that is probably the most challenging type of fitness program you can find.
Anyhow, I promised you a recap of the rest of my graduation day.
One thing that most people aren’t prepared for is the sheer volume of people present at graduation. Once the morning exercises are over, the task at hand is to find your guests and get over to wherever they are going to actually hand you your degree. For the ALB candidates, that’s the Loeb Theatre.
Finding my family and guests was a challenge. Before we separated for the morning exercises, I told them to meet me in front of the CVS right across the street from Johnston Gate. That’s on the way to the Loeb Theatre and a convenient landmark.
It was a good thing I told them before the morning exercises too because my battery died from all of the pictures I took with my Blackberry to upload to Facebook.
Once we walked over to the theatre, things were a little more relaxed. A nice selection of sandwiches and drinks were set up for people to enjoy while we set ourselves up for the ceremony. I was absolutely famished.
Somewhere along the line, they hustled all of our guests into the theatre and we were the only ones left in the hall. It can be a little strange to be surrounded by a mass of people in dark flowing robes. The Loeb Theatre lobby isn’t the most spacious venue and I’ll admit to feeling a bit claustrophobic in those surroundings. I’m sure being packed into Tercentenary Theatre for most of the morning didn’t help.
That’s when we were surprised by a nice gift from the school: a Harvard Extension shield lapel pin. We lined up in our graduation order and pinned those onto our gowns as we waited to march into the auditorium.
Unless you’ve ever been on stage, it can be hard to imagine the feeling of being the object of attention in a ceremony like this. As we were walking to our designated seats in a line and the music was playing, I couldn’t help feeling a curious mix of anxiety and pride. I had made it. I was finished. Nothing was going to come between me and that degree. Yet I feared that something unknowable and unforeseen was stalking me. Perhaps it was the knowledge that I’d tried twice before to complete a degree, only to have some life obstacle block my way. I can’t be sure. What I can tell you is that I became acutely aware of my own fears all along the way from the very beginning that I wouldn’t finish.
I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to feel that way. Lots of us had to modify or otherwise compromise our schedules to stay on track. My plans had me graduating in 2008 but I had to delay that by one year to ensure I would meet my goal to graduate cum laude and with the coursework I wanted.
The Commencement Speaker
All of these thoughts were going through my mind when the person seated next to me started to nervously thumb what looked like a set of prepared remarks. As it so happens, Ryan Slattery, our graduation speaker, was seated directly to my right.
When he was called upon to present those remarks, I felt a sense that maybe I should have made an attempt to convey to the audience and the other graduates what my own journey had meant to me and how the struggle to balance a professional life and an academic endeavor had altered my own perspective of what I could achieve. I felt like I should have tried to at least offer my own words for consideration. I felt a quick pang of regret. All I could do was hope Ryan’s address would capture some of my feelings and that he would deliver it with a tone that would engage the audience.
As it turns out, Ryan was an actor on his way to graduate film school at UCLA, a very selective program. He probably had more time in front of an audience than any other person in that room. We couldn’t have been luckier in choosing a speaker.
And so Ryan delivered a graduation speech that was full of feeling and a sense of the sacrifice that drove all of us forward. Here are some highlights from his speech:
Usually, Commencement speeches focus on these grand journeys ahead – and let there be no doubt this will be the case for everyone here – but I think it is appropriate to speak of the diverse and surely winding roads that have brought us all together today.
Our program is often called ” a second chance at a first-class education.”
Each and every degree conferred today has meaning beyond the print on the paper. Each represents the journey of its recipient. It is a symbol of missed anniversaries, baseball games, and dinners with the kids; of long flights and train rides; of rising the the challenge of a second chance; of fulfilling the pride of loved ones now gone. There is simply not enough room on the degree to write about what it really means, but the stories of sacrifice of each and every degree recipient, most of which will probably go untold, make today more special than anyone can imagine.
As I listened to him speak, I was happy they chose him to give the speech. His experience was similar to my own. He felt the same sense that he should make the most of this opportunity and push as far as he could. He understood that the way forward was often difficult and the right path through unclear.
In the end, after all of the awards were handed out and we began to line up to walk across the stage and receive the degree, I was struck by a curious coincidence. When I first traveled to Cambridge, the first person I spoke to about the degree program was Mark Ouchida, one of the advisers. Now, there just off-stage alongside me, was Mark. We greeted each other with the sense that he was both the first person I met at Harvard and the last person I would speak to before I finally graduated. Right then, I knew everything would be fine.
As my name was called, I walked past my own advisor, Suzanne Spreadbury, who had called me forth. I made my way across the stage to the Dean, Michael Shinagel, who handed me the red envelope containing that precious piece of paper. His only words to me:
And with that, we turned toward the camera, paused for a photo, and I joined the ranks of Harvard Alumni.