Overcast grey skies that whisper wildly with the wind. A chilling cold that cuts through bone and carcass. An airport that closes down due to bad weather A sense of isolation as you long for new experiences of the outside world. But this is not what you expect.
This is not the tale of a typical Harvard Winter. Growing up on the tiny island of Guernsey-this was the tableau of my childhood.
Years of grey granite and separation. Waiting for a chance to set sail to discover new challenge (though admittedly we never had two foot of snow in March)- though I am still unsure why the brochure never mentioned that this town is twinned with Narnia-seems like a brilliant selling point to me.
It has always been a dream of mine to come to Harvard. Yale never seemed that great to me. They should really just stick to doing what they’re good at -Making keys. I’m sure like many others here I didn’t think I’d be accepted. I took the entrance exams for a few places but all they did was laugh. Apparently they were “mock” exams.
Yet I like many others here today can remember the very moment I received the that I was Harvard bound. I was out fishing and I remember the sudden simultaneous flush of Pride and Relief. Of concern for how much my life would never be the same. Who would my new class mates be? What would it be like living in America? Would I have to learn to spell English words incorrectly? Though for once I was relived my angling tales to my friends would be totally accurate. I caught an offer and it was THIS BIG.
But in the same way I had enough of living on a remote rock. We were also once, before coming here, all our own personal islands. Sheltered from the ravages of learning. From the exposure to the other viewpoints and concepts. Unsure of the outside world. There have been times for all of us when the workload has been extreme.
But we have fought the struggle and prevailed. Even if we burned the candle at both ends. In fact my papers have often been so late that, like the commencement speech, they are written in Latin.
In the course of the journeys we have taken we have constructed mighty bridges to our very souls. To connect ignorance to understanding. To join prejudice to tolerance. To turn darkness to light. And of course “Mendacia” to “Veritas” – Lies to Truth. The latter the motto of our great university.
But as its shield protects the truth so we must be vigilant that these very gains we have fought and clashed with, over sleepless neon-flecked nights
and opaque morning frosts, remain protected.
This is but a commencement we must endure ongoing transformations across the decades. We must strive to stop ourselves from falling back to insular ways. “No man is an island” wrote the 14th Century poet John Donne. “Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main.” Admittedly he still lived in time when most people thought the earth was flat so he’s probably not the best person to consult on geographical matters. But I feel the sentiment is one we should certainly embrace.
At the Kennedy School we have been bombarded with a barrage of subjects
From Communication to Statistics. From Negotiation to Energy Policy. And the breadth of academic opportunity has been breath-taking. I have also been lucky enough to meet such a wide collection of amazing people. From Presidents to Activists. From Businessmen to Holy men From Democrats to Despots. Though to be honest these days the faculty really don’t like you using that term about them.
In the same way each of you will have your own stories of wonder and sensation to tell. Each has served to enlarge, unite and bridge our personal islands. In the same way Harvard itself should take care to not seek to become too inward looking. It is the richest university in the entire world. An amazing environment for learning – where almost all our requirements can be fulfilled. Within only one mile’s radius of Harvard Square there is everything a scholar might need.
In fact it’s a little known fact that this is the best place in the world for your car to break down The Divinity School can help you with the cursing. The Medical School can mend your foot when you kick it. The Engineering School can try and fix it. The Law School can sue the automobile manufacturer. The Business School can sell you a new one. Our very own Kennedy School can tell you should have taken public transport. The School of Arts And Sciences can probably write about it. And the Radcliffe Institute…
Well, no-one’s really sure what they do…. Hopefully they have a tow truck.
Nevertheless travel but a few miles in either direction of the square and you come across deprivation, ignorance and failure .Harvard is working hard to engage the community but we must also not forget that we should not substitute one island for another. No one ever changed the world through their personal learning alone.
We must now all head out across the sea. To Help. To Build. To Listen. To Serve.
To you all I would say where you are going is as important where you have come from.
Simon holds undergraduate degrees from the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford and is a graduating MC-MPA from the Harvard Kennedy School class of 2014. He is the Chairman of The Babbage Institute a think-tank researching digital society, CEO of Zoom Labs a tech-start up incubator fund and of course Editor-In-Chief of this newspaper.