Desire and Aptitude: My Harvard Graduation Speech

Delivered at the Undergraduate Diploma Ceremony for the Division of Continuing Education, Harvard University Commencement 2010.

Good afternoon, Dean Shinagel, Dean Spreadbury, advisors, faculty, support staff, friends, family, and my fellow graduates of the Harvard University Class of 2010.

Six years ago, I walked by the Extension School offices on Brattle Street and discovered, because of a poster along the sidewalk, that I could attend Harvard. Previously, the height of my academic career had been in seventh grade when the Taunton, Massachusetts, Daily Gazette put my picture on the front page and proclaimed “The World’s His Oyster,” because I was the only kid from Bristol County to qualify for the state finals of the National Geography Bee. In those days, Harvard was a plausible dream, but as high school wore on, something went awry. It turned out, I hated school, so I eventually dropped out. Afterward, I worked as a historical role player at Plimoth Plantation and served as a missionary in California—both worthwhile endeavors—but ultimately realized that my high school equivalency diploma was closing more doors than it was opening. Nonetheless, my bad memories of school never quenched my thirst to learn more.

One hundred years ago, when Harvard president A. Lawrence Lowell established the Extension School, he envisioned a place where “the many people in our community who have not been to college but who have the desire and the aptitude [might] profit by as much of a college education as, amid the work of earning their living, they are able to obtain.” In that statement are our admissions requirements and our graduation requirements succinctly stated. Desire and aptitude. Hard work and intelligence. When I walked into my first class, Introduction to Museum Studies, my friends my age were graduating college. I had no academic achievements to my name. I was armed only with a conviction that I would work hard and I could achieve. When lesser universities derided my self-assurance and dismissed me, Harvard responded with a simple offer. Neither dismissing me nor understating the challenge: prove yourself. Prove your desire and your aptitude to Harvard and yourself.

So here we are today. Graduates of the Harvard Class of 2010. The papers and exams; the all-nighters; the stolen glances at flashcards during work (or at work e-mails during class); and the seemingly endless work has, indeed, ended. Our desire and aptitude—and ultimately it does not matter the proportions of each—added up. No matter our past decisions or circumstances, no matter the age at which we have reached this day, or the paths that brought us here today we have been declared Harvard-caliber associates and bachelors of liberal arts.

I am honored to be among you, because Harvard Extension School is where I have met the most determined and brightest people of my life. I, the high school drop out, have studied alongside doctors and lawyers with advanced degrees, but a yearning to learn ever more; alongside a student from another Ivy League school whose university wouldn’t adjust her schedule for cancer treatment; and a hockey player whose injury caused her other university to abandon its scholarship funding. I have had classmates in their teens and in their eighties. Harvard Extension School is a place of second chances without lowered standards; of first chances often delayed, but not ultimately denied. In age, in previous education, in home country, in native language, in career ambitions, it is the most diverse place I have ever been, but the remarkable diversity of this graduating class was not manufactured in an admissions office; it was shaped in the classrooms of Harvard University, where we all tenaciously proved our desire and aptitude.

The words over the Dexter Gate into Harvard Yard, come to mind. As you enter the Yard, the inscription reads, “Enter to grow in wisdom,” and as you leave, “go forth to serve thy country and thy kind.” These words seem designed as fodder for clichéd commencement speeches, but as I think of this audience, it is clear the analogy does not work for us. We did not enter Harvard four years ago only to go forth just now. We have never had the luxury of mistaking Harvard for the real world. As “nontraditional” students, we entered a few nights a week, and immediately left each night to serve our jobs, our families, our communities. I realized I was nontraditional when my twin daughters were born during midterms, and I left the hospital to take an exam on the medieval reforms of Pope Gregory VII. And nothing says nontraditional quite like the double stroller I pushed along with me to advising meetings and review sessions. I thank my twin daughters, Emerald and Lanéa, who have spent more time in the Divinity School library than any other two-year-olds ever have. Our nontraditional stories vary, but for each of us, our strange paths are just as important as our Harvard educations in giving us the tools to “go forth and serve,” not just our “country” and “kind.”

My time at Harvard Extension School has changed my life. I have been transformed from a high school drop out to a Harvard alumnus. I have gone from dead end jobs to graduate school. I will begin a master of divinity program in the fall. And I share this, as both a success story and an admission of treason, that I will be doing so at Yale University. Desire and aptitude got us into Harvard Extension School and carried us through. While here I have studied my primary interest of religion with the best theologians alive; I have delved into personal passions of questionable practical utility, like learning to speak Irish Gaelic (Dia daoibh a chairde); and I had shocking revelations, like discovering that even that math could make sense (when Graeme Bird teaches it). I am grateful that Harvard gives its students such varied opportunities and challenges; yet as much as any of the knowledge we have gained in the classrooms, it is the ability to work hard and never cease learning—the cultivation of desire and aptitude—that will be the most valuable legacy of our years at Harvard.

May today be a milestone in, but not a conclusion to, our continued success.