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A Time Like No Other

Dean Bridget Long addresses incoming and returning HGSE students during Orientation 2021

Welcome! My name is Bridget Terry Long, and I am very proud to be the dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. On behalf of the faculty and staff, I am delighted to welcome you to our remarkable community. 

Today marks a special beginning for many of you, while for others, you are continuing your journey with HGSE. Whether you are joining us from across the United States and around the world, or right here on campus, we are excited to kick off a new year of learning, growing, and connecting with each other.

You Belong

Now some of you may be wondering, is this real? Am I really a Harvard student? Even for those of us who have been here many years, the mystique of Harvard can be intimidating.

But let me first assure you, yes, you belong as a part of this community.

And let me just say: you are an impressive group.  Among you are teachers, researchers, policymakers, leaders, activists, public servants, artists, innovators, and dreamers. Some of you are seasoned educators while others are transitioning from other fields.

Regardless of your background, each and every one of you has shown us how you’ve successfully tackled challenges and made the most of the opportunities you’ve been given. Your accomplishments are not easily summarized by a test score or letter grade. Yes, there’s overwhelming evidence of how smart you are, but we also wanted you for your work ethic, your imagination, and your potential. Most importantly, we wanted your passion for improving education.  

Together, the entire student body brings an astonishing array of experiences, perspectives, and accomplishments. But no matter where you’re from and what you hope to do in the future, you are now part of this community, and we are delighted that you are with us.

Reflecting on COVID

As we embark on our journey together this year, I’d like to take a moment to consider where we are. For the third consecutive year, the world’s schools will be significantly touched by a relentless global pandemic that has caused disruption, loss, and continued uncertainty. Our role as educators has never been more critical — and the contributions of our HGSE community never more valuable.

Here at our school, the last year and a half has been tumultuous to say the least. We all have been touched by the COVID — and though I had hoped so dearly that we’d be free of the pandemic this year, that is not the case.  

At HGSE, our top priority during the pandemic has always been the health and safety of community members and their families, and this remains our top priority. We all share responsibility to act prudently, safely, and in accordance with public health directives so that we can safeguard our campus and loved ones — and so that we can do the necessary work to support learners everywhere. This will require us to take extra precautions and adapt our usual behavior.

But despite some new protocols and procedures — and regardless of whether you are physically on campus or not, or whether our practices have to evolve in response to COVID — we are, first and foremost, a community of faculty, staff, and students working together to wrestle with important issues in education.  

As we proved last year, with careful thought, deep and meaningful connection is possible in many forms, and we are prepared to make this an amazing year regardless of the circumstances. Remember, HGSE is much more than just a spot on a map.  HGSE is all of us. We embark on this important journey together, joining the nearly 30,000 alumni of HGSE, along with our many partners, collaborators, and fellow educators around the world, dedicated to the goal of supporting learners everywhere.

Not a Time to Rest

This is certainly not a time to rest. In many ways, the pandemic just highlighted the long-standing inequities that many of you came here to help solve. But there were new dimensions to the devastation felt around the world, with the layering of additional challenges for the nearly 1.6 billion learners in more than 190 countries who suffered from the disruptions caused by COVID, and who continue to deal with its ongoing effects.

And I sincerely hope that society finally realizes that: schools are more than just physical buildings that provide academic content; educators do more than just stimulate minds — they provide social and emotion support and safety; and community-based organizations are essential to the fabric of our lives as they interweave activities and supports for our students and families. Let no one take for granted the essential nature of educators and schools. 

The ongoing struggles facing education give us a heightened sense of urgency. Students, colleagues, families, and communities desperately need the best that we can give them through our dedication, training, research, practice, and leadership.

Looking Ahead to Advance Education

I am thankful for the choice you’ve made to commit yourself to the field of education and to join us here at HGSE. You already know that the work is not easy, and COVID has not made it any easier. Perhaps spending some time near the ocean this summer has caused me to think about how the past year at times has felt like we’ve been tossed around in rocky seas. But it also reminds me of a favorite quote:

We must free ourselves of the hope that the sea will ever rest. We must learn to sail in high winds.

And that’s why you’re here. That’s what we’ll learn and build together — a way forward to advance education in the midst of tremendous challenges. This work could not be any more important.

As we look ahead, I would urge one thing: Don’t just run back to what existed before COVID. To quote a note I see floating around social media, “If we go back to the ways things were, we will have lost the lesson.” My sincere hope is that “we rise up and do better.” As I said in my Commencement address last May, if we commit ourselves, we might find ourselves on a better path than the one we were on pre-COVID-19.

What if this is a time like no other — when we imagine something new for our students, their families, and ourselves? Because while COVID brought uncertainty, disappointment, and sadness, it has also been a time of immense learning. We were forced to re-imagine what the system could be, prompting an amazing range of new questions, hypotheses, and insights.

Let this be a time in which we build on the incredible urgency but also aspirations for what is possible for all learners. And as you learn at HGSE how to sail in the high winds of tumultuous seas, I hope we will empower you to do incredible things for students and communities.

Acknowledgements and Closing 

Before closing, I would like to extend a special thanks to the Office of Student Affairs, Academic Affairs, and the Office of Learning Initiatives and Teaching Support who have worked tirelessly to organize and prepare this Orientation week for you. I would also like to thank the IT, Operations, and the Marketing and Communications teams, who have also worked hard to plan and support the events this week and without whom our opening activities would not be possible. 

Let me leave you by again recognizing this special beginning for many of you and the adventure we all have before us.

Students, families, colleagues, leaders, and communities — are desperate for solutions.  And I am optimistic, because of all of you. So let’s see what we can do to improve education — and our world — together. 


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