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Be the Light that Changes the World

The 2023 HGSE Commencement remarks of Dean Bridget Terry Long

Welcome graduates, colleagues, family and friends. Congratulations to you all!

I know many people have helped the graduates arrive at this special moment — parents and other caregivers, partners, friends, and others are cheering you on today, as they have throughout your time here. For that reason, I’d like to ask all of the graduates to stand, turn toward the audience, and give a round of applause to thank those who helped you on this journey. And I notice that many of the graduates have brought their children. I invite all the children here to comment on today’s ceremony in whatever way they see fit. You will help make this place feel alive as we look towards the future.

I would also like to thank all of the staff who have worked tirelessly throughout the year to help us all, and who have worked especially hard to make graduation special for you. They deserve a huge round of applause. Last but not least, I would like to thank the faculty, who have served not only as teachers and colleagues but also as mentors and friends. And it is with some sadness that I recognize the retirements of two faculty colleagues: Deborah Jewell Sherman and Judy McLaughlin. We will all miss their wisdom, kindness, and many, many contributions to this community.  


Before we get too far along, I’d like to recognize those who came before us in the space we share today. Harvard University is located on the traditional and ancestral land of the Massachusett, the original inhabitants of what is now known as Boston and Cambridge. We pay respect to the people of the Massachusett Tribe, past and present, and honor the land itself which remains sacred to the Massachusett People. We also acknowledge Harvard’s entanglements with slavery and its many legacies, as the university’s initiative on “Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery” makes clear. Let us recognize the enslaved individuals who helped to build Harvard University and other colleges around the world. Acknowledging our history is an important step in combating the erasure of the important contributions, sacrifices, and stories of those before us, and it is a step towards ensuring a culture of awareness, respect, and accountability within our community.


In a moment, you will receive your diplomas, but first I’d like to share a few thoughts as you look forward to your next chapter. We are living in a strange time — or at least a confusing time, when many things we see and hear just don’t make sense. Endless school shootings. Supreme Court rulings challenging hard-won freedoms. Extreme weather all over the world. Things feel quite surreal — and demoralizing. We are in a time when the most basic lessons we teach in kindergarten — like play fair, don’t take things that aren’t yours, and say you’re sorry when you hurt someone — are being shunned by adults in the most dramatic ways. And more than that, crowds of adults cheer on this bad behavior as if it is something to be proud of.

What can you do during these daunting times?

You, dear graduates, find yourself going out into the world during these bewildering times. And that’s really saying something so soon after a global pandemic turned our world upside down. Many of you came to HGSE because you wanted to “Learn to Change the World.” So now, as you graduate, how should you get started? Where do you begin when the problems seem immense and growing, and when common sense and common decency seem to be on the decline.

Be the Light

My answer to you is this: There is always something you can do, a way you can contribute.

I’m reminded of the beautiful poem by Amanda Gorman, the National Youth Poet Laureate and a 2020 graduate of Harvard College, which she read at the inauguration of U.S. President Biden in 2021. The final lines of “The Hill We Climb” resonated with me then, and they reverberate today: “For there is always light. If only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.” 

You are the light that HGSE contributes to the world. Joining together with the 30,000 HGSE alumni around the world, you are an incredible force of good. Yes, the problems of the world are daunting, but all it takes is one voice, one gesture, one smile — the lighting of one candle — to brighten the world even when it is at its darkest.

As you consider what’s next, there are the big things you will do to change the world — bringing important improvements to scale, innovating to create new solutions, and building stronger communities. Regardless of whether you leave here to be a teacher, principal, or superintendent; nonprofit leader or entrepreneur; counselor or administrator; faculty member or learning designer, you are prepared to do the big things, and we can’t wait to follow your progress.

But don’t underestimate the fact that smaller things can still have a mighty impact. As Mother Teresa said, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”

I want to share ideas about some of those meaningful ripples you can make—how you can use your light as you work to change the world through education. 


Let’s begin by highlighting the important act of shining a light on injustice, especially during troubling times. Right now, our voices are sorely needed. Our education systems are under attack with the spread of laws that censor and suppress certain viewpoints, histories, and lived experiences, especially for historically marginalized groups. The media is filled with the bluster of those who seek to misconstrue, blame, or simply ignore real problems in the hope of gaining popularity and power. And although freedoms are challenged around the world, and authoritarian forces can be found in many countries, we’re seeing some stunning examples here in the United States.

Florida passed a law that prohibits classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity, referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” law.” Originally this just pertained to the lower grades, but the legislature has extended the limitations through high school. In fact, there is now a fifth-grade teacher under investigation for showing a Disney movie about a family of explorers that happens to feature a gay character.

Florida also passed the “Stop WOKE” law, which limits students and teachers from learning and talking about issues related to race and gender. Moreover, recently, the state passed a law that prohibits public colleges in Florida from spending money on diversity, equity, and inclusion programs. As summarized by one reporter, essentially, some Florida politicians have chosen to rally against “students who wish to learn history that reflects their stories and cultures and educators who dare speak about our nation’s true history.”  

It’s important to note that over half of the students in the Florida are Black or Brown — with 22% of the K-12 student population in Florida being Black, and another 37% being Hispanic.  And yet, teachers cannot expose students to materials that acknowledge the role of race and ethnicity in contemporary society or as part of the United States’ complex history. Let’s be clear: when you erase the history or experience of one student to supposedly "protect" another, then you are making clear you believe there is only one type of student worth protecting.

Unfortunately, these efforts extend far beyond Florida. There are at least 34 bills in the U.S. aimed at limiting diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education according to The Chronicle of Higher Education’s DEI legislation tracker.

And there has been a nationwide escalation of book bans with a focus on books by authors of color, LGBTQ+ authors, and women. PEN America identified 1,477 instances of individual books banned, affecting 874 unique titles from July to December 2022 in 37 states. Some point to parents’ rights, but as novelist (and HGSE alum) Jodi Picoult writes: “There is nothing wrong with a parent deciding a certain book is not right for her child. There is a colossal problem with a parent deciding that, therefore, no child should be allowed to read that book.”

Even one of the most conservative appellate courts in the nation described Florida’s “anti-woke” law as “positively dystopian.” 

Educators and education have been dragged to the front line of the culture wars, and the tactics being used are quite old: limit information, spread disinformation, and reduce opportunities to become educated. This misguided approach harms all students, regardless of their race. History is not there for you to like or dislike. It is there for you to learn from, and the erasure of certain viewpoints, histories, and lived experiences is not education; it is propaganda.

Educators seek to free minds — to light a fire, as William Butler Yeats once said — and we must speak out about efforts to stifle what can be taught in developmentally-appropriate ways. These political efforts fail to recognize that great teachers “stimulate, provoke, and engage” students with the issues of our complex world. The school environment is exactly where we need to engage multiple viewpoints, perspectives, and experiences — even those that expose the ugliness humans are capable of. We must do this because it is the foundation of deeper learning and the development of critical thinking skills. If we do not prepare students for the diversity of the world and the innate dignity and respect of every single person, then we will end up not only with ignorance, but with hate.

Be inspired by Malala Yousafzai, who said: "When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful,” so use your light to expose injustice. With your newly minted Harvard degree, people are likely to listen to you a bit more closely. That is our privilege, but it is also our responsibility, so do not take this lightly. Let us work to refocus the conversation so that we can advance what evidence shows will improve the lives of students and communities.


Ok — so I know all of that was a bit heavy, and I am happy to tell you that meaningful change can also come from doing something much closer to home. That’s why my second point is to encourage you to use your light to lift up others—especially in your role as educators. Think of all the educators in your life who did this for you.

I know I have definitely benefited from the generosity of people who took the time to empower me. Like the professor who was generous with his time when, as an 18-year-old, I dropped by his office hours. I had no real agenda; I was just told going to office hours is something college students are supposed to do. And this incredible scholar showed me tremendous patience and generosity. He asked me about my background and interests, and he listened closely to every word I said. And as I prepared to leave, he didn’t give me academic advice. Instead, he shared words I have never forgotten about the importance of taking risks in life. In the years that have followed, his encouragement and advice have often propelled me, even as he has spread the broader lesson to the world that “justice is what love looks like in public.”

Or I could point to the college administrator, a vice provost at the time, who cared enough to share words of encouragement with a small group of female undergrads. She talked about how she had developed her career while also raising her children, revealing her challenges and triumphs not only as a leader but also as a mother. I did not know it then, but she would become a lifelong mentor and source of inspiration, going on to be the President of Smith College, and then the first African American woman to lead an Ivy League university, as the President of Brown University. This winter, she stepped down as President of Prairie View A&M University, and we were so pleased to have her as our Convocation speaker yesterday. I’m speaking, of course, about the inspiring Dr. Ruth Simmons.

But you don’t have to look any further than the HGSE community to see excellent examples of the important impact educators can when they use their light to lift up others. Alexis Redding, the winner of the Morningstar Family Teaching Award this year, exemplifies the how an educator can invest and nurture their students.

The Morningstar recipient is chosen each year based on nominations by HGSE students for (1) excellence in teaching; (2) excellence in formal and informal advising; and (3) evidence of a caring, respectful, and enthusiastic commitment to students. Alexis Redding’s nominations stood out.

One student wrote: “Professor Redding has the unique ability to make all of her students feel seen and valued in a manner that is authentic… This genuine care has not just led to every one of her students caring deeply about her, but it has also led to us caring deeply about one another. Another student wrote: “She has empowered me to envision a future for myself dedicated to creating educational experiences that are as meaningful to the students I will serve as the experiences she provided to me and my HGSE colleagues.”

And it is not only Alexis who exemplifies the point I’m trying to make. Take for example what one HGSE alumnus said about Professor Judy McLaughlin in the video celebrating her retirement this spring. For the past 40 years, Judy has been an incredible leader, teacher, and adviser to over 900 students in the Higher Education Program and over 1,000 college and university presidents who have sought her out for professional education and counsel.

The student shared: “Judy, I trusted in you when I didn’t even trust in myself – and 20 years later, I do not take it lightly when I say you saved my life… Thank you for taking the extra time and attention with a student like me.  It was not because it was a part of your job, but rather, it is because of who you are that I have been allowed a path to become who I am.”

It is amazing to also hear what students and alumni have to say about Profesor Deborah Jewell-Sherman, the Gregory R. Anrig Professor of Practice in Educational Leadership. Deborah served as a public school educator and leader for 32 years and returned to HGSE to serve as the director of the Urban Superintendents Program and a core faculty member of the EdLD Program.

In Deborah’s video, one student said: "You brought such a light, such a joy, and sense of care to your teaching and to every one of our interactions that truly shifted my Harvard experience in a really positive and meaningful way… We know that you’ll be rooting us on, and we, all of your former students, are in turn sending you tons of positive energy as you head into retirement.” 

Our faculty and staff have modeled exactly what I am urging you to do.

As educators, our impact has a compounding effect. The investment we have made in each of you will have benefits that will multiply into reaching thousands and perhaps even millions. While it may seem small, the ripple effects of small things can be extraordinary. And even after they are gone, our mentors and coaches. As Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recently wrote, “The great thing about great men is that long after their light has dimmed, their deeds still light our way.”

Investing in others is an important way to share your light.


While my first point focused on fighting against the big problems, and my second point encouraged you to take seriously your important role as educators to invest in others, my last point is much more personal. Sometimes, the most impactful thing you can do is to show you care. Let your light shine so brightly that others can see their way out of the dark.

I learned this lesson most clearly as a parent. Of course, as a parent, you are constantly trying to demonstrate that you care.

I’m a hugger. I like to surprise my kids with unexpected treats, and I try to listen closely as they rattle off yet another set of baseball statistics and their most recent video game scores. And I still kiss my sons and tell them that I love them at bed time.

But it was during a heated moment that I truly came to understand the power of showing you care. It was evening, and we were all tired from school and work: my two sons, Finley and Calvin, and my husband, Carl. We were also hungry, with no obvious plan for dinner, so it was not surprising when the fighting began.

My older son, Finley, who was about eight at the time, decided this was the ideal time to push for something he wanted. Now I know I’m supposed to be preparing my kids for life and all, but it’s hard when they already know everything — or at least they think they do. So that evening I pushed back, and things got heated quickly.

Yes, I know, the Dean of the School of Ed just revealed that she yells at her kids. Get over it. We’re all human.

Finley was being stubborn, and it’s clear where his stubbornness comes from, so neither one of us was willing to give an inch. We hit an impasse, and with complete frustration, my son yelled that he hated me.

The first time you hear that as a parent, it rocks you. And for those of you lucky to have never heard those words, be thankful. Finley’s words made me pause because it was clear we had reached a whole new level of conflict. I realized that this moment, and how I responded, could set our relationship on a troubling course.

I could have reacted the way my parents would have — now let’s be clear, I’ve never said “I hate you” to either of my parents for fear of, let’s just say, “old school” punishment. But in that moment, I caught a glimpse of what Finley was really feeling: he was just a frustrated, discouraged little boy who felt powerless and was at his wits end. And that was one of many times as I parent that I truly understood the meaning of unconditional love.

Given that I had failed to react to his words, Finley repeated, “I hate you!” And so I simply told him the truth: “Well, I still love you.”

“What did you say?” My words had surprised him.

“I still love you.”

He then looked at me with curiosity. “Really?”

“Yes, really. You may hate me, but I will always love you.”

It was an important moment for us — I thought he always knew how much I loved him, but this moment illustrated to me that sometimes you still need to say the words, and it’s especially important to say the words when times are hard and confusing and heated.

As Mister Rogers said (who I was happy to meet this morning in Harvard Yard): “Everyone longs to be loved. And the greatest thing we can do is to let people know that they are loved.”And that’s true even when that love is already expected and has been expressed many times before.

This incident happened years ago, and Finley is 15 now. I’m sorry to say the frequency of our fights has increased a bit, but I don’t think that surprises anyone who has ever met a teenager. However, Finley has never said those words to me again, and I’m told it’s unusual that my 15-year-son actually talks to me constantly — about the good, the bad, and trials and tribulations of 9th grade. Since that moment, it’s as if we both know that regardless of what happens, love is always there.

You might wonder about my younger son, Calvin. Calvin has never told me he hates me, but he’s only 13, so he still has a bit of time.

Sometimes people need to know you care

Now I didn’t share that story to expose my imperfections as a parent and a moment when I think I got something right. No, my point isn’t about parenthood at all. 

It’s that sometimes people just need to know you care. Again, let your light shine so brightly that others can see their way out of the dark. That’s something that everyone here can do. Using our voices to express care and support is especially critical right now — for our friends, our families, our acquaintances, and even strangers.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health challenges were the leading cause of disability and poor outcomes in young people, and from 2009 to 2019, the proportion of high school students reporting persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased by 40%. The last few years have been especially rough. It’s estimated that more than 140,000 children in the US had lost a parent or grandparent caregiver to COVID as of June 2021. And since the pandemic began, rates of psychological distress among people — young and old — has increased dramatically.

We have all been through more than just a public health crisis: the reckoning over social justice issues and increase in hate crimes; constant instances of gun violence; increasingly polarized political dialogue; and growing concerns about climate change.

Amidst all this, an expression of care can mean the world. It can be as simple as “I'm Here for You," "You are not alone in this," or "You Matter." Or as I learned with Finley that day long ago, “I still love you.”

As Leo Tolstoy wrote, “Just as one candle lights another and can light thousands of other candles, so one heart illuminates another heart and can illuminate thousands of other hearts.”


To summarize, there’s always something you can do, even during troubling times. You are the light that HGSE gives the world.
1.    Shine your light on injustice 
2.    Use your light to lift up others
3.    And be someone’s shining light so that they can see their way out of the dark.

But before you do any of those — or maybe, while you are doing them — you’ve got to celebrate. You’ve earned it, and may the unwavering encouragement and support you’ve received up until this moment carry you through the next step in your careers.

Now go, celebrate with your families and friends, and continue to be the light that our world needs. 


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