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The prepared remarks of student speaker Cole Wilson, Ed.M.'23
Cole WIlson at Convocation
Cole Wilson at Convocation
Photo: Jill Anderson

I am honored and so extremely privileged to have this opportunity to speak with such an amazing cohort of friends, colleagues, and classmates. 

I thought it would be natural to begin this speech by reflecting on the sunny days we shared on Appian Way, nine months ago. Sunny summer days where we posed questions that seem trivial to us now, like: Where am I? What timezone are we in? How do you work this printer? And do I belong here?

Those warm afternoons gave way to cool, crisp evenings when the trees burst into brilliant reds and yellows. Evenings where we found ourselves huddled around busy tables in Guttman, crammed into loud and dimly lit bars along Mass Ave., and seated at warm and welcoming tables sharing foreign foods with new friends and neighbors. 

Gradually, we found answers to those original questions. Hopefully we all learned how to use the printer. But some still linger, like: Do I belong here?

I'm a community college grad who paid his way through undergrad with Pell Grants. I’m a dyslexic learner whose application was so riddled with misspellings that it became the butt of jokes. I’m the product of a home that knows the pain of debt and disease. I’m a southern kid with a family tree made up of dirt fields and oil rigs. A patchwork of farmers, soldiers, pipefitters, lawyers, teachers, and roughnecks paved the way for me to get to this stage, to this podium, to speak their story through this microphone. 

Do I belong here? 

There was a moment of clarity when the answer to that question came into focus for me. I was sitting at a long table somewhere in Maine. It was late fall, the trees were bare, and I still hadn’t seen a snowflake yet. 

A dozen of us had climbed into cars and trekked up to this remote corner of the nation. It was my first time being in all of the states we’d passed through, much less in a wooded forest tucked away into a hillside. All of our computers were open and we were clicking away at our projects, jobs, and worksheets. It was a moment where honesty was laid open and truth bare. I don’t remember who shared the sentiment, but it doesn’t really matter. 

“I have no idea what I’m doing,” one person said. It echoed across the kitchen table as if it were the Grand Canyon. None of us did. But the laughter and smiles that bookended that sense of confusion were enough to understand one thing. Despite my confusion, my disorientation, my unwillingness to embrace the unknown, there was a home for me at HGSE. And maybe, just maybe I belonged where I was. 

Do our family names belong among the Kennedys, Roosevelts, Obamas, and Bloombergs? Before we came to Harvard, many of us lived lives defined by warm dinners, family jokes, and inside laughter that leaked onto side streets when the joy became too raucous to keep indoors. Stiff drinks and somber moments shared with cousins and siblings were the fabric of life itself. These moments seem so foreign to these hallowed halls and red-brick walls. 

Yet, we brought them here with us. We brought light into these halls, we made them ours! Our very presence on this green law, under this tent mandates a truth: we belong here. 

Green ivy is a new sight to so many of us; it’s a strange and unwieldy plant that seems to hide a history so painful, so distressing, so ghastly that if we looked hard enough we may not want to belong here. 

Yet, we have earned the righteous and powerful opportunity to write new words onto the pages of Harvard’s history. Never to forget the past, but to honor it, breathe new life into the forgotten folds and hidden corners. Our belonging here is a testament to those lives lived.

Lest we not forget the trail blazers that opened doors, cracked codes, and laid roads for us. Many of which did not look and sound like me. Many of which fought for this seat, so that our fight might be that much lighter. Many of which would beam at the sight of our triumph. Of our being here. Of our belonging. 

Tomorrow will bring new fights, new bridges to cross, and will return the question of belonging. 

Will we belong in the office, on the team, or with the organizations where we land? Will our names fit neatly into our coworkers mouths, will our needs be met with the compassion they deserve? Will the kindness that we show be reciprocated in full?

There will be voices, forces, and systems that will try their hardest to convince you otherwise. If you listen closely, you can probably hear them now. Let us not tune them out. No, defy them with your inevitable success, wisdom, bravery, and kindness.

Will we belong there?  

Yes we will. When that moment comes, think back to here, think back to now. Remember the echo of your classmates' voices.

Let’s do a little call-and-response just to drive the point home. I’ll ask that question one more time and I want to hear you say it too. Your line is “hell yes.” 

Do we belong here? 


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