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Dean Long’s Orientation Remarks

Dean Bridget Terry Long addressed the incoming class of HGSE students at the Dean’s Welcome Ceremony.

Bridget Terry LongGood morning, everyone! My name is Bridget Long, and I am the dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. On behalf of the faculty and staff, I am thrilled to welcome you to our remarkable community.

I should note that, like you, I’m new too, in a manner of sorts. Even though I’ve been on the faculty here for nearly two decades, being dean is a new role for me. And doing new things can make anyone feel a bit nervous. 

That’s why it’s so important to me that, during this week of Orientation, my colleagues and I both introduce you to the resources that will help you thrive at HGSE and make you feel comfortable enough to fully engage in all that this place has to offer.

Who You Are

I’d like to introduce you to one another. We are welcoming 739 students this year: 669 of you are entering master’s students, 29 are Ph.D. students, 25 are Ed.L.D. students, and 16 students are part of our Certificate of Advanced Study Program. In the audience today are students from across the United States and the world. We have 56 countries of citizenship represented here, with students from Peru, Australia, Syria, Cameroon, and Malaysia, to name a few.

Among you are teachers, researchers, policymakers, leaders, activists, public servants, artists, innovators, and dreamers. Some of you have always known that you wanted to be in education. Others here have come from other fields and look to transition into the education. Still others of you have long been in the field of education, and you seek this time to reflect on your practice and learn more about the context and conditions in which you work. You bring to Appian Way an astonishing array of experiences, perspectives, and accomplishments. But no matter where you’re from and what you’ve come here to do, we are delighted that you’re here.

A Few Words of Advice

Make no mistake: You are an impressive group. But some of you may be sitting there wondering, “What in the world am I doing here?” Let me offer a few words of advice as you wrestle with that question.

Point #1: You belong here.

The first point to remember is that you belong here. You may be secretly asking yourself, “Was I the admissions mistake?” The answer is a firm "no," but it’s perfectly understandable to suffer from impostor syndrome — and if you don’t know what that is, consider yourselves lucky. It can be intimidating to be at Harvard, with all the weighty expectations that carries.

I can identify with that. As I said earlier, I’ve stepped into a new role, one I feel so honored and excited to hold. But when I take a moment, and I look around, I am amazed that I have the privilege to stand here. Only three generations ago, my great-grandmother was born into slavery, and only two generations ago, my grandparents worked as sharecroppers. But what brought me here is education. It was opportunities through the GI Bill that helped my father pay for college after the Air Force. It was long hours of work as an older, nontraditional student balancing a job and other duties that helped my mother to become a high school teacher. Education ended the cycle of poverty in my family, and it also gave me the ability to take control of my destiny and gain opportunities that older generations could not have possibly imagined for themselves.

Let me ground this for you even more. A few years ago (let’s not focus on the exact amount of time), I sat where you are as an entering graduate student in the Economics Department at Harvard. I looked around and thought, Oh my goodness, I don’t belong here. How am I going to succeed? I was surrounded by people who were not of my race or my gender — and I assumed that we couldn’t possibly have much in common. That turned out not to be true, and I still have cherished friends from graduate school, but I’m happy to look around this tent and see how far things have progressed. Still, that feeling of isolation and otherness can be very real and as true today as it was years ago.

But let me fill you in on a little secret: You belong here. Each and every one of you have 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 in a test score or letter grade. Sure, you’re wicked smaht, but we also wanted you for your work ethic, your imagination, and your potential. Most importantly, we wanted your passion for improving education — whether that be at the classroom or governmental level; in early childhood centers or in college student success offices; in urban, suburban, or rural contexts; in the U.S. or abroad.

At HGSE, we are united by a common purpose. You belong here because you want to improve the world through education. And you now join an amazing community of people who want to do the same.

Point #2: The person next to you belongs here too.

This brings me to my second point. The person next to you belongs here too. Like you, they have earned this opportunity. Take a look around you. Just to give you a sense of this year’s fascinating, caring, talented, and entrepreneurial class, we have students who have:

  • started a newcomer center to serve newly arrived immigrant students;
  • led cutting-edge edtech startups and cultivated student creativity through makerspaces;
  • taught writing and performance arts to incarcerated women;
  • built an orphanage and early childhood center in Tanzania;
  • scaled reading interventions for students with learning differences;
  • created a districtwide family and community engagement office; and
  • directed a program to increase college access for tens of thousands of students.

I could go on, and actually, I will. We have a student who has long wanted to understand school finance after seeing the disparities between her school district and neighboring districts, and a physician who wants to design more inclusive curricula around women’s health. And among you is a Marine who wants to help former soldiers by improving their educational opportunities. 

So as you can see, you are a wonderfully diverse class in terms of your experiences, backgrounds, and identities as well as in your views on education.  As you prepare for an increasingly complex world, I hope you’ll embrace opportunities to listen generously to each other so that you learn from the many new perspectives you will encounter. I hope you will learn to respectfully navigate differences of opinion and will test your own assumptions and perhaps even be open to changing your mind. 

Through your engagement with others, I hope you’ll gain a deeper appreciation for people and ideas that you might not have naturally gravitated toward. And I hope you’ll have a deeper sense of who you are and what you believe through your exposure to this multiplicity of perspectives.

Not only does the person next to you belong here, but they have so much to offer to you. Don’t make the mistake of assuming what you see on the outside gives you any measure of what is on the inside. Your classmates may very well be the most valuable part of your HGSE experience. Your time here would be woefully incomplete without each other.

Point #3: But remember who is not here.

To recap, you belong here and the person next to you belongs here — but what about the people who aren’t here? My third and final point is to remember who isn’t here. 

I’m sure you think of people in the communities from where you have come. As much as I trust that this will be a wonderfully challenging and rewarding experience for you, I recognize that, for many of you, it is a considerable sacrifice to leave behind communities that have inspired your work in education, and that have made you the person you are today.

Beyond those we know personally, consider who else is not here. Moments like this weigh heavily on me because, as joyous as they are, they remind me that not everyone gets this privilege. I think about students who cannot even dream of applying to Harvard because they lack access to mentorship and support. I also think about the teachers, counselors, and nonprofit leaders who aren’t here, but who are in schools and other organizations grappling with the everyday challenges of improving education. 

You may have gotten to HGSE because of the impact you’ve already made, but we all know there’s so much more work left to do. There are gaps in opportunity and success at all levels — from access to high-quality early childhood education; to segregation and insufficient rigor and supports in K–12 classrooms; to uneven access, low graduation rates, and looming debt in higher education. 

The problems can be overwhelming, but I remain hopeful, in great part, because of each of you. Even though there are many who do not have access to a Harvard degree, they will have access to you. You didn’t come to HGSE just to get an education for yourself, but to improve the lives of those who can’t be here.

It is in this spirit that I ask you this question, which I hope will anchor your experience here:

“If God answered all your prayers, would it just change you or would it change the world?”

This question is not my own. You might’ve heard similar renditions of it before, but I last heard it asked by DeRay Mckesson, one of the leaders of Campaign Zero, an effort to end police violence through data-informed practices.

Now you may not be a person of faith, but I am, so perhaps that’s why this question resonated with me. But, regardless of your beliefs, I ask that you consider, for a moment, what you’re asking to get out of this experience. Stated another way:

If all your hopes and dreams for your HGSE experience came true, would it just change you or would it change the world?

Now, I’m not saying it’s selfish to ask for the things close to your heart. I can imagine some of the leading contenders on your mind right now:

  • Please make sure my roommate is not crazy or at least believes in keeping a clean kitchen. 
  • Help me get the classes I want and make a good connection with my adviser. 
  • Please help me not to embarrass myself at the program meeting.
  • Watch over my loved one while we try this long-distance thing. 
  • Please help me get a decent winter coat and survive a Boston Nor’easter.

Ok, maybe I just revealed more about what was on my mind when I was in your shoes. Of course, you have needs. You want to thrive and succeed here, and that’s completely understandable. And to be clear, it’s important to care for yourself so that you can care for others.

However, what I hope you’ll keep in mind is that this experience is as much for the people who aren’t here as it is for the people who are. So whatever your greatest wishes and aspirations are, I hope they are greater than you. You are here to make a real and lasting difference, and there is a whole world that is eagerly waiting for you.

Right now, there are nervous preschoolers who are about to enter a classroom for the first time. And there are adults who are looking to postsecondary education as a second, or third, or fourth chance to learn valuable skills. There are parents wondering how to help their struggling child, and educators looking for ways to share their expertise. There are high school students who wonder what this schoolyear will bring: a chance to better themselves or disappointment. And you will find these people both close by and far away and across many cultural contexts. But what they all hope and strive for is the same: the opportunity to succeed.  

We know there aren’t silver bullets to improving educational opportunities for all. We have to figure out what works, for whom, in what context, and at what time. If it were one-size-fits-all, we would have fixed this long ago. That’s why we need each and every single one of you here.

I want to close by recognizing this special beginning. You are starting a new adventure at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Remember that you belong and cherish what you will learn with and from those around you. But don’t forget the most important point: you are here, not just for yourself, but for the positive impact you will continue to make on the world. Whether you aim to go into research, practice, or policy, whether you leave here to work inside and alongside schools, I hope you’ll focus on doing work that matters and will make people’s lives better. I’ve found keeping this goal in mind assuages feelings of fear and uncertainty. So, with courageous hearts and open minds, let’s start this adventure together! 

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