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Commencement 2019: The prepared remarks of Dean Bridget Terry Long

The prepared remarks of Dean Bridget Terry Long:

Good afternoon, everyone! My name is Bridget Terry Long, and I am proud to be the dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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 several faculty colleagues: Howard Gardner, Tom Hehir, Dan Koretz, and Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot. 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 that we share today.

We acknowledge that the land that we are gathered on is the traditional territory of the Massachusett people, and the land on which many of our homes, schools, and places of work currently sit are the ancestral lands of indigenous peoples.

We also recognize the enslaved individuals who helped to build this university and others across the country, understanding the role that they played in creating educational institutions that were not intended to serve them.

Though acknowledging this history is just a small step, it moves us in the direction of giving respect to those before us.

***

So this is a really big day: my first Commencement as dean, and I'm supposed to say something profound and regale you and your family and friends with humor, wisdom, and inspiration. Sure; no problem at all.

I mean a past dean here turned one of his Commencement speeches into a best-selling book and then went on to the presidency of a university that just happened to win the NCAA basketball tournament this year. Not a big deal.

And then there was another Commencement speaker this year — one who also happens to be a billionaire, I might add — who forgave all the student debt of the graduates at the college at which he spoke. Best. Speech. Ever. Although you have to admit that he kind of set unreasonably high expectations for all billionaires to come, so at least I don’t have to worry about THAT.

Still, as I thought about Commencement, I considered carefully what role I would play. But then I remembered — it’s not about me. YOU are completing a Harvard degree.  

Whether you are graduating from our Ed.D. Program, our Ed.L.D. Program, or our master's and C.A.S. programs, you are all, individually and collectively, amazing.  

For some of you, this is not only the first graduate degree of anyone in your family; you were the first one in the family to earn ANY college degree and now you find yourself graduating from Harvard. Congratulations!

***

So we’ve established that I’m here to recognize you, graduates, and in a moment, you will receive your diplomas. But I hope that the reasons you are here go far beyond thinking about yourself. And so as I take a moment to share with you a few thoughts during this Commencement, I’d like you to consider, what do you hope to get out of your Harvard degree?

To start, I’d like to go back to August. For those who were newly arrived, I greeted you at Orientation with a welcoming speech. I know, I know, that was months ago, but I have to say that throughout the year, many of you were kind of enough to tell me that my words meant something to you. And so I thought it was only fitting to revisit and expand on those words on this special day.

I realize that some of you have been here for longer than just one year. For some of you, this is the culmination of many years at HGSE. For those who missed last fall’s Orientation, don’t worry; I’ll catch you up. And I hope that these words will also resonate with you.

The first thing I said is that you belong here. And you most certainly proved that.

  • You showcased your talents and gave so much of yourselves during Double Take last fall and the Ed Talks event this spring.
  • Even while in the midst of your studies, you founded nonprofits, including one that focuses on supporting school-aged girls in vulnerable communities.
  • You also published, including a book on how to make schools bully free.
  • And one of you — having been the first person in your community to attend Harvard — was invited to speak at your former elementary schools’ graduation ceremony. And now students walk proudly around your small town wearing Harvard shirts, the first step to them seeing themselves as students here in the future.

Oh yes, each and every one of you belong in this community, in the Harvard University community, and in the larger education community. You have earned my respect and admiration.

The second thing I said is that the person next to you also belongs. An important part of your time at HGSE has been with your fellow students. And I have seen how powerful you are when you work together.

  • You worked together on social justice issues, and as Equity Fellows, shared your expertise across the university by facilitating workshops and community conversations.
  • You ran the Harvard Educational Review, an interdisciplinary journal that reaches thousands of readers with discussion and debate about education's most vital issues.
  • You’ve served as Graduate Teaching Fellows at the Harvard Art Museums, incorporating works from the museum collections into the lessons of local high school students.
  • You volunteered together at several local charities, including participating in the Books for Bingo Family Literacy event and helping children and families in the Cambridge Public Schools.
  • And you launched Disability Disclosed, Harvard’s first graduate student publication focused on disabilities and related topics.

You belong, and the person next to you belongs. I urge you to use your individual and collective power to change the world through education.

Which brings me to the third thing I said as I welcomed many of you back in August. I reminded those who were present that they did not come to HGSE just to get an education for themselves — it was to also improve the lives of those who cannot be here.

It is the last point that I want to focus on because, in my mind, it is the one that I hope you will carry with you as you leave this place. Remembering who isn’t here — those who are shut out from the opportunities you have enjoyed — can help guide your steps for years to come.  

***

Let’s go back to the question that started it all. I asked:

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

I was struck by this question when I heard it asked by DeRay Mckesson, one of the leaders of Campaign Zero, an initiative to end police violence. Again, he said: “If God answered all your prayers, would it just change you or would it change the world?”

At the time, as a person taking on a new leadership position and as a person of faith, it really resonated with me. But regardless of your beliefs, I ask that you consider what you’ve gotten out of your experience at the Ed School and what you are working for. Stated another way: If all your hopes and dreams of what you can do with your new HGSE degree came true, would it just change you or would it change the world?

I hope what you’ve done at HGSE has been meaningful, but our time together is as much for the people who aren’t here as it is for the people who are.  

It is what you do for others after you leave here that will be a true reflection of your HGSE experience.

***

So let’s try to be a bit more specific. What does it mean to work for those who are not here?

One way to interpret the question is in terms of those who have come before us.

You may have someone in mind — someone from the past who you wish could be here today. For me, one of the people I think about is my maternal grandmother. I think about what it would have been like for her to experience the wonderful adventures I’ve been fortunate enough to have.  

You see, my grandmother was born in 1912 in the deeply segregated South. Still, she was an optimist about the possibilities of the future. From her rocking chair on the porch of her home in rural, southern Virginia, she would listen closely to my childhood stories, give me a knowing smile, and encourage me to take whatever leap was ahead. I was devastated when I lost her at age 16.

I know she would have loved to see firsthand how the world has changed and how her children and her grandchildren have been able to do so much. Whenever my mother and I are sharing a happy moment, my mother will often say, “I wish your grandmother could see this.”  

And I wish my grandmother was here today to see this ceremony.  For a woman who only had up to a fourth-grade education, I imagine what it would be like for her to see what her granddaughter is doing today.  

I have a feeling that knowing smile would be on her face again — this moment being yet another confirmation that the love and sacrifices through the generations amounted to so much more than anyone could have dreamed.

And this is just one story of one member of my family. I know you have your own stories — people you think of and cherish. We all stand on the shoulders of others — some who are long gone — who have worked hard to help us thrive, and what we do today is one way to pay our respects.

When I say we work for those who are not here, you might also be thinking of the students, families, colleagues, and mentors you left behind at your previous workplace — perhaps a school or other organization.  

Hopefully, while you were here you weren’t completely disconnected from these key people. I hope they gave you not only strength but regular reminders of why this work so important.  

Perhaps you will go back to them, refreshed after having time to reflect on your practice. Or maybe you learned new skills and new information to empower you to take the next step in your career. Or perhaps you trained for something different entirely, and you are anxious to enter your new profession to make a difference.

So a third way to consider who is not here is to look to the future. There are those you have yet to meet and perhaps will never meet in person, who will be the focus of your contributions and work.  

We have a great deal of work to do. And if you need a few reminders of the stakes, please consider the following.

  • From our youngest preschoolers to our adult students, there are major gaps in opportunity, achievement, and success.
  • By the time children enter kindergarten, gaps in school-readiness by income and race are already deeply entrenched.
  • And in higher education, more than a quarter of low-income students who enroll in a four-year institution drop out by the end of the second year.  And less than half ever complete a bachelor’s degree. Perhaps this is not surprising given 21 percent of all children in the United States live in poverty, a poverty rate higher than virtually all other rich nations.   
  • Segregation is also a fundamental determinant of unequal educational opportunity. And unfortunately, 65 years after Brown v. Board of Education, school segregation in the United States is getting worse, with the share of schools that are considered intensely segregated more than tripling since 1988.”
  • And globally, while there has been a great expansion in primary education, attending school alone is not a guarantee of learning, and hundreds of millions of children still cannot read or write.  

So as we think of the children and adults who are not here today, I ask, what will be your role? Will your goals just change you or will they change the world? What will be the point of your Harvard education?

The intent of this question is to remember that there is a larger purpose, especially for educators, regardless of whether you are a teacher or a district leader, a researcher or an entrepreneur, a learning designer, policymaker, or school counselor. 

Remember, as Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” And you are now well on your way to making a difference.  

***

Ok, so let’s say you’ve taken my challenge seriously. What advice do I have to give you as you embark on your work?   

And, yes, I realize that I’m somewhat preaching to the choir. You’ve already revealed your focus on contributing to the world by the choice to come here and what you’ve already accomplished.

But it helps to remind ourselves from time to time about the importance of the work as we press onward. As many of you know, this work is a marathon, not a sprint, so we all need encouragement periodically to help keep us on the path.

In this spirit, I want to leave you with several final thoughts.

First, remember that how we do things matters as much as what we do.

For anyone who has been married or partnered for a long time, you know this to be true. Of course there’s the classic mistake of saying, “Are you really going to wear that?” rather than the more gentle suggestion, “That other shirt would go lovely with your eyes.”  

My husband and I just celebrated 20 years of marriage this past March, and one important reason we got to this milestone is because most times we remember this important lesson.

And as with many things, what we learn through our most loving relationships translates to the other parts of our lives. So as you leave this place to make an impact in the world, remember that how you do things matters.  

To be clear: we don’t come as saviors. I’m sorry, but the Harvard degree does not bequeath you with all-knowing power, no matter how smart and clever we all think we are.

Just like many of us learned recently that unleashing a fire-breathing dragon on King’s Landing does not automatically mean you get to take the Iron Throne and become Queen of the Seven Kingdoms…or even the Six Kingdoms.

The suggestion I’m making is to go humbly into your work with great respect for the students, families, communities, and organizations you will engage, acknowledging the strengths, ideas, and contributions of those you seek to support.  

To quote Lilla Watson, an indigenous Australian artist and activist: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

She said this to emphasize the fact that progress is a collective process — we are all in this together and our fortunes are intertwined. That means approaching each other with respect, careful listening, and a collaborative spirit. So don’t only be focused on what you want to do; the how matters as well.

My second point is to acknowledge that the work is not easy so you will need to find sources of strength. There’s no silver bullet for solving the problems of education. We have to figure out what works, for whom, in what context. If it were one-size-fits-all, we would have fixed this long ago.

So while taking on this challenging work, it’s important to have a sense of a larger purpose. The aim to work for those who aren’t here today may give you strength you didn’t know you had. Sometimes we’re braver and stronger when we work in support of someone else.  

Just ask a parent — perhaps you have parents or others who have played the role in the audience or with you in spirit. There is nothing like 2 a.m. feedings, exploding diapers, collapsible strollers that won’t quite collapse, tantrums, daycare payments, last-minute school projects as well as endless birthday parties, playdates, and cold, rainy baseball practices (does spring ever come in New England?!?) to prove to you that you can do almost anything when it’s in support of someone you care for.

(Thanks, Mom and Dad.  There are not enough “thanks you’s” that I can give you.  But don’t worry… your grandkids are getting me back.)

In fact, you may find that your students, your colleagues, and the communities you serve are actually a great source of support for you. Your partners will grow to be friends. The families you meet will become part of your extended circle. In your quest to help others, you will find that they will also help you.

And there is nothing better than when the students you’ve been cheering for finally see their hard work pay off.  Nothing better in the world.

Finally, I leave you with the reminder to keep on learning. As John Dewey said, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”  

None of us are finished projects, nor are the schools, colleges, and organizations you will go on to work for and with.

Consider the case of the fine city of Boston. It’s so hard — I mean it’s been 116 long days since we’ve won a national championship. We have the World Series Champions, my beloved Red Sox. [GO SOX! Shout outs to Alex Cora, Mookie Betts, and Xander Bogaerts. I’ll be seeing you a lot this summer.] And then there are the Super Bowl champs, the New England Patriots.  

But are we complacent? No!  e’ve always got to look to the future, and now the Bruins are in the finals for the Stanley Cup. I know, I know, it’s been 4 and half months since our last celebration parade, but fear not, I think our drought will be over soon!

The point is, even when you feel like you are at the top of your game, remember that your time at HGSE is only one chapter in a long life of learning and honing your craft.  

And you are about to become alumni of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. You are now lifelong members of a community like no other. May you always stay connected and find this place one of inspiration, supports, and collaborators. All of us here on Appian Way will take pride as we learn about the impact of your work in the years to come.

And as we prepare to celebrate our Centennial during 2020, I hope that you will take part in the many activities HGSE is planning to not only remember the past but to help shape the future as one in which every child has the opportunity to learn and thrive.   

***

So in closing, today is a day of celebration — of your passion for learning and your commitment to serve those who are here with you — as well as those who are not.

Whatever your greatest wishes and aspirations are, I hope they are greater than you. You, and the person sitting next to you, working together with partners around the world, can make a real and lasting difference.

And there is a whole world that is eagerly awaiting for your arrival. Good luck, and congratulations.

***

If you have ever been a teacher, you know that it is very hard to say goodbye to your students. But we know that you leave us to do good work, important work. We wish you success and fulfillment.

Once again, let’s applaud the 2019 graduating class of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.