First, let me emphasize how excited I am to welcome you. The last five months have been tumultuous to say the least. We have all shared uncertainty, fear, anger, and disappointment, but we come together today to start afresh, to begin something new.
And as you embark on this journey, one that is also new for each and every faculty and staff member at HGSE, I urge you to consider several things that might help guide your time this year.
First, be assured, you belong as part of this community.
As you sit watching your screen, some of you may be wondering, is this real? Am I really a Harvard student? Let me first assure you, yes, you belong as a part of this community.
And let me just say: you are an impressive group. 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.
I hope you have already begun the exciting work of getting to know each other but allow me to spend just a moment introducing you as an incoming class. This year, the HGSE community extends not only across the U.S. but also includes students from 62 other countries. Joining you are students from Morocco, Ghana, Ireland, Vietnam, Jamaica, Finland Argentina, Bangladesh, and Australia, and I could go on. 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 have transitioned from other fields. 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 an astonishing array of experiences, perspectives, and accomplishments. But no matter where you’re from and what you hope to do in the future, we are delighted that you’re joining us.
Just to give you a sense of this year’s fascinating, caring, talented, and entrepreneurial class, we have students who have: spent over a decade in leadership within the D.C. public schools; published children’s coloring books celebrating historical female trailblazers in science, technology, and art; and devoted themselves to improving education access and opportunity on the Acoma Pueblo reservation in New Mexico. We have someone who focused on expanding access to agricultural education in Davenport, Iowa; another person founded a non-profit that empowers young people to be role models in championing LGBTQ+ equality. We even have a student who performed on tour in the Broadway musicals Chicago and Hamilton, and the former Executive Director of the Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra. I know throughout the year you will learn about so many more of the interesting histories of your fellow students, as well as the faculty and staff.
The second thing I want you to consider is what do you bring with you?
I urge you to bring your full selves into the classroom and other activities. Bring your ideas, experiences, perspectives, and dreams with you as you engage with each other using a range of tools. In fact, this year’s circumstances have given us a unique opportunity: you did not need to leave your home communities to be a part of HGSE. You bring them with you. I hope you will share them with your classmates just as you are bringing the classroom into your homes.
Throughout the week, in an effort for our global community to get to know one another, I invite you to introduce yourself on Instagram, using the hashtag #IAmHGSE. And don’t forget to follow us at @HarvardEducation.
And to encourage you even further, I have a tangible way to help you share yourself and where you’re from. To celebrate this new community and our common mission to improve education, as well as to warmly welcome you, the Dean’s Office is giving each of you a free HGSE T-shirt. To have your shirt mailed to you, simply visit the Orientation section of the Canvas website and click on the link for further instructions.
I want you to show your HGSE spirit wherever you are in the world, and throughout the year, we’ll be inviting you to share photos of you in your home communities wearing the HGSE shirt. Be creative with what you share, whether it’s a photo of you hard at work or hard at play. Snap a picture next to a seminal landmark, include family members, or stand outside the school you support. I look forward to seeing how we cover the globe, and who knows, the shirts might even help you find each other. So be sure to order your shirt this week, and I can’t wait to see what each of you bring to HGSE.
The third thing for you to consider is what will we do together?
I do want to acknowledge that I wish we could hold this event in person, but I also don’t want to waste this valuable chance to work and learn together. I’m struck by something an old friend of mine from graduate school posted on social media:
“We may limit ourselves if we stick to the notion that a university is a spot on a map rather than a group of people.”
Stated another way, we are selling ourselves short if we only think of HGSE as a place — a spot on a map — rather than as a group of dedicated, talented people sharing a mission to improve education. So even though we may be physically apart, let us not be socially distant.
And this is the time to think boldly and expansively. Education needs us — the field needs you.
Millions of children have been out of school for months, and early studies suggest the learning loss has been severe, especially for those with special needs. Add to that the fact that millions have gone without regular access to the food and health care provided by schools, without the safety of adult supervision and after-school programs, and without reliable internet connectivity or access to learning tools.
The effects of this will be felt for a generation. There will be no return to “normal” anytime soon. And I don’t know that returning to “normal” should ever be the goal. From our youngest pre-schoolers to our adult students, there are major gaps in opportunity, achievement, and success.
And globally, while there has been a great expansion in primary education, attending school is not a guarantee of learning, and hundreds of millions of children still cannot read or write. Does that sound like something to aspire to return to?
And this moment has underscored more than ever that so many have experienced exclusion, marginalization, and injustice simply because of the color of their skin or some other part of their identity. We need to do far better than what has been considered the status quo or “normal” in society.
So what is going to be your contribution — make that our contribution? What are we going to do together?
Even before this day, many of you were already making your mark by helping those around you. And the good news is that you are now part of an institution that has a long track-record of doing the unimaginable. You see, 2020 is HGSE’s Centennial, and when this pandemic hit, we were just at the beginning of kicking off a yearlong set of events to reflect on HGSE’s history. Just like we never could have imagined what would happen during 2020, anyone from our early years would be shocked at how HGSE has evolved and grown during the past 100 years.
In fact, for a time even our existence was questioned as universities began to close education schools. But HGSE advocated successfully for education to be recognized as a profession in its own right, to be a specialized body of knowledge. It was people here who pushed to be inside schools, to be connected to learners, educators, and communities — not just researchers sitting in the ivory tower.
It was people here who were courageous enough and bold enough to question the deeply-held assumption that only some students could learn. All means all. You are now part of a School that graduated the first woman from Harvard, had the first female dean in all of the Harvard schools, and is for the first time being led by a person of color, an African-American woman. These three facts alone should tell you there is something special about this School.
But HGSE’s Centennial is about much more than reflecting on our past. This has been a pivotal year to consider what we want to be in the future, and no one could have imagined the dramatic turn those conversations would take due to COVID-19. We have been at our best when we have focused on our central mission to improve education, and I bring up HGSE’s history now to encourage you as you look ahead. Know that anything is possible when a set of dedicated, talented people come together to pursue a common mission. The last several months have underscored just how essential education and schools are to society, and this is an especially critical time with a flurry of new ideas, new collaborations, and renewed calls for investing in education. What if this is a time like no other — when we imagine something new for our students, their families, and ourselves?
Closer to home, as you embark on your HGSE journey, let’s start by considering what hasn’t changed — the faculty, the students, and staff all working together and wrestling with important issues in education. But this year of remote learning also opens up new experiences and new opportunities not previously possible. We are no longer constrained by time and space. We can be much more flexible because we are not beholden to logistical constraints.
And perhaps most importantly for an education school with a mission to impact the world, we can now more actively engage with the world around us. You are embedded in communities around the world who need our support and who are also our partners in this work. Bring what you see into the classroom. Bring the problems of practice you are grappling with to your discussions. Let us work on them together. Let us share research and expertise but also the lessons learned across the many communities you inhabit. Together you represent a massive network of educators. And you join the 30,000 alumni of HGSE along with our many partners, collaborators, and fellow educators.
Remember, HGSE is much more than a spot on a map, and this year we get to live that fact.
So what will we do together? This is the question I want you to explore, starting today. None of us alone has all the answers, but we can work together, and with those in our many, many communities, we can chart a new course for education.
I want to close by again recognizing this special beginning and new adventure. Welcome to the HGSE community. Be assured, you belong as part of this community, and I look forward to learning what you bring with you. 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.