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“Did This Actually Happen?”

The prepared remarks of Commencement student speaker Carina Traub.

Hello Harvard Graduate School of Education class of 2021, families, friends, faculty, and staff. I hope you and your loved ones are celebrating today and cherishing this joyful occasion during a year that could definitely benefit from some joy. Congratulations on completing work that, for all of us at times, felt less real and immediate than the events happening around us. Completing graduate school during a global pandemic, the violence of white supremacy, and an attack on the U.S. Capitol certainly made it challenging to concentrate on weekly assignments. However, just as those challenges are real, so are the challenges that our students face. So we carry on, for our students, for our loved ones, and for ourselves. Today serves as an important reminder that our work at HGSE was real as well. Our classes were virtual, but our learning and our growth are actual. For a while now I have been grappling with a question that I imagine many of us share: “if I close this final Zoom, did my HGSE experience actually happen?” Our HGSE experiences were each different, as we have been learning to change the world from across the world, spanning time zones and a variety of different academic focuses. However, when it comes to answering my persistent question, I do believe that our experiences were real. I believe that our experience taught us bravery and grace, two tangible takeaways that surely transcend the category of “soft skills.”

When we log off the final time, we will still have the courage instilled in us from over a year of virtual existence. As education professionals, we experienced firsthand what some of our nervous students feel before speaking up. I would sit at my screen in class wondering whether or not to send someone a private message in Zoom. Do I put up the heart emoji after that last point? Am I coming on too strong? Our experience has motivated us to be a bit braver in our interactions. Sure, people added you on LinkedIn. But they also looked in, whether it was your desk, your bedroom, or your galactic virtual background, people were curiously and bravely starting conversations in search of connection across difference. For some, courage looked like speaking truth in rooms of immense power. For others, courage looked like asking someone eight time zones away to a previously impossible virtual happy hour. Our bravery will remain and we can use it to advocate for justice for our students and for our communities.

We are also graduating with an ability to offer ourselves and each other profound grace. When meetings are canceled at the last minute because of a classmate’s toddler’s bedtime taking longer than expected, we accept and we accommodate. When I ask for yet another extension, I tell myself that I am not alone in this brutal context. We forgave ourselves and each other, and learned the difference between what was real and what was artificial. When our students or colleagues in the future feel our sense of grace, they may not know where it came from, but their gratitude will be real. When I see the sun rise through my West Coast classmate’s window, suddenly my East Coast sleepiness feels inconsequential. But then I’m whisked into a breakout room with that same classmate, and they make a brilliant point about the ineffectiveness of random acts of improvement in schools, and I am so grateful that they are there. I smile, they smile, and we share a moment from two spaces, two coffee mugs, and one rising sun.

Many of our professors modeled that grace firsthand in our classes. Some of us joined Professor Monica Higgins as she taught us about entrepreneurship from her Lego room, and some of us baked cookies with Dr. V and her canine sous-chef Canela. Some of us experienced Professor Harouni’s thought-provoking theatricality and some of us found that there are, in fact, many ways to build a T550 duck with Professor Karen Brennan. Even if your classes were different from mine, you surely had experiences of professors extending kindness and making the intimidating Harvard Zoom classroom feel like a place where we belonged.

Honestly, if we could handle Harvard during a pandemic, we have some kind of unique skill set that has prepared us to tackle unforeseen challenges with that same bravery and grace that has carried us this year. I too, am tempted to be cynical (and quite often am) when it comes to virtual Harvard during a pandemic. How could I not be? However, on this day, I am extending myself grace and encouraging you to do so as well. On this day, I am choosing to be brave and look back at this accomplishment as real. So one last time, I pose my question: When we close this Zoom, will our HGSE experience have really happened? Close your eyes. Breathe. It was real this whole time. Thank you.