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Celebrating Our First Century and Launching Our Next

The prepared remarks of Dean Bridget Long for the Classes of 2020 and 2021 Celebration.
Bridget Long

Dean Long addresses the classes of 2020 and 2021

Photo: Jill Anderson

Good morning, everyone! As you may remember, my name is Bridget Terry Long, and I am just as proud now as I was in 2020 and 2021 to be the dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

Welcome graduates — or should I say, alumni, colleagues, family and friends. We are so pleased that we can now come together in person to mark the achievements of HGSE’s Classes of 2020 and 2021.What a distinctive — in fact, unique — moment for HGSE, for Harvard, and for all of you. Congratulations to you all!

I know many people have helped our 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 as a student, and as they did over the past two years. For that reason, I’d like to ask all of the graduates take a moment to thank those who helped you on this journey, whether they be here with you today or not.

I would also like to thank all of the staff who worked tirelessly during your time as students and especially hard to make graduation special for you. They deserve a huge round of applause. I would like to thank the faculty, who have served not only as teachers and colleagues but also as mentors and friends. 

This is such a special opportunity to recognize the achievements of HGSE’s Classes of 2020 and 2021, though I know not all of your classmates were able to make it. I hope many of them join us online, and we want to be sure to send them all of our joy, congratulations, and well wishes.  Let’s take a moment to recognize those who are not here. 

Let us also take a moment to recognize those who came before us in the space that we share today.  Let us all acknowledge that the land on which many of our homes, schools, and places of work sit are the ancestral lands of Indigenous peoples. The land we gather on today is the traditional territory of the Massachusett people.

Let us also recognize the enslaved individuals who helped to build Harvard University and other colleges and universities across this country.

We take a moment to honor those before us, understanding the role these souls and communities played in creating and funding educational institutions that were not intended to serve them and did not regard the dignity of their humanity. Acknowledging our history is an important step in combating the erasure of the important contributions, sacrifices, and stories of those before us, and it is a step towards ensuring a culture of awareness, respect, and accountability within our community.

In addition to acknowledging our past, we should also acknowledge the difficulties of our present. We are devastated by the loss of 19 elementary school students and 2 teachers in Uvalde, Texas. Innocent children about to finish their school year; 2nd, 3rd, and 4th graders experiencing the joy of childhood when their lives were cut short. And we lost two amazing teachers, Irma Garcia and Eva Mireles. They died doing the most noble thing I can imagine: protecting their students. Please take a moment to honor the victims.

In the wake of such a tragedy, I also urge us all to consider the cost of doing nothing. If our systems and laws truly valued all lives, then perhaps the 20 Sandy Hook first graders murdered on December 14, 2012, would be in high school right now and looking forward to their own graduations in a couple of years.

But even while we grieve today, we will also celebrate — knowing that you, graduates, are just what this world so desperately needs, and we want you to feel the joy and appreciation for all your hard work and all that you continue to do. So let’s applaud and laugh and celebrate together — for all that you have accomplished and the change we can bring about in the world together.

Unlike our previous commencement ceremonies, this event is a bit different because you are here not as graduates about to launch a new chapter — you are already living one.  You are already working in the world as teachers, researchers, policymakers, counselors, administrators, nonprofit leaders, entrepreneurs, learning designers, innovators, and philanthropists. And I want to thank you for that.  As I told the class of 2022 just a couple of days ago, being an educator — a title that encompasses all the roles I just listed and more — is an essential and sacred profession, and what you do is a gift to the world.

I also want to acknowledge your incredible resilience. Collectively, you have lived through what has been the most tumultuous time not only for education but for the entire world, and unfortunately, you had a front row seat as students and recent graduates. 

During the past couple of years, you weathered the storm of new COVID variants and continued turmoil in our society. No doubt, you have experienced disruptions to your best-laid plans and continually had to pivot, adjust, and reboot. But you’re still standing, and as we look ahead, your dedication and skills are exactly what is needed in this troubled world.

Remembering this Pivotal Time

Before considering the future, let’s take a moment to reflect. But this is not a story of your hardships; instead, it is a story of how you’ve found ways to thrive even in the face of many challenges. Back in early 2020, HGSE launched our year of Centennial celebrations, a time to celebrate 100 years of HGSE’s impact. HGSE advocated successfully for education to be recognized as a profession at a time when universities questioned whether education schools were necessary at all. It was people here who to 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, and our community has demonstrated in hundreds of ways how success is possible regardless of background, ability, or context.  And we have broadened views of intelligence and education to include social and emotional learning, moral development, and civic engagement.

And the class of 2020, you are our Centennial class. One hundred years after our founding, you so honorably represent what we have become: a vibrant community of dedicated, skillful, resilient, and ambitious people with the shared mission of improving the world through education. 

But lest you think the class of 2021 somehow missed out on an important distinction, we recognize that the class of 2021 so ably launched our next century in ways far more stunning than any of us could have imagined.

The story of HGSE has always been a story of pivotal decisions, of meeting challenges from within and without, and it is a story of tremendous growth and reinvention.  Your cohorts were the ones to both experience a major turning point for education — when we were forced to change what felt like everything we knew from the past but also how we came together to build an exciting new chapter that re-envisioned what learning could look like and how we would continue to function as a community even when physically distant from each other.

Let’s go back to spring 2020, a pivotal time that not only shaped the last few months for the class of 2020 but also the decisions made for the class of 2021. On Wednesday, March 4th, the University prohibited travel to countries with a Level 3 Warning, including China, Iran, Italy, and South Korea.

Two days later, on Friday, March 6th, the University prohibited international travel and non-essential domestic air travel and announced that we should begin preparing our devices to work from home and to practice using Zoom.

By Monday, March 9th, we were forced to announce: “The rapidly evolving outbreak of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has made it necessary for us to consider online approaches to teaching our courses, providing supports, and holding meetings… [W]e are asking faculty members to begin planning now for steps that would be required to move course instruction online.”
And then on Tuesday, March 10th, President Bacow announced that all course instruction would be moved online after spring break, on March 23rd.

The timeline I just reviewed is less than one week — oh, how quickly things changed. And so I wrote the community: “I want to recognize that many of us are experiencing difficult emotions and complicated decisions related to these developments. That is to be expected, and we must continue to support one another with patience and empathy... And if you are struggling, know that our commitment to supporting you does not diminish even as we shift our methods of engagement. To be sure, this is not the way any of us expected this semester to unfold. Still, I am heartened by the ways our community has already shown resilience, thoughtfulness, and caring, and I am confident we will thrive in the next phase of our response.”

And now, over two years later, and I am still filled with pride in what this community did and the kindness we showed to each other.  There is no other place I would have wanted to be.

Launching a New Future

We made a commitment — to pivot, to learn, to go on. And we made that commitment for the following year, too, as we quickly recognized that this pandemic was not going to be short-lived. As many people have told me, the proactive decision to be remote for all of the 2020-21 school year helped us greatly. As one faculty put it, it “saved all of us from spending untold hours futzing around with cockamamie schemes and instead focused everyone on preparing for the fall.”

Yes, it was a time of learning — for us all. From those who are more seasoned to those just beginning. And we knew this would not simply be putting recorded lectures online. No, our vision for online learning emphasized the principles of active learning, connection by design, being inclusive and global, and supporting personalized experiences. See, the interesting thing is that all the best learning experiences have those tenets, and so we quickly came to realize that in building the future, we could take with us so many lessons from the past.

And you, the classes of 2020 and 2021, were right along with us. And we learned so much from you as we honed our craft using a distinct new medium. We got to know each other in different ways — meeting up from our bedrooms, basements, kitchens, and even closets. And we met many, many pets, along with the addition of children and partners in our classrooms from time to time.   

Though I know that the technology did not always go smoothly, I hope you at least avoided some of the Zoom mishaps that went viral during that time. Like the Texas lawyer who couldn’t figure out how to remove a cat filter during court proceedings.  And the woman who went to the bathroom and took her laptop with her but forgot to turn off the video. I hope you were spared of those embarrassments, but we all certainly laughed together as we learned how to change our backgrounds, navigate breakout rooms, and tried to avoid being told, “I think you’re muted.”

But on a more serious note, as we pivoted to Zoom, we were given new perspective on each other’s lives. We got to see each person’s corner of the world, and we not only learned — together we experienced the crazy first 14 months of the global pandemic.

Education is about connection, something I emphasized to the class of 2022 just a couple of days ago. And surely the last two years have taught us not to take human connection for granted, though connection or the lack thereof is not a matter of whether you are face to face or online. It’s about being deliberate. As one faculty member wrote me last spring: “[I]t was a tough year, a crucible in many ways, but the silver lining for me was getting to work with such devoted colleagues and students. It was inspiring to see how people pushed and pulled through this time.

I want to thank the entire HGSE community — faculty, staff, and students — who were committed, brave, and creative in finding ways to pivot to remote education in humanizing ways that prioritized building connection. Your contributions were so impressive that we did not give the 2021 Morningstar Family Teaching Award to one person — we gave it to the entire HGSE faculty and the member of the Teaching and Learning Lab. Thank you again.

Resilience is a Muscle

So now, fast forward to the present: what do we take away from these experiences?

I would suggest that the first thing we learned is resilience is a muscle — something you cultivate and grow through the trials and tribulations of your life.  And you, graduates, are incredibly strong. Just the fact that you have made it to this day demonstrates your resilience, and I commend each and every member of this community for their perseverance.

But on this day, as I said to the class of 2021 last year, let us also recognize the journey. As Maya Angelou once wrote, “We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.”  

It’s funny, because the things I used to think were hard, no longer scare me. Consider this for yourself.  Perhaps it was an assignment — writing a paper, doing a presentation, or learning a new skill — that would fill you with trepidation.  But now, given the difficulties we’ve all had to navigate, so much of what we worry about has changed.  

Really, if anyone had told us that two years into this pandemic we’d still be calculating whether to wear a mask and taking COVID antigen tests, I don’t think we would have believed them. We all are now working from a different baseline of what is possible, but I hope that is not just in the negative sense. 

Reflect on what you’ve accomplished as students and as professionals during an incredibly difficult time. Recognize in yourself the growth and perseverance you exhibited, even in the face of considerable challenge and uncertainty. You not only survived this tough time, you thrived, as is evident in the fact that you are here as graduates.

Learning from Our Vulnerability

The second lesson I’ve been struck by is something I hope you will carry forward. It is something I mentioned in my address last year, but I have continued to ruminate on it in recent months.  This lesson stems from the observation that the past couple of years have been a unique time when everyone around the world has been experiencing something in common. No, we were certainly not all in the same boat during this storm, but I think we all got a glimpse of something scary and unknown and uncontrollable.

What I urge you to do is to learn from this period of vulnerability.  Remember this time of challenge and uncertainty not just as a time during which you persevered but also as a time when you likely struggled and stumbled. This has been a period of time when we have all learned about things we could not control: the early days of uncertainty when it was hard to get reliable information; a lockdown with no end date in sight; and the torture of not knowing the next time we’d be able to see loved ones.

Even as most of us are enjoying many elements of a quasi post-COVID world, realize that the heightened sense of vulnerability you felt over the last year will continue for many we seek to support — including children and families locked in poverty. More than 4 in 10 children live in a household struggling to meet basic expenses. Worldwide, the numbers are even higher with one out of five children living in extreme poverty.  And those numbers are outdated as we wait to learn the full extent of what havoc COVID wreaked on the world.

These students and their families are carrying an extra burden as they face the multiple ways in which poverty causes harm — from food insecurity to lack of health care and threats to safety and stability. Consider how this vulnerability affects learning and well-being. It affected many of you during your journeys as students, and perhaps this is not the first time.  Frankly, I am in awe of all that members of this community have overcome during their lifetimes to make it to graduation.   

And so I hope that we all come out of this time with new awareness and compassion for the stress, strain, and uncertainty that dominates the lives of too many. And perhaps, we will also go forth with a bit of humility after stumbling ourselves through the challenges of the last couple of years. Education is a road out of poverty, but we must apply our practices and design our systems fully aware of the challenges vulnerable students and families face if we are going to create real opportunities and enable progress.

You Have So Much to Contribute

A third thing we learned is just how much you, graduates, have to contribute. 

In my earlier Commencement address to the Class of 2020, I urged you to be more than just spectators during this time in history and to “tap into your innovative and entrepreneurial spirits” given “your contributions could not be needed more.”  I highlighted the challenges so many learners were facing and encouraged you to join the many others who are already working tirelessly to confront those obstacles.  

And I know so many of you have done exactly that. The class of 2020 served as the inaugural cohort of Dean’s Education Fellows with the class of 2021 adding to the impressive work done by recent HGSE graduates.  You were placed in districts across the country, from Boston and Cambridge to Chicago, San Antonio, Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta, and more. From aiding the districts in reopening planning and curriculum design to teacher professionalization and family engagement, you applied what you had learned at HGSE — in places where your help was needed most.

And I know it was more than just the Dean’s Education Fellows. I heard from students around the world about how they threw themselves into addressing the problems facing education systems. I’m so glad you took to heart a quote at shared during my 2020 Commencement address: "Life itself is controlled chaos and success depends on navigating it, rather than waiting for things to be perfect.”

Even under the most imperfect conditions, you contributed. Some of you are using this opportunity to invent new things, try out new ideas, and make reforms that have long been needed.  Please always keep this in mind, even the challenges seem insurmountable, there are things you can do to help.


And so, looking to the future, I encourage you to carry forward lessons learned about your own resilience and compassion for the vulnerable as well as recognition for all you have to contribute.

I want you to reflect on how much you have already contributed — and how much you can continue to grow, to serve a world that truly needs you.

As we look ahead, I would urge one thing: don’t just run back to what existed before COVID. “If we go back to the ways things were, we will have lost the lesson.” My sincere hope is that “we rise up and do better.” While COVID brought uncertainty, disappointment, and sadness, it has also been a time of immense learning. We were forced to re-imagine what the system could be, prompting an amazing range of new questions, hypotheses, and insights. Let this be a time in which we build on the incredible urgency but also aspirations for what is possible for all learners.  

Embrace your roles as educators in whatever form that takes. We are an important backbone for our communities, leaders pushing to help learners of all ages reach their potential. We are inventors, analysts, writers, coaches, and artists who use ingenuity, creativity, and collaboration to create new experiences and discover new ways of advancing learning.  We support the vulnerable and help the powerless find their voice, and we foster learning between those who might look differently, speak differently, and worship differently but who nonetheless find commonality in a myriad of ways perhaps not obvious to the eye. And we press the world to confront uncomfortable histories and radical ideas with the goal of not repeating the past and instead expanding horizons to create “men and women who are capable of doing new things,” as Piaget wrote about the goal of education.

We are entering a period of recovery, when students of all ages need our best, as do our education colleagues and partners spread throughout the world.

After this weekend of events conclude, and you go back to your corner of the world, I send you with the full support of this community.  Remember, HGSE is much, much more than just a spot on a map. Rather, we are 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.

You will always be a part of the HGSE family. You are among HGSE’s 30,000 alumni and will be lifelong members of a community like no other.  May you always stay connected and find HGSE a source of inspiration, supports, and collaborators.

Classes of 2020 and 2021, you are especially meaningful to us.  We grew together during such an incredible time, and you represent both the end of our first century and the exciting new possibilities of the next.  So let’s see what we can do to improve education and our world – together.

Good luck, and congratulations again! Let’s applaud the classes of 2020 and 2021 of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.