Dear Harvard College Students,
Over the past few days, I have been excited to see many of you return to campus, reconnect with your friends and settle in for what promises to be a robust and eventful spring term. I hope that all of you enjoyed a restful and restorative winter break – and that you have returned ready to tackle the opportunities and challenges ahead of us.
I spent much of the break reading. I read some great books, but I was particularly inspired by the entries from the Harvard College Alumni Class Reports that I read as I prepared to lead a reflection session for the Freshmen Enrichment Program. Prior to each class reunion, Harvard alumni send updates about what has been happening in their lives. Harvard reunions are held every five years, so I was able to read Class Reports beginning with the Class of 2011 all the way back to the Class of 1951.
Many of these reports were inspiring and funny. Some recounted great adventures, like the one from the radio operator who sailed the high seas with an environmental group. Of course, there were also some reports of impressive achievements that would earn high scores on what one alum sarcastically called the “Alumni Success Scale.” But I found myself much more interested in those that chronicled both the highs and the lows. Some brought tears to my eyes – a reminder that no level of accomplishment can inoculate us from the difficult moments in life such as divorce, illness, pain, and loss.
Some of the most poignant reports came from those who were writing from the vantage point of later life. Those who seemed most content told stories of attachment – to people, to vocations, to hobbies. There was the alum who reconnected with his elderly father after his mother’s passing. And there was the fortysomething alum who had no prior musical experience but took up playing bluegrass music on the banjo as a hobby. There were stories from those who found genuine happiness after making a life change, like the alum who moved from a major metropolis to an island in the South Pacific. Others chronicled their work helping vulnerable children and adults, or advocating for our planet. I was particularly inspired by stories from alumni who were not chasing success, but rather trying to do the right thing in difficult circumstances—and investing in lasting relationships with family and friends.
I am so grateful to these alumni for sharing their stories and for reminding me that this is not a time to shrink inward but stretch outward. These past few months have been unsettling at times for many of us at Harvard College, myself included. The future feels less determined and more uncertain. As we greet the new semester, I hope we will take time to embrace those things that our alumni tell us have most contributed to their sense of well-being and happiness – authentic relationships, genuine interest in your work, the courage to be resilient when the inevitable difficulties of lives confront us, and the resolve to help others when they are experiencing these difficulties.