CAMBRIDGE — In the 17th and 18th centuries, graduating Harvard University students would be tested on their field of study during the commencement ceremony, defending their eligibility to receive a degree. But on Thursday morning in Harvard Yard, the school’s 372nd commencement ceremony was free of any anxiety-riddled assessments.
Instead, the air was full of excitement, joy, congratulations, and exclamation of “We did it!” And — besides the momentous occasion — there was another undeniable reason why: commencement speaker, actor, and filmmaker Tom Hanks.
“I’m excited to see Forrest Gump,” said Daniel Arias, a PhD graduate in population health sciences.
Arias was one of the 9,100 graduates at the ceremony where Hanks delivered an address full of movie references, jokes, and serious moments, urging students as they go out into the future not only to use the tools and education they received to contribute to the world but also to be kind and polite to others.
“When your food is brought to you, would you thank the server, because if you don’t, who will? Would you pick up the litter that has missed the recycling bin, because if you don’t, who will?” Hanks asked the crowd.
The actor encouraged students to take action and responsibility as they go out into a world full of malevolence as “we could all use a superhero right now.”
“We all have special powers and abilities that are beyond the reach of other mortals,” Hanks said. “We’d like to look up in the sky, and see not a bird, not a plane, but someone who is young and strong who will fight a never-ending battle for truth, for justice, and for the American way.”
His message of how all of us are human stuck with Flora Jiaxuan Xu, who graduated with a master’s in public health.
“We are all human, but the definition of being human is multilayered and different,” Xu said. “We all have our own strengths, and we all have our own skills.”
Xu said she feels that graduating has given her the tools to be able to help others.
“I feel like it’s been a long journey, but the years here are worth it,” Xu said. “I don’t come from a biology background, but entering the world of public health definitely makes it a special time knowing the contributions I can make to the world.”
That same hopeful optimism was palpable across campus as students flitted around campus with red Harvard flags, streamers, and props relating to their field of study; law students carried gavels, education students held children’s books, and dentistry grads collectively carried a large toothbrush.
“It’s sort of like running a marathon for four years, and someone says you can finally stop,” Arias said. “It’s all finally catching up with me.”
Jasmine Norris, who received a master’s degree in public health, said it was amazing to see how many students were graduating and that the energy from her fellow peers during the event made her feel as if she was “part of a huge movement.”
“You just don’t know how many people are a part of the university until commencement ceremony, so it’s really cool to see everyone,” Norris said.
Norris said she felt blessed to be able to graduate and receive an education from Harvard “in a time where there’s a great need for academics, researchers, and workers.”
Though symbols of Harvard’s long history are still apparent in the ringing gong of the bell signaling the ceremony’s end and in the crowd dressed in robes, the student population looks nothing like it did hundreds of years ago.
“There’s so much representation, not just in the schools we have here, but the people as well,” said Arias, who is Latino and gay. “Folks like me wouldn’t have been allowed to attend Harvard years ago, so I think it’s wonderful that I can wear these robes today.”
Ashley Soebroto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ashsoebroto.