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‘You don’t have to be rich to be a humanitarian,’ says Rihanna at Harvard

Rihanna with Harvard Foundation director Allen Counter at Sanders Theatre.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

Harvard, of course, is no stranger to high-profile visitors.

In the past two years alone, celebrities from Ryan Reynolds to Octavia Spencer to Joseph Gordon-Levitt have appeared for various engagements — and as first-year Harvard Law student Thomas Bullock pointed out, the school recently received a visit from former Supreme Court Justice nominee Merrick Garland.

But Tuesday’s guest, the 24-year-old St. Louis native insisted, was different.

“It’s Rihanna,” he explained, when asked what had prompted him to wait two hours in line for seats. “I think for anybody on this floor, that’s probably going to be the explanation.”

The Grammy Award-winning artist — whose full name is Robyn Rihanna Fenty — was in town Tuesday to receive the college’s 2017 Humanitarian of the Year award.


And not surprisingly, her presence created something of a stir on campus.

By 7 a.m., students were already lining up to ensure they’d get tickets when they became available at noon. And as the day’s 4 p.m. ceremony approached, the line to get into Sanders Theatre stretched well down the block.

Even the college’s dean, Rakesh Khurana, proved a bit starstruck in the company of the singer, admitting during a brief introduction that, “I’m just like, ‘Whoaaaaa!”

(A few minutes later, when he received a kiss on the cheek from Rihanna, who just notched her 30th Top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, he smiled sheepishly as the crowd erupted into cheers.)

The point of the festivities, though, was to honor the performer’s humanitarian work, a lengthy resume oftentimes overshadowed by her success in the music industry.

At just 18, she founded the Believe Foundation, which provided support to terminally ill children.

And since then, she hasn’t much slowed down.

Her Clara Lionel Foundation — named for her grandparents — tackles a range of causes, from education to health and emergency response programs. And her work with the Global Partnership for Education and Global Citizen Project helped convince Canada to pledge $20 million to the Education Cannot Wait fund.


Following a collection of introductory student remarks Tuesday afternoon — some of which featured the requisite plays on the artist’s lyrics — the award recipient finally took center stage.

In thanking the university, she spoke about family, and her grandmother’s losing battle with cancer. She spoke of her upbringing in Barbados, and her childhood dreams of saving the world, one 25-cent donation at a time.

Mostly, she urged students to do their part, to make a commitment to help just one person.

“People make it seem way too hard, man,” she said. “You don’t have to be rich to be a humanitarian. You don’t have to be rich to help someone, you don’t have to be famous, you don’t even have to be college educated.

“My grandma always used to say if you’ve got a dollar, there’s plenty to share.”

Dugan Arnett can be reached at dugan.arnett@globe.com