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Commencement

“Stay in Your Cocoon!”

5.28.20

Conan O'Brien
Screenshot by Harvard Magazine


Conan O'Brien
Screenshot by Harvard Magazine

It was inevitable that the Harvard College “Celebration of the Class of 2020” would be unlike any other Class Day in Harvard’s history. Instead of spreading out in Harvard Yard, College graduates would spread out at home on couches and beds, watching pre-recorded YouTube livestreams. 

This was often joked about during the ceremony. Program marshal Maureen Tang ’20 commended Conan O’Brien ’85 for being “Harvard’s first-ever virtual graduation speaker.” O’Brien, first seen wearing shorts and a T-shirt, slid into a graduation robe moments before delivering his speech. He was greeted by edited-in fanfare—applause from past ceremonies, cannon fire, and a military flyover. 

 

Conan O'Brien
Screenshots by Harvard Magazine

He proved a well-chosen speaker for the moment. Already experienced at graduations—he spoke at Class Day in 2000, and served as Dartmouth’s commencement speaker in 2011—he’s recently become well acquainted with audience-less monologues. 

He began by recalling advice he’d given the class at that previous Harvard ceremony. “Twenty years ago I told the graduating Harvard students to break out of their cocoons and take chances,” he said. “Well, 20 years later, I would like to amend that slightly and say, ‘Stay in your cocoon! Stay! The cocoon. Stay in it! I had no idea about the virus!’” 

He also promised that, despite the extenuating circumstances, there were some Commencement traditions the University would maintain. “In fact,” he said, “right now, Harvard is charging each of you $50 for parking in Cambridge.” 

But in the 10-minute speech, O’Brien turned to a tone of admiration, settling on a theme of resilience—and drawing parallels between today’s generation and “The Greatest Generation.” Graduating seniors, he said, have always been more resilient than they’ve been given credit for:

I’m honestly stunned by what you’ve endured in your short lives. For my Harvard class, 9/11 came in midlife. But I was thinking about it—you came into consciousness while our nation was still smoldering from that attack and you’ve only known a world beset by terrorist hate. You’ve grown up with mass shootings and school lockdowns—horrors completely absent from my childhood. You have now witnessed two economic meltdowns of stunning proportions. You are actually living in a hotter, and more treacherous, biosphere than the one I was born into. 

“As the father of two teenage children,” O’Brien said, “I look at what you’ve achieved in a frightful world and it gives me great hope. You are remarkable examples to my children of how to be smart, brave, and yes, resilient, in a scary world”: 

Today’s unusual because at this Commencement, you commence nothing. You and your uniquely tested peers—your generation commenced long ago, while the rest of us were busy complaining about The Sopranos finale. I have nothing to give you that you don’t already have, and have had for a very long time. What I can offer is my boundless admiration, my deepest respect, my gratitude for working so hard and bringing such honor to your families, your faculty, and your alumni. 

This resilience revealed itself in other aspects of the ceremony. For its opening five-minute video montage, neuroscience concentrator Terzah Hill ’20 had to sort through 1,021 videos sent by her classmates as she finished her final semester. The compilation, packed with clips of athletic performances, dancing, concerts, and residential life, was a nice tribute, even without live cheers from attendees. Hill’s other video featured faculty deans of Harvard’s 12 undergraduate Houses in everyday clothes making split-second transformations into festive graduation garb—a nod to the video-sharing app TikTok. 



Screenshots by Harvard Magazine

“While every class can say they got the classic pomp and circumstance of a normal graduation, we can say we got a faculty dean TikTok, a hype video, and Conan O’Brien ’85,” said program marshal Angelina Ye ’20. “All while being able to avoid the blistering May heat.”

College dean Rakesh Khurana, also alluding to the unusual circumstances, expressed his sadness for all the losses that students and their families have experienced, while emphasizing the University’s history of service in the nation’s most urgent times. Referencing Harvard’s contributions to the abolition movement and its student and alumni sacrifices in times of war, he urged graduates to forge ahead in times of duress. “This is a hard moment, but this is your moment,” he said. “I hope that during this challenging moment when it’s often easier to articulate what we are against than what we are for, [that] you will be inspired to step up—to decide what you stand for and do something about it.”  

Although the event resembled Class Day, the graduating students were quick to remind their audience that they were aiming for a real, in-person Class Day sometime soon. “As the class committee, it is our promise to continue working with the administration and organizers to make this time we dreamed of since Harvard become a reality,” said First Marshal Eric Cheng ’20. “And luckily, we will not have to depend on laptops, screens, and Zoom to connect next time.” 

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The author (right) sitting with blockmates Mike Shirek (left) and Ernie Omondi (center) as they watched virtual Commencement

Photograph courtesy of Caroline Englemayer

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You Might Also Like:

Photo of the author sitting with two friends, all in masks, in the Radcliffe Quadrangle as they watched virtual Commencement

The author (right) sitting with blockmates Mike Shirek (left) and Ernie Omondi (center) as they watched virtual Commencement

Photograph courtesy of Caroline Englemayer

The Man in the Top Hat

Photograph of Jenny Odell

Jenny Odell
Screenshot by Harvard Magazine

Harvard Graduate School of Design Class Day speaker Jenny Odell

Robert Satcher
Screenshot by Harvard Magazine

“To Heal and to Help”