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Commencement and Reunion Guide

The Essence of Commencement

A photographer captures three decades of graduation moments and emotions.

May-June 2011

College seniors celebrate as their degrees are conferred (here, in June 1998—but the emotions are timeless).

College seniors celebrate as their degrees are conferred (here, in June 1998—but the emotions are timeless).

Photograph by Jim Harrison

 Eliot House roommates Rulonna Neilson of Salt Lake City, Alexandra Brown of Los Angeles, and Gouita Bozorgi of Lake Forest, Illinois (1991)

Eliot House roommates Rulonna Neilson of Salt Lake City, Alexandra Brown of Los Angeles, and Gouita Bozorgi of Lake Forest, Illinois (1991)

Photograph by Jim Harrison

President Derek Bok and honorand Jacques-Yves Cousteau observe West Germany’s chancellor, honorand Helmut Schmidt, pause for a pinch of snuff (1979).

President Derek Bok and honorand Jacques-Yves Cousteau observe West Germany’s chancellor, honorand Helmut Schmidt, pause for a pinch of snuff (1979).

Photograph by Jim Harrison

Junichi Hayami traveled all the way from Kyoto, Japan, to see Naomi Fukumori ’91, of Lowell House and Hastings, Nebraska, graduate.

Junichi Hayami traveled all the way from Kyoto, Japan, to see Naomi Fukumori ’91, of Lowell House and Hastings, Nebraska, graduate.

Photograph by Jim Harrison

Professor John Kenneth Galbraith and his wife, Catherine (Atwater) Galbraith (1991)

Professor John Kenneth Galbraith and his wife, Catherine (Atwater) Galbraith (1991)

Photograph by Jim Harrison

Honorand Stephen Hawking (1990)

Honorand Stephen Hawking (1990)

Photograph by Jim Harrison

Carrot-top Ana Vollmar ’08, of the Dudley House Co-op and Hamden, Connecticut

Carrot-top Ana Vollmar ’08, of the Dudley House Co-op and Hamden, Connecticut

Photograph by Jim Harrison

Olympic swimmer David Berkoff ’88, of Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, in his merman wig

Olympic swimmer David Berkoff ’88, of Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, in his merman wig

Photograph by Jim Harrison

A contemplative Richard Busby, M.B.A. ’92, of Scarsdale, New York

A contemplative Richard Busby, M.B.A. ’92, of Scarsdale, New York

Photograph by Jim Harrison

Exuberant M.B.A.s wave the flags of many nations.

Exuberant M.B.A.s wave the flags of many nations.

Photograph by Jim Harrison

After delivering the Commencement afternoon address, retiring President Bok is hugged by president-elect Neil Rudenstine (1991).

After delivering the Commencement afternoon address, retiring President Bok is hugged by president-elect Neil Rudenstine (1991).

Photograph by Jim Harrison

Maria V. Mavroudi, Ph.D. ’98, of Berkeley, California, caps her son George.

Maria V. Mavroudi, Ph.D. ’98, of Berkeley, California, caps her son George.

Photograph by Jim Harrison

There are always flowers at Commencement. This bouquet was delivered in 1984.

There are always flowers at Commencement. This bouquet was delivered in 1984.

Photograph by Jim Harrison

The Harvard Band helps ensure that there is always music at Commencement as well.

The Harvard Band helps ensure that there is always music at Commencement as well.

Photograph by Jim Harrison

Standing on a chair, Mark D’Andrea ’97 of Winthrop House and Reston, Virginia, makes a beatific gesture.

Standing on a chair, Mark D’Andrea ’97 of Winthrop House and Reston, Virginia, makes a beatific gesture.

Photograph by Jim Harrison

High spirits can overcome even a late spring shower (2004).

High spirits can overcome even a late spring shower (2004).

Photograph by Jim Harrison

Accessories add to the fun for participants and audience alike (2005).

Accessories add to the fun for participants and audience alike (2005).

Photograph by Jim Harrison

Making his debut as Commencement caller in 2006, McKay professor of mechanical engineering and Lawrence professor of engineering Frederick Abernathy announced to those assembling in the Old Yard, “My responsibility is to engineer with dignity your orderly march into Tercentenary Theatre.”

Making his debut as Commencement caller in 2006, McKay professor of mechanical engineering and Lawrence professor of engineering Frederick Abernathy announced to those assembling in the Old Yard, “My responsibility is to engineer with dignity your orderly march into Tercentenary Theatre.”

Photograph by Jim Harrison

Seniors lining the Yard walkways applaud the dignitaries, professors, and alumni and alumnae who precede them into Tercentenary Theatre (1996).

Seniors lining the Yard walkways applaud the dignitaries, professors, and alumni and alumnae who precede them into Tercentenary Theatre (1996).

Photograph by Jim Harrison

Memorial Church overflows with seniors on Commencement morning. Standing in the balcony in 1996 was Michael Preston of Lowell House and Madison, New Jersey.

Memorial Church overflows with seniors on Commencement morning. Standing in the balcony in 1996 was Michael Preston of Lowell House and Madison, New Jersey.

Photograph by Jim Harrison

Members of the class of 1948 tip their straw hats in a show of fiftieth-reunion pride.

Members of the class of 1948 tip their straw hats in a show of fiftieth-reunion pride.

Photograph by Jim Harrison

Graduation morning unfolds with moments that range from solemnity to frivolity. From every direction, seniors enter the Yard with their House-mates, some marching to the mournful sounds of bagpipes, others dancing in step to the staccato beat of a ragtime combo. After the requisite photos of the honorands are taken, the faculty members begin their slow parade through the rows of imminent graduates lining the walkways. During the exercises, the assembly clutch their programs in an effort to follow the Latin oration and laugh in all the right places, while the student speakers inspire with the sincerity of their rhetoric. In the end, the band plays, the “Harvard Hymn” is sung, and everyone marches off to respective futures (or just to lunch).

Yet beyond all the tradition, costumes, and kinetic energy of the proceedings, what has most impressed me in the 31 years I have photographed this annual rite of passage are the more than 30,000 people who attend—the wonderful tapestry of faces and emotions all gathered together for a short time in this small quadrangle, sharing a bond to Harvard—and to each other.

For despite the very public nature of Commencement, and its seemingly overwhelming scope, it is the countless private, personal moments—three young friends hugging each other and crying; a relative beaming with pride, his camera at the ready; a University president showing his surprise as a head of state breaks for a pinch of snuff—that photographs express so well. And it is these moments that give this centuries-old rite its freshness: they cut through both the momentousness and the levity to reveal the very human meaning of it all.