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Commencement and Reunion Guide

Stellar Seniors

A glimpse of four imminent alumni

May-June 2006

Each year, Harvard College grants degrees to some 1,600 students, each of whom possesses gifts and abilities that count in the wider world. The following profiles offer merely a sample of this year’s seniors, who—in the words of classmate Kwame Omusu-Kesse—bear “a responsibility to leverage the resources we have to help others.”

 

Aoife Spillane-Hinks

One evening, when Aoife (“EE-fah”; “Eve” in Gaelic) Spillane-Hinks was three years old, her mother, the writer and drama critic Margaret Spillane, found herself with a play to review and no babysitter. Afraid of what a small child might do in a dark theater, she briefed her daughter on audience etiquette. The lesson was unnecessary. “I left the room and I came back…in this long black dress,” Spillane-Hinks says. “After that, she didn’t get babysitters anymore.”

Aoife Spillane-Hinks has spent many creative hours at the Loeb Drama Center.
Photograph by Stu Rosner

The New Haven native remains entranced by theater and has pursued it from both sides of the curtain. She first performed at age four and has directed plays since high school. By the time she graduates in June, she will have worked on more than 15 productions at Harvard. “It was very clear that the kinds of opportunities here were very different from the ones at other schools—that, in some way, we were treated not as college kids with their drama club, but as actors who deserved tools, resources, and support,” she says. Although her theatrical education extends far beyond the College (she’s studied with the Atlantic Theater Company and is a six-year veteran of theater “boot-camps” in Michigan and at Northwestern), she raves about the teaching at Harvard—especially from Deborah Foster, head tutor in folklore and myth-ology and an assistant dean of the College, and Marcus Stern, who is assistant director at the American Repertory Theatre. Stern’s conception of theater as art growing from self-control has especially influ-enced her, she explains: “He sees theater as a disciplined process.”

Commencement & Reunion Guide 2006

• Stellar Seniors
Oh, Happy Day
• “Lots of Reasonable 99¢ Lunches
Commencement Calendar
A Special Notice Regarding Commencement Exercises
From Science to Song

Before coming to Harvard, Spillane-Hinks was also interested in her ancestral culture and language; she traveled to Ireland throughout her childhood and is fluent in Gaelic, the language still spoken in western regions of that country. Only in college, though, did she realize how germane the interest was to her lifelong passion for theater. “I took this course on Gaelic poetry, and I started to see the various lines that were connecting politics and gender and culture and, most importantly perhaps, performance,” she explains. This growing interest in the point where theater and Irish culture meet led her to a joint focus in folklore and mythology and “special concentrations.” Her senior thesis examines how the Irish playwright John Millington Synge used ethnographic material in his work. Even this project has not been strictly academic: this spring, she directed Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World on the Loeb Mainstage, the most prestigious (and public) venue in undergraduate theater.

After graduation, Spillane-Hinks plans to move to Galway, to study dramaturgy, directing, and playwriting in the classroom while conducting independent research on the longevity of Irish-language theater in both urban and rural areas (like the neighboring Connemara region). Although unconventional, her path—wherever it may lead—is no exception in Harvard’s drama community, she explains. “Probably at least half of my actors are expecting to be actors when they graduate,” she says. “People are willing to take your project so much more seriously when they look at this as their life’s work.”       

        ~Nathan Heller

 

 

Kwame Owusu-Kesse

As he prepared for student life at Harvard, Kwame Owusu-Kesse didn’t think about having to do his own laundry or clean his room. The son of a single parent and first-generation immigrant from Ghana, he’d been doing those things since grade school. His mother, a housekeeper at a hospital near their home in Worcester, Massachusetts, often worked double shifts, which meant that he and his two sisters had to fend for themselves. “It was always a struggle,” he says, “but I developed a sense of independence and responsibility at a very young age.”

Activist and mentor Kwame Owusu-Kesse stands beside a community mural in Boston.
Photograph by Stu Rosner

Recognizing that education was a way to better his family’s situation, he zeroed in on his schoolwork. He won a scholarship to St. John’s, a rigorous high school near his home, and from there a place at Harvard. Heading into his freshman year, however, he did worry that he might not be able to relate to classmates: “I knew the general stereotype of ‘Harvard students coming from privileged backgrounds’ and thought I’d be surrounded by people who wouldn’t understand my situation, or wouldn’t be able to form relationships with me,” he explains. “But I was completely wrong. I was able to find a number of people I could connect with, almost immediately, all from different backgrounds.”

Early that fall, he attended meetings of the Harvard Black Men’s Forum (BMF): the student group gave him a network of accomplished male role models who were also minorities. During his sophomore year, Owusu-Kesse organized a “brother to brother program” that formalized the relationships he’d found so helpful by pairing older BMF members with younger members based on their interests. He later expanded the mentorship idea into a community-service program that took BMF members into Cambridge middle-school classrooms to discuss life skills and African-American history. Community service felt important, he says, “because I recognized that I didn’t get here by myself. Opportunities were presented to me, and I knew when to capitalize on them.”

Elected BMF’s president during his junior year, Owusu-Kesse instituted a seven-hour community-service requirement for members. In April 2005, he helped organize a youth event targeting high-school and college students, the United Against AIDS Summit. The two-day conference took place at Harvard and MIT and boasted a high-profile advisory board including DuBois professor of the humanities Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Bishop Desmond Tutu. At night, close to 700 participants were treated to a gala and benefit concert by hip-hop stars Lloyd Banks and Fabolos; by day, they attended panel discussions focused on “how issues of AIDS will affect us,” Owuse-Kesse says. “[The conference] brought up things like racism, sexism, and the tensions between capitalism and moral worth.” A second summit is in the works for next year.

An economics concentrator, Owusu-Kesse also played four years of junior-varsity basketball and performs with two student ensembles: a hip-hop group called The League, and a dance troupe, Expressions. He was elected a senior class marshal, and plans to work on Wall Street next year, to further his lifelong goal of taking care of his family. Ultimately, he wants to integrate a career in business with public service. “Being at Harvard—irrespective of our backgrounds—means we are now privileged,” he says. “I truly believe that we have a responsibility to leverage the resources we have to help others.”             

~Elizabeth S. Widdicombe

 

 

Emily Riehl

Emily Riehl is used to going against the grain. On the high-school math-competition circuit, the Bloomington, Pennsylvania, native found that wherever she went, strangers seemed to recognize her. “I was the one blonde girl and there were hundreds of guys,” she recalls. “I didn’t remember them, but they remembered me.” At Harvard, Riehl plunged into the math program, enrolling in Math 55, a challenging introductory class, in her freshman year. Since then, she has completed all the core undergraduate courses and worked as a teaching fellow for seven classes. But at Harvard, Riehl insists, being one of only a handful of female math concentrators is “not a big deal.” It’s her sport, more often, that turns heads.

Math standout Emily Riehl delights in numbers.
Photograph by Stu Rosner

“When you tell people you play rugby, they just don’t know what you’re talking about,” Riehl reports. A former cross-country runner, she signed up for women’s rugby on a whim. It turned out to be a perfect fit, became the game has a heavy strategic element. “A lot of decisions on the field come from knowing what your strengths are,” she explains. Riehl plays scrum half, a middle position responsible for coordinating plays, and served as the team’s president during her sophomore and junior years, which, for a club organization, meant scheduling games and transportation.

Though she has never had a female math professor, Riehl says she hopes to become one someday. There are plenty of mentors, like Dean Benedict Gross, who asked her to assist with two of his classes this semester, including Math 129, “Topics in Number Theory.” It was Gross who pointed Riehl to the topic of her senior thesis, an examination of number sets called “Lubin-Tate formal groups,” which are part of an area known as “local class field theory.” The ideas, Riehl admits, are “hard to explain,” but part of her research entailed examining and working through proofs that were done in the 1960s. “Most of it is an expository thing,” she adds. “It’s about taking the proofs and making them your own.”

 Riehl also plays the viola with the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra and serves on a curricular-review committee that helps the Faculty of Arts and Sciences set rules on concentration and coursework requirements. She has no problem mastering the rules of the academic game; but, as in rugby, she thinks that participants should also be able to improvise. “One of the themes of the curricular review is ‘Trust the students, trust the faculty,’” she says. “You have to trust students to take their education seriously by giving them fewer requirements.” This fall, Riehl plans to continue playing out her own passions at Cambridge University in England, where she will begin a master’s degree in math. And hone her rugby skills. “They have a lot more teams over there,” she says. “I’m really looking forward to it.”                                     

~E.S.W.

 

 

Conor Tochilin

Most undergraduates at Harvard enroll in four courses a semester. Those confident of their academic endurance might try a fifth. Conor Tochilin usually takes six. The sheer breadth of his interests has defined his path through college. The economics and philosophy concentrator also maintains a diverse extracurricular life: he plays the cello in the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra and served this year as president of the Hasty Pudding Social Club. Even the latter is part of his education, the Atlanta native explains. “Without spaces for people to get together and share each other’s company,” he says, “something would be missing from the Harvard experience.”

Conor Tochilin takes time out from studying economic theory to play the cello.
Photograph by Stu Rosner

Tochilin, who was a finalist for a Rhodes Scholarship last fall, came to Cambridge as a Presidential Scholar (the White House program honors fewer than 150 graduating seniors each year). He entered Harvard thinking he might study mathematics and philosophy, but by the end of his freshman year, he’d signed up to concentrate in history and literature. Then, after becoming intrigued with the social theories of Adam Smith and Karl Marx, he switched to economics. Even so, he found himself reaching for a wider scope. “I am interested in seeing how the economic way of thinking can, or cannot, be applied across social life more broadly,” he says, “ranging from literature and the humanistic ways we study it all the way to the more quantitative ways that the social sciences do.” He soon added philosophy to the mix.

Tochilin spent last summer studying microfinance in Ban-gladesh: what he calls an effort “to actually go somewhere where development is being lived.” He wrote his senior thesis, which attempts to introduce social and mor-al identity into economics, under Nobel laureate and Lamont University Professor Amartya Sen, who piqued his interest in development economics.

 After graduation, Tochilin will join the consulting firm McKinsey & Company. But he says that graduate school, probably in law, will likely come later and contribute to an eventual “revolving-door career” divided among academia and the public and private sectors—unsurprising, coming from someone of his diverse in-terests. He is grateful that Harvard continues to teach him how to set boundaries. “The hard part is figuring out what matters most to you and how you want to divide up your finite time among all these things,” he explains. “Coming to Harvard was really the first time I felt like that, and I realize that’s a big part of what it means to grow up.”                         

~N.H.

 

Former Berta Greenwald Ledecky Undergraduate Fellow Nathan Heller and current Ledecky Fellow Elizabeth S. Widdicombe—members of the class of 2006 themselves—had a difficult time choosing only four of their fellow seniors to interview for this assignment.