Undergraduate Speaker Sarah Abushaar | Harvard Commencement 2014 | Summary and Q&A

May 29, 2014
Harvard University
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Undergraduate Speaker Sarah Abushaar | Harvard Commencement 2014

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In this video, the speaker reflects on their experience at Harvard and how it shaped their perspective on the world. They compare the concept of the "Harvard nation" to the invisible institutions and structures that exist within the university. The speaker shares their journey from the Middle East to Harvard, highlighting the privileges they gained as a Harvard student. They also discuss the power of civil society and the value of living, breathing institutions. The speaker concludes by expressing hope for the future, inspired by the transformative potential of the ideas and revolutions sparked within the Harvard community.

Questions & Answers

Q: How did the speaker's upbringing in Syria shape their view of the world?

When the speaker was young, they and their sibling would often fantasize about imperialistic conquests while in taxis in Syria. However, their parents warned them against discussing such ideas due to the fear of being taken by the secret service. They were taught that the walls could hear their revolutionary ideas and send them to prison. This experience instilled a sense of caution and made the speaker aware of the oppressive governance in their home country.

Q: How did the speaker perceive Harvard when they first arrived?

Upon arriving at Harvard, the speaker was struck by the idea that if Harvard shut its gates, it could be its own country, similar to the Vatican. They observed the presence of the "Harvard nation" in various aspects of the university, such as the John Harvard statue, the Harvard Clubs of Boston and London, and the Harvard Alumni Association. The speaker also mentions that they had their own diplomatic passports. The recognition and privileges that came with being a Harvard student were evident, particularly when going through U.S. immigration at Boston Logan Airport.

Q: How did the speaker perceive the "Harvard nation" within the university?

The speaker saw the "Harvard nation" not only in the physical structures and institutions but also in the invisible institutions and scaffolds that support the university. They highlight examples such as the columns of the Crimson newspaper, which fostered lively debates and had the potential to influence policy changes, and the cluttered bulletin boards filled with announcements of student-led conferences and projects. The speaker saw these as representations of passions, purpose, and creativity that brought vibrancy and dynamism to the environment.

Q: How did the speaker's experience at Harvard challenge their initial expectations?

The speaker shares their surprise when, in one of their first classes, they found themselves debating the Ecuadorian president about how to prevent a war between Ecuador and Peru. They had expected to merely listen and learn, but instead, their professor brought in the president to engage with the students. This experience made the speaker realize that they had the ability to shape history and contribute to creating solutions for seemingly intractable problems. They felt a sense of empowerment and infinite possibility, reminiscent of the dreams of childhood.

Q: How did the speaker's identity change after attending Harvard?

Initially known by their name, Sarah, the speaker quickly became identified as "Harvard" by others. People would refer to them as "Hey Harvard," and the speaker humorously mentions how they embodied the entire history, prestige, and physical landmarks of Harvard within their own five-foot-six-inch self. The speaker describes the transformative experience of running barefoot through Harvard Yard, collecting experiences and knowledge, and wearing them as shoes made of everything they picked up along the way. They express hope that these accumulations will continue to shape their identity as they move on from Harvard.

Q: What gives the speaker hope for the future?

The speaker finds hope in observing dinner conversations in their dining hall, where friends from countries at war are still able to engage in civil conversation and work together on meaningful projects. They are inspired by the founding mothers and fathers of revolutionary ideas that emerge from Harvard, who aim to make the world a better place through their contributions to institutions, constitutions, hospitals, and art houses. The speaker sees the graduating class as a collective force, sending out six thousand revolutions into the world, capable of creating positive, impactful change.



The speaker's experience at Harvard has profoundly influenced their perspective on the world. They have witnessed the power of institutions and the potential for positive change within them. Through the concept of the "Harvard nation" and the invisible structures that support it, the speaker has come to understand the value of civil society and living, breathing institutions. They believe that the revolutions sparked within the Harvard community can have a transformative impact on the world. The speaker leaves Harvard hopeful for the future, carrying with them the accumulation of knowledge, experiences, and ideas that will shape their journey ahead.

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