Prof. Jonathan L. Walton to Harvard '17: Imagine, Dream, Then Act

May 25, 2017
Leverett House exiting Senior Chapel

In a world of growing inequality and unstable global conditions, Prof. Jonathan L. Walton called on graduating Harvard College seniors to dedicate their lives to making the world a better place.

“The past four years at Harvard have provided you with the space and ability to transcend generational categorizations, and defy limited expectations, in order that you might help rewrite this history of the world with a positive and progressive chapter,” Walton told the Harvard College Class of 2017 in his address during the Senior Chapel Service at Memorial Church. “For you, Class of 2017, are primed to assume positions of leadership in all fields of human endeavor at a time when our planet needs your innovative minds, your hopeful optimism, and your socially connected worldview like never before.”

Jonathan L. Walton snaps a selfie with Harvard '17
Jonathan L. Walton snaps a selfie with Harvard '17

After snapping several selfies with the packed sanctuary crowd, Walton opened his address by citing social science research about the paradoxical characteristics of the “so-called” Millennial generation. You have been shaped by the complicated and contradictory society in which you’ve grown up, said Walton.

Walton acknowledged the difficult conditions that preceding generations have created for future generations and he called on graduates to prioritize sustainability over profits. “Regardless of political orientation or social philosophy, our planet cannot afford another generation who place profits over people and a ‘greed is good’ ideology over global sustainability. Your class gets this.”

Walton admiringly recounted the altruistic works of the graduating class, urging seniors to redefine our cultural climate. “You are helping to push the pendulum from a culture of excess in which you were born at the end of the 20th century, toward a culture of altruism,” said Walton. “You, the graduating Class of 2017, can use your privilege and power to help shift the cultural climate. We need you to be thermostats, not thermometers. We need you to dictate and determine culture, as opposed to just reading it and reflecting it. We need you to imagine cultural alternatives and bring them to pass.”

Looking to the future, Walton advised seniors to welcome failure as prerequisite for success, but to shun complacency. Tragedy in life is not in our failures, but rather in our complacency, said Walton. “It’s not trying to do too much, but rather our doing too little. Not living above our ability or means, but in living below our capacity.”

Concluding his address, Walton encouraged graduates to use their imagination, dream big, and above all, to take action. “I pray that you will leave this place, Class of 2017, with a vast imagination and a steely determination that whatever you lay your hand upon, you will attempt to leave it better than you found it,” said Walton. “Imagine new possibilities. Dream big. And then act boldly.”

Students at the Harvard '17 Senior Chapel Service
Students await the start of the Senior Chapel Service

Senior Chapel is a brief service held annually on Commencement morning for Harvard College graduating seniors, consisting of a responsive reading, an opening and closing hymn (Lift Every Voice and Sing and Fair Harvard), and an address, prayers, and blessings from Memorial Church clergy.  

The Rev. Alanna C. Sullivan, Associate Minister in the Memorial Church, offered a prayer for the candidates, closing with moving words for their new journey ahead. “Fill us with purpose and joy so that we might go out to better serve this world—To be harbingers of hope; Seekers of justice; Cultivators of compassion; Architects of beauty; Givers of light; And bearers of love.”

Walton concluded the service with an inspirational message, “Live simply. Live in service. Lose yourself to a cause bigger than yourself. For this is what it means to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before your God.”

Students from Harvard '17 outside Senior Chapel
Margaret Irwin '17, Julia Lord '17 and Phil Abboud '17 all of Currier House leave the Senior Chapel service

Despite the cold weather, the newly installed air conditioning worked to keep the sanctuary comfortable for the fully packed church. “Awesome!” exclaimed Margaret Irwin ’17, a Currier House resident, appreciating both the temperature inside the sanctuary and the service.

Phil Abboud ’17, also from Currier House, agreed. “I love hymns,” he said, adding that Prof. Walton’s message resonated with the “social responsibility message we’ve been hearing this whole Commencement.”

Yusuph Mkangara ’17 of Quincy House appreciated the positivity and call for inclusion. “It was the right message to send us into the world. Prof. Walton’s speech was just right — to remain positive. The hymn we sang ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ is about lifting every single voice, and I agree with that. It can’t just be about us,” said Mkangara.

Before heading out for the rest of Commencement activities, Currier House resident Bhekinkosi Sibanda ’17 summed up the experience. “A nice quick service with a powerful message.” (Photos: Jeffrey Blackwell)

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