Stories from Harvard’s 2023 Commencement

Finally, his own Commencement

Simba Gandari, who moved to the U.S. from Harare, Zimbabwe, in 2007 to pursue his education, first experienced the pomp and circumstance of Commencement in 2019, when he watched his cousin, Sharon Makava, graduate from Harvard Business School.

“It sparked an interest, I fell in love,” Gandari said of Makava’s commencement. “I said, ‘One day, I want to end up here.’ It took me three years, but I got here eventually. In a full circle moment, she’s here for my graduation, too.”

Gandari, who received a master’s degree in education leadership, organization, and entrepreneurship, plans to work to improve higher education access for students of color. Some of the turns in his own path have given him a unique perspective, he said.

“I can speak many languages in higher education, so if students want to go the community college route, I can speak that language,” said Gandari, who holds degrees from Piedmont Technical College in South Carolina and Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee. “If they want to go the Catholic, four-year university route, I can speak that. If they want to go to an Ivy, I can now speak to that, too.”

Getting the call

Trina Hoang was chatting with her roommates from Winthrop House (traditionally the last to process into Tercentenary Theatre) in the Old Yard while they awaited marching orders and for Commencement ceremonies to officially begin.

Hoang, a psychology concentrator with a secondary in economics, was also waiting to find out whether she got into a one-year master’s in management at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, her top choice for graduate school. She knew a decision was being made yesterday.

Suddenly her phone lit up. “I saw a call from Durham, North Carolina, and thought I should pick it up,” she said.

After a few missed words and explaining to the caller, “Sorry about the background noise, I’m graduating,” Hoang hung up and yelled, “I got in!”

Hoang, her roommates, and a few teammates on the Harvard softball team, where Hoang was an All-Ivy League shortstop this season, began jumping up and down, squealing with delight, and hugging. They posed for a group photo to capture the moment.

“What a day!” someone said. Indeed, what a day.

Dreams of their daughter

When Riley Thompson’s employer encouraged her to pursue her master’s degree, she stepped up to the challenge and enrolled at the Harvard Extension School, her father, Bryan, recalled. For four years, including through the worst of the pandemic, Riley studied for a degree in liberal arts while also working full-time.

“She’s very proud of her competence and rightfully should be,” Bryan said. “She always underestimated herself. She’s always accomplished everything she’s ever set her goals to.”

The Thompsons.

Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Thompson’s mother, Ginger, advised her daughter to “relax,” but joked with her husband that Riley would probably soon return to the classroom to begin course work for a Ph.D. In any case, she’s grateful to the Extension School for supporting Riley’s ambitions.

“I just think about the entire experience of being able to take people who are working full-time and let them achieve something like that is just amazing,” she said. Her husband added, “It’s not just Harvard. She lives in Boston. The Boston environment and the Boston people make it a supportive environment. A shout-out to Boston and Harvard.”

‘Excited to be a dentist!’

As Jessica Murphree, who earned a D.M.D., saw the procession start, she sprinted off, yelling to her parents, “It feels great. I’m excited to be a dentist!”

Her parents, Kristina and Jacob, have visited her a few times in the past from Omaha, Nebraska, but this was their first Commencement.

As they watched their daughter take off, her parents explained that she couldn’t be late as standard bearer for her class.

“She gets to carry a giant toothbrush!”

First time last time

If you’re going to make your first trip to Harvard before graduating, no more auspicious time than Commencement week. Sarah E.G. Tehan spent 5 years working on a master’s in legal studies from Harvard Extension School.

Primarily because of COVID, she had never set foot on campus, completing the entire course of study remotely from her hometown of Sherman, N.Y., an Amish village by the Pennsylvania border, near Lake Erie.

She decided to make the trip and brought along her service dog, Murphy, a handsome, 2-year-old Golden Retriever sporting a crimson Harvard tie. It was Murphy’s first experience with big crowds, but he seemed to take it all in stride. “A lot of people give us looks everywhere we go because he’s super cute,” Tehan said.

Tehan originally studied interior design at Virginia Tech and worked for a while in the field but hated it. She always wanted to go to law school and figured “now is as good of a time as any” to change careers. Now that she’s graduated, Tehan plans to go into politics in Western New York, and eventually would like to work at the U.N.

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