Why I Skipped Harvard’s Commencement

Two posts in the space of about a month? It must be summer vacation.

Remember how I mentioned that graduation happened in my last post? Yeah, well, I skipped Commencement and the diploma ceremony. I told people in my program that it was because I had a friend’s wedding to go to, but in all fairness, I could’ve made it to Commencement and the wedding.

I do have a nasty habit of skipping commencements, but usually with good reason. I skipped my undergraduate graduation because it would’ve required getting up ridiculously early (even for me). I avoided my MPhil graduation because it took place three months after I moved back to Brooklyn, and I didn’t want to fly all the way back to England for a piece of paper when it could be mailed to me instead.

I did attend my undergraduate diploma ceremony, however, because I felt like a member of the Currier community. More specifically, I was and continue to be a proud member of Currier House. Some background: Harvard College has twelve undergraduate dorms, or “houses,” that all freshmen are sorted into randomly. While you’re not required to live in these houses, it’s kind of expected (I think 97% of undergrads live in the houses). Each house has a dining hall, and its own House Committee to organize events that aim to build community among housemates.

I loved the house system. For reals, I sometimes have more house pride than college pride. These were the people I lived with, stormed dorms with, and hunkered down with until unholy hours of the night while writing papers and thesis chapters. I’ve sung with Currierites at the end of each Currioke (Currier House + karaoke) in a big circle of drunken happiness. From day one, when I was sorted into Currier, I felt included.

When I heard all about how the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) was a place that strived for diversity, equity, and inclusion, I figured that I’d feel right at home.

You can imagine how surprised I was when I found myself excluded from most of the events hosted by members of my Masters program (known as a cohort), and from the HGSE community in general.

Within HGSE, there are a little over ten Ed.M. cohorts for each Masters program. Mine was the Higher Education cohort. Within this cohort, people would suggest that everyone meet at a bar in Somerville, which is an area that neighbors Cambridge and takes two buses for me to get to. I can’t take Uber/Lyft, and taking two buses is not just a hassle, but potentially health-threatening depending on the weather (I’ve gotten hypothermia once and it was not pleasant). Or the cohort would host events that were too late for me to attend (I have to get up really early in the morning). Or individuals within the cohort would host events that were in their inaccessible homes.

I would point out to the people who hosted the events that I couldn’t go. They would seem disappointed that I couldn’t go, and then they would host something in a similar location about a month or two later. One person, knowing that I couldn’t go to her event, hung out with me one-on-one to make up for it. Because large crowds make me uncomfortable, this was a fine alternative for me. But the overall trend of, “Well, I guess I can’t go to anything unless I host it myself” continued for the duration of the program. And I was not planning to host a bunch of events for people who weren’t willing to put in the effort for me.

Before you say, “Well, get over it, they shouldn’t have to reorganize their lives just because you can’t get somewhere,” I’d like to point out that while I was a student at Cambridge (bumpy, cobblestone-filled Cambridge), the medievalists changed their usual pub location so that I could go there with them after workshops. I didn’t have to ask twice. They changed their route to the pub to one that was more wheelchair-friendly. I told one student about my wheelchair concerns, he then told the rest of the medievalists, and a change was made.

That wasn’t the case at HGSE, which stung mostly because HGSE prides itself on inclusion. People at HGSE wanted to learn about how to be more inclusive, and how to make higher education more equitable. But ignoring me when I say, “Hey, I’d love to go, but literally cannot go there,” is not inclusion. This is me having the choice between being the wet blanket who signals the ADA alarm when something is inaccessible, or not saying anything at all to avoid “wet blanket” status.

My cohort didn’t intend to exclude me. Some reached out, and I’d voice a concern, but these conversations either ended in me saying that I would host the event in my building, or, “No, it’s fine, you go have fun.” I will say many things to avoid “wet blanket” status.

I don’t want you to think that my cohort ruined my HGSE experience (although one person asked me over coffee, “So when are you going to walk again?” which I thought was hella rude, and, as one friend put it, “damn stupid for a Harvard student”). Outside of the event-planning realm, they’re really lovely people. I can’t blame them for not always thinking about accessibility. HGSE as an institution did not emphasize disability as something relevant to people without disabilities. I’ve also noticed that it’s hard to keep disability in mind when you’re not actually disabled. I didn’t, however, skip Commencement just because I had issues with my cohort. That would be silly, especially because there are some people in the cohort I hope to keep in touch with.

Looking back on my program, I had issues with HGSE. Really, if HGSE has taught me anything, it’s that thousands of academics and administrators in the realm of higher education are working to improve diversity at colleges and universities. Upon closer examination, “diversity” does not include disability. Before you tell me that I’m being ridiculous, and of course disability is diversity, consider that I took coursework on diversity in higher education, the history of higher education, and the like – disability was not discussed or even acknowledged. Consider that students with disabilities face numerous hurdles once they’re at college, and some consider it a “‘luxury’ when professors and staff actually work with them.” Consider that those who work in diversity and recruitment are never, to my knowledge, encouraged to recruit someone with a disability. (There are articles about recruiting graduates with disabilities in the workforce, but nothing about recruiting students for higher education.)

My advisor and my boss were two highlights at HGSE, because my advisor, the inimitable Tom Hehir, taught a course on inclusive education. Everyone in that class was interested in special education to begin with and already had an understanding of disability that can be summed up as, “You get it.” Unfortunately, the class was geared towards K-12 (because my advisor is an expert in that field). To compensate for the fact that HGSE offers zero coursework in disability in higher education, I interned at their Access and Disability Services office. My boss taught me about Section 504 and the ADA, and how each pertains to higher education. When it came to disability in higher ed, however, I had to give talks and mini-lectures as if I was the expert. And I knew that if I didn’t talk about this issue, then no HGSE professor, besides Tom Hehir, would.

I was surprised that I somehow landed in this position, because I literally wrote on my application to HGSE that I wanted to study disability in higher education. I assumed that, because they accepted me, there was coursework available that I could take to further my knowledge of this topic. Otherwise, I could have stayed home, read Professor Hehir’s books, asked my boss (who I knew as an undergraduate) what she recommended as background for higher education disability services, and interned at the disability services office at a local college. Why did I spend thousands of dollars on tuition? To lecture the able-bodied?

Apart from my internship and my lone class on K-12 inclusive education, I had to study disability on my own, as if it’s a niche topic. With such an emphasis placed on intersectionality these days, you’d think that disability would have larger representation in curricula at HGSE. After all, we’re all temporarily able-bodied, and disability doesn’t care about your race, gender, sexuality, or socioeconomic status (also, fun fact, people with disabilities are the largest minority in the USA and the world). So why hasn’t HGSE hired a professor who specializes in disability in the realm of higher education?

I tried to get involved with student advocacy. I became an Equity and Inclusion Fellow at HGSE, and was hopeful when they accepted my application. Maybe disability is something they care about! My hope transformed to cynicism during our orientation meeting, where we sat through a lecture on race, and then were told that while there were many diversity issues to tackle, we would not get to all of them. In my mind, this was code for: “We’re not going to cover disability.” As if to confirm my concerns, events planned for the following semester covered race, religion, and gender. I stopped going to meetings. One of the Fellows told me, “But if you leave, they win.” They win? Who exactly is “they”? The able-bodied? Why does equity have to be a competition? (Side note: It’s not just disability – there was just one HGSE event of note that focused on issues faced by the Asian American community.)

And, finally, when my NYT article came out in which I explained how much effort I had to put into my daily routines just to attend college, people at HGSE complimented me for my efforts. No one seemed to mind that obstacles for me were everywhere, so long as I could continue to navigate them. I guess someone could suggest that I take a reduced course load (i.e. be a part-time student registered as a full-time student). Then I’d have enough time for physical therapy and coursework.

It’s possible, sure, but if I was on federal financial aid and did that, then I would receive less aid. According to the University of Connecticut’s disability services page (they have a pretty stellar disability services office), “federal regulations require that Federal Pell Grant funds be prorated based on the number of credits taken, and that the student financial aid budget is reduced accordingly.” Those under the Federal Stafford Loan program must be enrolled for a minimum number of credits, depending on the university.

In other words, if I were on a Pell Grant, then I’d have little incentive to reduce my course load. In a sense, students with disabilities, particularly those that need federal assistance and physical therapy, may have to decide between their degree and their health. Or they can do what I did and be in a constant state of beast mode, but I don’t recommend it (unless you’re seriously in love with your schoolwork). Was this discussed at HGSE? Nope.

One of my missions at HGSE became raising disability awareness. By the time Commencement rolled around, I felt as though I had convinced no one (or at best, a handful of people) of anything relevant to the disability community, despite talks and publications and things that I foolishly thought could change minds. I filled out course evaluations where I pointed out the lack of disability-related materials in most of my classes. In a couple of cases, professors asked me what I’d recommend for future syllabi, which I appreciated. In a school-wide survey, I mentioned the lack of disability issues covered at HGSE. I met with the dean of HGSE to discuss how to include disability topics at HGSE in the future. I won’t know if anything I’ve said will make an impact at HGSE, unless someone there gives me an update in a year or two. Similarly, my classmates claim they’ve learned from me. I believe a few of them, but I won’t know for sure about the rest of them until they begin their post-HGSE careers and actively include disability when they work on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

If I had attended an institution that I knew didn’t care about diversity, then I’d have understood the exclusion of disability topics. But this is HGSE, a place that prides itself on progressive thought and every buzzword synonymous with diversity. It’s a place so liberal that the day after the presidential election, people acted like they were at a funeral. Disability was all over the DNC Convention, and #cripthevote was a thing that trended. Enough was going on the disability community that people who weren’t familiar with disability rights could’ve done their own research.

By the end of the school year, I was fed up with my institution and the numerous well-meaning able-bodied students throughout the entirety of HGSE who said they cared about disability issues, but not enough to attend programming about disability, ask questions about disability (in courses not taught by Tom Hehir), or heck, even ask me if I could recommend anything for them to read. How could I graduate alongside this community of people that alienated me to the point where I cross-registered for Harvard College classes in medieval history, just so I could feel more at home?

I’ll still pick up my diploma in a few weeks when I’m back in Cambridge. After all, I already paid for it.

(By the way, if you’d like a reading list on disability, I’d be happy to post an annotated bibliography in the future.)

6 thoughts on “Why I Skipped Harvard’s Commencement

  1. Thanks for these words. I work at Harvard College’s Center for Teaching & Learning, and I would be very interested in that annotated bibliography– for myself and also to share with folks here!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t think you should blame Harvard for the fact that you “assumed” they’d offer coursework on disability. It’s not their fault you went into this without doing your research. You cannot expect people to focus on a tiny fraction of the population instead of larger diversity issues like gender and race.


  3. I have to disagree with Natasha, disability is not a “tiny” fraction of the population. It may seem that way because a lot of us assimilate, keep our heads down or compensate in the way that the author writes about. Or society totally forgets or diminishes our capabilities so we never get there in the first place.

    I graduated in 2016 from HGSE and didn’t quite have the same experiences but I was in a doctoral program and my expertise is K-12 special education so you can’t really ignore me personally or professionally. Tom was also my saving grace. What’s challenging about the master’s programs is that they are just one year so it’s super hard to get traction on something like accessibility. I wish we had been on campus together 😦

    Liked by 1 person

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