Upper School

Class of 2024 graduates: “Don’t lose heart”

The Class of 2024 was joined by families, friends and faculty late last week for this year’s 2024 graduation ceremony at the Mountain Winery. After making their way to their seats to Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance,” performed by the Harker Chamber Orchestra, the graduates stood with the rest of the attendees for the 2024 Graduation Chorus’ rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

This year’s student graduation speaker was Om Tandon, who received the Mission Award from Harker faculty for demonstrating “kindness, respect, integrity, academic excellence, intellectual curiosity and personal accountability,” said upper division head Paul Barsky, in his introduction.

Tandon spoke to the audience about his high school dream of playing college basketball, a goal he pursued relentlessly, eventually becoming team captain and leading scorer in his junior year. He worked through an injury to return to form in time for senior year, only to land awkwardly and suffer another injury that required two surgeries. It was then, he said, that he knew college basketball was off the table.

“When I came to that realization,” he said, “all of the emotions that I suppressed for months just came out. I sat in my bed, crouched over, with my head in my hands, yelling and crying, asking, ‘Why? I did everything I was supposed to.’” It was during this time that Tandon realized the importance of the support of his family and friends, and that new experiences and dreams could be realized with the right people around him.

“I’m no expert on life and I’m no older or wiser than you are,” he said. “But I have had the blessing of disappointment, and it’s inevitable that we will all experience some sooner or later. My hope for all of you is that when you find yourself in that place where a dream got away from you, don’t lose heart.”

As the applause following Tandon’s speech subsided, the Graduation Chorus stood once again to perform David L. Brunner’s “Hold Fast Your Dreams,” directed by Jennifer Sandusky, before Jennifer Gargano, assistant head of school, introduced this year’s keynote speaker, Veronica Pugin ’08.

Pugin — whose career after Harker led her to positions at Deloitte and the office of California governor Gavin Newsom before she worked under the Joe Biden administration as a policy advisor in cybersecurity – recalled being in the same position as the Class of 2024 was at that moment, but filled with anxiety about the uncertain future.

She started at Claremont McKenna College without having selected a major. “I did not know that Claremont McKenna would end up being one of the most transformational experiences of my life and that I would discover and fall in love with economics through a pre-req course that I didn’t even want to take,” she recalled. “This is just one small example of how life’s uncertainty can lead to positive discoveries.”

Pugin stressed the importance of personal responsibility when navigating an unpredictable and unfamiliar future. “There’s so much power in taking responsibility because there’s so much power in individual choices,” she said. “At Stanford Business School, I saw the power of individual business leaders and the choices they made for consumers, employees and society. In tech, I saw the power of individual choices product leaders made about how technology is designed impacting millions of users. I saw the power of policy choices made that impact millions. Taking responsibility for yourself means not making the world worse, and where possible, making it better.”

After the Graduation Chorus’ performance of “The Harker School Song,” head of school Brian Yager took the podium for his farewell address to the Class of 2024. Taking inspiration from the lessons contained within ecologist Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac,” Yager found lessons in the ways that trees have been observed to endure difficult seasons and rebound to produce fruit in higher quantities than usual. “The trees produced the most when they had experienced an unusual level of disruption in, and sometimes a threat to, their normal cycles and even their very survival,” he said.

While cautioning that the lesson of his speech was not that stress was desirable, Yager went on to explain that, “While I would not encourage you to seek a life that would be classified as stressful in a general sense, I would encourage you to seek a life that is not stress-free.”

This balance between seeking challenges and managing well-being, Yager said, is important for living a fulfilled life. “Muscles tear when they get overused; bones develop stress fractures if they are not allowed to rest; and your brain will not function well if it cannot reset through sleep,” he said. “Trees take a whole season to reset after their season of growth. Follow their lead, and give yourself chances to recover whenever you need it. But also find and seek challenges and stressors that are worth recovering from.”

After all the graduates were presented with their diplomas, they excitedly flung their caps in the air and watched as a flock of doves took flight.

The Harker Magazine

Published two times a year, The Harker Magazine showcases some of the top news, leading programs, inspiring people and visionary plans of the greater Harker community.

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