1998: Immigration

The college community is a unique combination of stability and flux. There are few institutions in the world with the same kind of permanence that Harvard College enjoys. It has changed a lot over its 363 years of existence, and its charter and governing documents provide only the broadest kind of script for its purposes. Most of its stability comes from cultural transmission, from one generation of teachers and leaders to the next. Most of its members are in residence for only four years and then they move on. They come from all over the country and all around the world, to study a great variety of subjects, live in close quarters with people of wildly different backgrounds and ideals. Yet as a self-perpetuating society the college has outlived both nations and religions, institutions founded by passionate and single-minded believers and sustained by constitutions, sacred texts, royal lineages, and armies.

Those of us who have the privilege to be in residence here for unnatural lengths of time, or perhaps to jump around a bit among a small number of similar collegiate societies in New Jersey, Connecticut, and northern California, can forget how unstable life has been for many people through most of history. Of course the very concept of voluntary travel is relatively recent and novel; until a couple hundred years or so ago most people died where they were born without traveling far away in the interim. Travel over great distances was a phenomenon of pilgrimage, or rare adventure, or war, or enslavement, or exile. Most people stayed where they were, and their children and grandchildren stayed there too. No news story of the past year made quite the impression on me of the DNA extracted from a skeleton more than a hundred thousand years old found in England; it matched well with that of a local laborer, who must have been the caveman's ancestor [descendant] by some tens of thousands of generations.

All of us who are Americans of European descent are only a few generations removed from ancestors who voluntarily abandoned their impoverished homelands for distant destinations in an under-populated America. My children are the descendants of Norwegians who emigrated to South Dakota, Ukrainians who went to Michigan, Scots who went to Ontario, Russians and Manx and Irish and Germans who went to Boston. I wonder if any of them ran into each other on Ellis Island. I do know that it was there that one of them back in my male line, in order to blend into the American background, selected the English surname I bear today. What optimism and what fears did these immigrants face as they set out from their homelands, knowing that they would never return?

I see in our own immigrant or foreign students, and many others who are the children of immigrants, a continued spirit of re-energization and optimism. The most extraordinary single family I have known in my 25 years of teaching were three Vietnamese sisters who left on the same final boat out of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam war. Separated from their parents, all three gained admission to Harvard, graduated, and have repaid a thousand times the investment America made in them. I hope our country can continue to recognize that in new blood lies our best hope for a creative future.

I had a nostalgic visit this week from an old friend, Yuri. My first encounter with Yuri was twenty-five years ago in level D of Widener, through his writing, when I read a paper he had written in the Proceedings of the Ural Academy of Sciences. Yuri was at this point nothing more to me than a few Cyrillic letters at the top of a page of dense mathematical symbols printed on paper barely the quality of newsprint; I delighted not only in finding some errors in his writing, but in feeling that I surely had uncovered the most obscure publication in all of Widener Library. The ultimate safe topic for a PhD thesis! I felt safe that my expertise on this matter would go unchallenged. In my first lesson that anything spoken from Harvard gets noticed, I received an angry and defensive letter from Yuri a few years later from the Bar-Ilan University of the Negev desert in Israel, to which he had succeeded, eventually, in emigrating. Six years later he got to the US, and we started to collaborate; we've written a dozen papers together, and consumed more than that many bottles of good wine in each other's company. After sixteen years at a major US university, Yuri has become a major figure in computer science and has now gone to Microsoft.

We are, in America, fortunate still to be able to draw men and women who have the courage to carry the tiny seeds of their creative genius with them and to sow them in the fertile fields of this country's opportunity. I offer my respect and my prayers for those who have separated themselves from their own pasts to create a better future for us all. And I pay my respects to one other man in particular who, for his extraordinary achievements this year, his grace, and his profound humility, makes me proud to be an American today: thank you, Sammy Sosa.