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Boston Mayor Michelle Wu tells graduating Harvard seniors: ‘Tell the truth when it’s hard’

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu with Menatallah Bahnasy (right) at Harvard's Class Day.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu returned to her alma mater Wednesday afternoon to urge Harvard’s graduating seniors to live by the university’s Latin motto, “veritas” — truth.

“Your own deep truth sets the foundation for your happiness, health, and impact. Take care of yourself,” Wu told a crowd of several thousand graduating seniors and family members gathered in a sunny Harvard Yard for Class Day. “Tell the truth when it’s hard, and uncomfortable, and complex — and to the extent that you can, hold people through it if they need to be held. But tell the truth — tell it so that we can build and rebuild the trust that’s needed for our brightest future.”

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Wu, a 2007 graduate of Harvard College and a 2012 graduate of Harvard Law School, was asked to speak by and for the senior class on a celebratory day of pomp and circumstance preceding university commencement on Thursday. She took the opportunity to recall her own Harvard experiences and exhort this year’s class to choose lives that are “impactful, joyful, and true,” wedding the “veritas” ethic to their future personal and professional endeavors.

It was a deeply personal speech from a mayor whose political identity was built on her heritage and family struggles.

Wu described her first few days on Harvard’s campus as a freshman, “looking around and wondering how I could possibly belong here” — an outsider feeling she has often recalled experiencing during her earliest moments in City Hall, too.

She arrived at Harvard, she said, with “no grand career plans, or even a clear academic passion,” and now serves as “proof that you can go from having absolutely no idea what you want to do at Class Day, to mayor of the greatest city on the planet.”

Wu told graduating seniors that her 2007 commencement was one of the last public events her mother attended before a major mental health breakdown, a challenge that at the time felt too painful to share with her friends.

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Ultimately, she said, those experiences became the driving force behind her career in elected office.

“The truth is, among my blocking group, I was the last person anyone thought would end up in politics,” Wu said. “But my family’s challenges, my mom’s journey with mental health, set me on this path — stepping in as caregiver to my mom, raising my sisters shortly after graduation, opening a small business, and seeing how so many of the systems we had to interact with weren’t designed for people like my family — and also seeing that we can all have a role in fixing them.”

Her 15-minute address was heavier on advice and inspiration than politics, peppered with references to her time at Harvard: meeting her husband at Harvard’s annual face-off with Yale (he attended the rival school); enjoying the clam chowder at Annenberg dining hall (it merited half a dozen mentions); and fiercely trumpeting the motto of her dorm, Currier House: “Fear the tree!”

But Wu also made time to allude to the nation’s yawning political divides and her drive for transformation, warning of “a tidal wave of misinformation” and emphasizing the necessity of doing “the things that seem impossible.”

She worked in a mention of her advocacy for fare-free transit, staked out an identity as “the Green New Deal mayor of Boston,” and alluded to past political fights that seemed unwinnable, but ultimately yielded public goods now taken for granted. Before there was a Red Line and a Park Street T station, she said, there were those who warned that building a subway system would allow subterranean snakes to overtake the city.

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“Be bold, and creative. Harness your imagination to focus on the good we can do when we work together and let go of our instincts to protect the status quo,” Wu said. “Harness your leadership and charisma and knowledge to help others do the same — so that we can all focus more on what we could create if we agreed to get our hands dirty and break ground, rather than worrying about what snakes might lurk beneath the surface.”

As an undergraduate at Harvard, Wu lived in Currier House and studied economics. She was also involved in music and community service in Chinatown, where she helped immigrants navigate the naturalization process. Since graduating, she has spoken numerous times at the university and since 2019 has served on the senior advisory committee of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics.

In 2021, Wu became the first woman and first person of color elected mayor of Boston, shattering centuries of barriers with a decisive victory.

Wu is set to address two other graduating classes this week, at Bunker Hill Community College and the University of Massachusetts Boston.


Emma Platoff can be reached at emma.platoff@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emmaplatoff.