Campus & Community

Choose bravely, Ressa tells Harvard grads

Maria Ressa.

Maria Ressa delivering the Commencement address.

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

4 min read

Nobel Peace Prize-winning journalist puts values first in Commencement address focused on threats to democracy

A collection of stories covering Harvard University’s 373rd Commencement.

The world that awaits the Class of 2024 is one in which misinformation fueled by AI and social media is deepening conflict, distorting reality, and eroding democratic norms. That’s why it’s vital that students identify their values and then hold onto them dearly, Maria Ressa told Harvard graduates Thursday.

“You don’t know who you are until you’re tested, until you fight for what you believe in,” said Ressa, principal speaker at the University’s 373rd Commencement. “Character is created in the sum of all the little choices we make. If you’re not clear about your values, you may wake up one day and realize you don’t like the person you’ve become — so choose your best self.”

Ressa, an investigative journalist and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, addressed thousands of graduates at Tercentenary Theatre. She spoke from her experience as a reporter covering the government of Philippines leader Rodrigo Duterte and urged students to join her in the fight against enemies of democracy.

Rather than feeling angry or afraid about the state of the world, graduates should reflect on who they are and what they stand for, Ressa said. From there, she told the audience, go out and use your Harvard degree to create the world you want to live in.

“Harvard says it educates the future leaders of the world,” she said. “If you future leaders don’t fight for democracy right now, there will be little left for you to lead.”

Before Ressa spoke, interim Harvard President Alan Garber in his welcoming address acknowledged campus disagreements and the possibility for protests. “It is their right to do so,” he said. “But it is their responsibility to do so with our community and this occasion in mind.”

He also called for a moment of silence in recognition of global conflict and suffering.

“Sympathy and empathy atrophy without exercise,” Garber said.

Later in the ceremony, students staged a walkout in protest of the University’s decision to withhold degrees from 13 participants in the recent pro-Palestine Yard encampment who are not in good standing. The decision had been criticized earlier in the ceremony by two student orators.

A native of the Philippines, Ressa came to the U.S. with her family in 1973, graduating cum laude from Princeton University in 1986. For nearly two decades, she was a correspondent for CNN and oversaw its news bureaus in Manila, Philippines, and Jakarta, Indonesia, before co-founding Rappler, an online news outlet in Manila, in 2011. She was a 2021 fall fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy and the Center for Public Leadership. In July, she’ll join the faculty of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

During her address, Ressa relayed some of the lessons she learned as a journalist exposing state-sponsored disinformation campaigns and corruption under Duterte. She remains out on bail for criminal charges linked to her reporting.

She described for graduates an online “outrage economy” that is misleading and dividing the country purely for profit and power, and urged them to resist it. Enlist in the “battle for facts,” she told the students.

“Without facts, you can’t have truth. Without truth, you can’t have trust. Without these … we have no shared reality, no rule of law, no democracy, [and] we can’t begin to solve existential problems like climate change,” Ressa said.

Instead, show compassion to one another and open your minds and hearts to others, she told graduates, even if it feels uncomfortable. “Alone we accomplish very little, no matter how bright or talented you are,” she said. “It’s about what we can do together.”

Ressa ended with a call to action.

“This is about what we can do together to find what binds us together. Our world on fire needs you. So, Class of 2024, welcome to the battlefield. Join us.”

The University presented honorary doctorates to Ressa (Doctor of Laws) and five others:

Lawrence S. Bacow (Doctor of Laws), the 29th president of Harvard University; Gustavo Adolfo Dudamel Ramírez (Doctor of Music), the acclaimed conductor; Sylvester James Gates Jr. (Doctor of Science), an eminent theoretical physicist; Joy Harjo (Doctor of Literature), a renowned poet and writer who served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 2019-2022; and Jennie Chin Hansen (Doctor of Humane Letters), a registered nurse and leading advocate for improving the care and well-being of older adults.