“We are all human and we all just want a chance: a chance at life, a chance at an education, a chance at a future,” Rihanna said. Noting that fame and fortune are not necessary to change a life, she challenged College students to use their education, their skills, and their good fortune to lift up someone else or contribute to an organization that helps others.
“As I stare into this beautiful room, I see optimism, I see hope, I see the future,” she said. “I know that each and every one of you can help someone else. All you need to do is help one person, expecting nothing in return. To me, that is a humanitarian.”
Dean Rakesh Khurana noted that Rihanna’s widespread popularity attracts the kind of diversity the College strives to achieve. “As you can see from our students, that by drawing on our mission — our commitment to freedom, to pluralism — that we can create … a model of respectful, mutual relationships that bring together our diverse community, where our diversity comes to be seen as a source of infinite possibility,” he said.
Through her “unapologetic” music and fashion, Rihanna “symbolizes an alternative, liberated social system in which women can own their own desires and feel no responsibility to anyone’s expectations other than their own,” said Doni Lehman ’17, a Harvard Foundation intern and one of three College students who paid tribute to the singer. As a trailblazer, she “provides a much-needed supplement to traditional white feminism” and through her own power helps “other women realize their own.”
After a couple of hit singles, Rihanna (born Robyn Rihanna Fenty) exploded onto the music scene in 2007 as a young protégée of rap mogul Jay-Z on their can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head collaboration, “Umbrella.” Since then, the 29-year-old has racked up 13 more No. 1 hits that move easily between reggae, R&B, rap, and electronic dance music.
The beloved Rev. Professor Peter J. Gomes died in 2011. The award named in his honor recognizes distinguished leaders who have made important public service contributions globally, who exemplify “compassionate humanitarianism,” and who embody the Harvard Foundation’s ethos of improving and promoting racial, ethnic and cultural awareness and understanding. Past honorees include 2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, actor James Earl Jones, and Arthur Ashe, the late tennis star and AIDS activist