Maria Ressa

Maria Ressa tells Harvard graduates: ‘Our world is on fire. Welcome to the battlefield.’

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Maria Ressa tells Harvard graduates: ‘Our world is on fire. Welcome to the battlefield.’

NOBEL LAUREATE. Rappler CEO Maria Ressa delivers a speech during the commencement exercises of Harvard University on May 23, 2024.

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The anti-war ‘historic’ protests in campuses are ‘testing everyone in America,’ says the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Rappler CEO. But ‘protests give voice; they shouldn’t be silenced.’

MASSACHUSETTS, USA – Speaking to graduates of one of the world’s most prestigious universities on Thursday morning, May 23, in Cambridge, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Rappler CEO Maria Ressa acknowledged the “battle-tested” Class of 2024 of Harvard University for having survived a pandemic and for seeing on their screens the horrors of war. 

Maria Ressa tells Harvard graduates: ‘Our world is on fire. Welcome to the battlefield.’

“We live in a dystopian science fiction world, where everything changes in the blink of an eye, when you have been forced to turn crisis into an opportunity,” Ressa told an estimated 30,000 graduates gathered at the entire stretch of the Harvard Yard, which, until May 14, was the site of a 20-day pro-Palestine encampment.

“The campus protests are testing everyone in America,” Ressa said. “Protests are healthy; they shouldn’t be violent. Protests give voice; they shouldn’t be silenced,” she added, amid cheers and applause.

She pointed out an “unacknowledged danger” amid all this: technology, making people “meaner more polarized,” adding that information operations online are “dividing generations.”

Maria Ressa tells Harvard graduates: ‘Our world is on fire. Welcome to the battlefield.’

Ressa said she herself has not been spared. “Because I accepted your invitation to be here today, I was attacked online and called anti-semitic. By power and money,” she said. “While the other side was already attacking me because I had been onstage with Hillary Clinton.”

A wave of student protests against the Gaza war, in the form of encampments, has swept American universities, and Harvard was no exception. Demanding that the university divest from Israel, leaders of the Harvard Out of Occupied Palestine coalition put up tents at the Harvard Yard for more than two weeks until May 14, when they agreed with university officials to pull out to give way to Thursday’s commencement. 

But the Harvard College Administrative Board followed this with an order preventing at least 13 seniors from graduating on Thursday. Nearly 500 faculty and staff members signed a petition denouncing the order, calling it “unprecedented, disproportionate, and arbitrary.” 

The event was marked by numerous acts of protest: Harvard’s interim president Alan Garber also received boos after delivering his opening remarks, a bulk of students were seen walking out while their degrees were being conferred, and a Palestinian flag was raised as they were walking out.

Two representatives of the batch lamented in their graduation speeches the exclusion of the 13 seniors from the ceremony. “I am deeply disappointed by the intolerance for freedom of speech and their right to civil disobedience on campus,” said Shruthi Kumar, who gave the senior English address.

“Being good can take many forms… [including] demanding a ceasefire in Gaza,” said Robert Clinton IV, who delivered the graduate English address.

Ressa said this period is a test for America that brings out parallels in the Philippines, which suffered under strongman Rodrigo Duterte who mounted a bloody drug war and attacked critics and journalists like her and Rappler. 

“You don’t know who you are until you’re tested, until you fight for what you believe in…. Now you are being tested. The chilling effect means that many are choosing to stay silent because there are consequences to speaking out.”

But things can get better like they did in Rappler, noted the veteran journalist, as she shared three lessons from her own crisis years: choose your best self, turn crisis into an opportunity, and be vulnerable.

War in your pocket

“Too often, we let ourselves off the hook, refusing to look at our own difficult or ugly truths,” she said. “We rationalize bad behavior.”

Ressa blasted “tech bros” like Meta (Facebook) CEO Mark Zuckerberg, a Harvard graduate, for “controlling the world,” as well as other companies and countries for “getting away with impunity” and “destroying democracy.”

She challenged the graduates to join the “battle for trust.” 

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

Ressa recalled how Rappler embraced and prepared for the “worst scenarios we could imagine during the darkest times.” The path forward required trust and the “ability to find creative solutions to intractable problems,” which stems from being vulnerable enough to create “the strongest bonds.” 

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WATCH: Maria Ressa delivers speech at 2024 Harvard commencement ceremony

WATCH: Maria Ressa delivers speech at 2024 Harvard commencement ceremony

War isn’t just happening in Gaza or Ukraine, she told the 2024 graduates. “It’s in your pocket.” She said that they’d accomplish “very little” when they do things on their own. “It’s 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,” said Ressa, who received a standing ovation.

Ressa is the first Filipino in recent history to speak at a Harvard commencement ceremony. In the audience were former vice president Leni Robredo and her doctor-daughter Tricia, who earned a master’s degree at Harvard’s medical school. 

Harvard conferred the Rappler CEO an honorary degree (doctor of laws), along with five others: Harvard’s president emeritus Lawrence Bacow (doctor of laws); musician Gustavo Adolfo Dudamel Ramirez (doctor of music); physicist Sylvester James Gates Jr. (doctor of science); public health practitioner Jennie Chin Hansen (doctor of humane letters); and poet Joy Harjo (doctor of literature). 

The honorands were treated to a black-tie dinner reception on Wednesday night. –

1 comment

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  1. WB

    Great article. Maria Ressa is the unsung hero of the silent revolution against tyranny during Duterte’s reign. I say to her, there are millions of Filipinos who are already awake (thankfully, not ‘woke’) to what you and many others like former Sen. Leila de Lima have been gone through under the foul-mouthed one.

    As always, I point out errors where I find them. The article claims that Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg is a Harvard graduate. No, he is not. He dropped out in his sophomore years. He did come back as a commencement speaker in 2017 and received, just like Maria Ressa, an honorary doctorate.

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