Dan Bergmann ’21, who won a Harvard Extension School 2021 Commencement speaker prize, was featured on CBS Sunday Morning.
Dan struggles with a form of autism that limits his ability speak but not his passion for rigorous education. “At 12 years old, I suddenly learned to think all at once on a single day.” He shared a lesson that changed his life and can help many others.
From CBS Sunday Morning: “Classified for years as ‘intellectually disabled,’ a young man’s education, and later success, took a dramatic turn thanks to one teacher’s thoughtful instruction. Harvard Extension School graduate Dan Bergmann tells of his journey.”
Watch Dan’s Inspirational Commencement Speech
Transcript of Dan’s Speech
“Greetings to my fellow members of the proud elated and relieved class of 2021, the professors and staff who gave us so much, and our families and friends whose astonishing support made our achievements possible. It is extremely unlikely that I would be speaking to you today because all my life I have struggled with a form of autism that robs my mind of control over my body, even making it impossible to speak more than a few well-practiced words.
People like me are easily dismissed as unintelligent and often not given the opportunity to be educated. But I am one of the fortunate ones, as yet there are far too few. And here I am, speaking to a computer voice synthesizer, words that I have typed with one finger, one letter at a time; the same way I wrote my papers, the same way I typed my exams under the watchful and supportive eye of the Accessibility Services Office and the Accessible Education Office.
It took grit and persistence, and that only makes me like every single one of my classmates. We all had to struggle and believe in ourselves, and lean far too much on the support of people who love us and who dreamed that this day would come.
Harvard is known all over the world for being nearly impossible to get into and yet this amazing university also operates the most open school imaginable. Our school where we are community, united by our ability and our desire to do the work and the work is extremely rigorous.
I know because I’m a connoisseur.
Years ago when I first learned to learn, I discovered that relating pieces of information to each other, what I now know is called critical thinking, changed me in some way, that helped lessen the hold that my autism had on me.
So I came here for the rigor and the breadth in the hope that studying here would make me healthier. Like you, I studied with Harvard professors and people Harvard has invited from other places, such as a psychology professor from William James College and a foreign policy professor from the Naval Academy at Annapolis.
I joined the special student program and took seminars at Harvard College. And all this was available to me simply because, like my classmates, I could do the work.
We the DC class of 2021 are a formidable group and there is probably very little that we cannot do. So what will we do now? It will be an amalgam.
One part will be made of what we plan to do when we came here, get a better skill set and a diploma, so we can do better and more advanced work. But another part will be made of the ways the Extension School has changed us, both by broadening our horizons and by focusing our vision.
We have new skills, but have also developed new ideas about how we can deploy our skills. In my last Extension School class, I met a woman who has a catering business and is developing ways to mitigate food insecurity in Oakland, California. And I know there are hundreds of smart, innovative good people in our graduating class today.
As for me, I will go to work tackling some of the mysteries of my kind of autism, work that will contribute to normalizing the communication of millions like me. And also, I hope to shed some light on neurotypical brain functioning in areas like memory, initiative, and the interplay of interdependence and independence.
I will do work that helps others, because Harvard taught me that I can.
For many of you, the idea that you can help others has always been obvious and your studies enable you to be better at it. But for me, the belief that I could have a profession and really be of use came gradually.
More than six years ago, I wrote in my application essay that because critical thinking was so good for me. I wanted to study at Harvard for medicinal reasons. Harvard delivered and taught me to write and think clearly in a way I had never dreamed of.
But something interesting happened along the way, somehow in all those literature and science classes, I started to see myself differently. Maybe because I was participating, maybe because the material brought in my scope. But Harvard also taught me that I can deliver. Harvard showed me how I can use my education to better the fate of the world I now realize I have a place in.
Thank you Harvard, by which I mean all of you people, just as you are for teaching me inclusion, because you included me and never stigmatized me for my disability, never hurt me by excluding me, and maybe more important, never hurt me by lowering your standards for me. I learned to include you with all your priceless differences and by extension, the whole world neurotypical and neurodiverse in my thinking.
And I cannot wait to start giving back.