8 Brilliant Celebrities Who Got Their Start At Harvard

With a celebratory Instagram post, Blackish star Yara Shahidi announced that she’ll be attending Harvard. And so, for the past 12 hours, our fangirl minds have been dreaming of the lives Shahidi and her future BFF Malia Obama will be leading as Harvard undergrads.

We can see them casually cutting through the quad on their walk from a colonial-style dorm to a lecture hall. We see them in the library, flipping between Sartre’s existentialist philosophy and Toni Morrison’s novels. We see them thriving during their four years in an academic enclave.

The actress and the president’s daughter will join a long line of public figures who have graduated from the prestigious Cambridge university. Some, like Natalie Portman, attended college even after achieving vast professional success. For most of these celebrities, though, their Harvard years were a time of exploration. While at Harvard, they dabbled in theater and philosophy and football. They figured their dreams out.

Here’s what we learned about these celebrities’ from their college days.

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Natalie Portman

Between the years of 1999-2003, Portman left acting to pursue a psychology degree at Harvard. The child of two academics, Portman told the press, “I don’t care if [college] ruins my career. I’d rather be smart than a movie star.”

Though she’d already appeared in Star Wars, Portman lived those four years like any other Harvard student. She lived in the dorms. She worked as a research assistant for her professor, Alan Dershowitz, after receiving an A+ on a psychology paper. She even wrote impassioned letters to Harvard Crimson ‘s editor, in true liberal arts form.

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Tatyana Ali

By the time Tatyana Ali began Harvard to study African-American studies and government in 1998, she already was well-established in show business. Ali had appeared on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air for six years, and was just starting her music career.

Ali spoke about her most beloved extracurricular activity as an undergrad.

“I was a stepper! I wouldn’t even dare do a step now! But our steppers are by class, so I was an ’02 stepper. Deuce! Double O deuce! And I got to step and we’d invite our parents and we’d step for the entire school and we’d do it multiple times during the year. We had so much fun,” she told The Urban Daily.

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Conan O’Brien

After graduating the valedictorian of his high school, O’Brien studied history and literature at Harvard.

Unsurprisingly, the comedian got up to hijinks as the Harvard Lampoon’s president during his sophomore and junior years. In a talk with Harvard’s current president in 2016, O’Brien recalled stealing the Robin costume from the ’60s TV show Batman when it was displayed on campus.

Still, O’Brien managed to fit in time for studying amidst the pranks. O’Brien wrote a 72-page thesis on the literature of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, and graduated magna cum laude in 1985.

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John Lithgow

Like Conan O’Brien, the actor John Lithgow studied history and literature while an undergrad at college, and also graduated magna cum laude.

From appearing as Gloucester in King Lear to playing Abe Lincoln in a fantastical drama, Lithgow spent his undergraduate years exploring his ambitions as an acto r.

“It was the last time I worked in the theater for the pure, unfettered joy of it,” Lithgow has said of those years. “Some of the work was excellent, much of it was dreadful, but its quality was never really the point. Joy was the point.”

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Dean Norris

Best known for playing Hank Schrader on Breaking Bad, Norris studied social studies at Harvard. But unlike Lithgow, his path to a career in acting was less direct.

Norris told Terry Gross on Fresh Air, “It was a tough decision, because I went to Harvard, and I was the first kid in my family to go to college — my parents didn’t go to college. So on one level, you’re like, wow, here’s the lottery out of the lower-middle class by getting this ticket into Harvard.”

Torn between a lucrative career in investment banking and a riskier one in acting, he eventually decided to pursue his dreams after speaking to professional actors.

He said, “Man, if this is as good as it gets and I can do this the rest of my life — be a repertory actor — I’d be a happy man.”

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Matt Damon

While a student at Harvard, Damon started writing the script Good Will Hunting, the film which would launch his career.

Michael Montoya, a classmate in Damon’s “Intro to Directing” class, recalled the day Damon brought in an early version of the Good Will Hunting script. Montya said, “Most of us in that class were aspiring directors, not actors, so to witness quality acting among us was a rare thrill.”

Due to career interruptions, Damon was unable to muster up the credits necessary to graduate — but eventually received in the 2013 Harvard Arts Medal.

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Rashida Jones

Rashida Jones wasn’t always set on being an actor. While an undergrad at Harvard, Jones concentrated in religion and philosophy in the hopes of becoming a judge — or the president. After college, she surprised herself by realizing she wanted to be an actor.

Jones told The Guardian, “I wanted to go to Harvard when I was 4 years old, and I still wanted to go when I was 18, and so I went.”

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Tommy Lee Jones

While an undergrad at Harvard, Jones was torn between football and theater, both major time commitments. A conversation with the football team’s coach helped with Jones’ decision. “You have the rest of your life to act, and four years to play football,” the coach told him. So, Jones played football, and then acted for the rest of his life.

Incidentally, Jones happened to be roommates with Vice President Al Gore. Both men graduated in 1969.

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