Last Lecture Full of Laughter, Whimsy, and Affection

Bassett Teaching Award winner Tarja Raag uses humor to show her appreciation for the Class of 2024

Tarja Raag, associate professor of psychology and recipient of the Charles Bassett Teaching Award, throws her arms up in celebration while delivering the Last Lecture to the graduating class.
By Laura MeaderPhotography by Gabe Souza
May 23, 2024

Tarja Raag found plenty of reasons to say “no” when asked to deliver the annual Last Lecture. Fear of public speaking and a belief she shouldn’t offer advice to the Class of 2024 topped her list.

“But when I face something I’m afraid of, the best thing for me to do is actually just do it,” said the associate professor of psychology and winner of the 2024 Charles Bassett Teaching Award. The senior class, which selected Raag as the winner, packed the Page Commons Room on May 21 to hear her address.

As for advice? She offered heartfelt tips about resiliency, friendship, community, and the value of silliness.

In a whimsical tour de force, Raag animated her slideshow of silly pictures with personal anecdotes of memorable moments shared with students. Laughter filled the room almost continually. Her ability to poke fun at herself and at her students spoke of the closeness they’ve developed in the classroom and beyond.

Four young women listening to a lecture and laughing.
Students react with laughter listening to the Last Lecture, delivered by Associate Professor of Psychology Tarja Raag, the recipient of the Charles Bassett Teaching Award.

“This is honestly, sincerely my favorite senior class ever,” said Raag, who has taught at the College since 1995. “I was really humbled when I got this—it’s the perfect year to get it. You’re truly the best people.”

Many students feel the same way about her. “She cares for her students, she’s committed to their learning, and her classroom is incredibly welcoming,” said Sophia Kennedy ’24, a biology major with a concentration in neuroscience. “As a developmental psychologist, Tarja has greatly informed my understanding of childhood development; this is information I’ll carry with me through medical school and beyond.

“Tarja’s lecture was such a fun way to start my Senior Week,” continued Kennedy, “and I’m so glad she is the recipient of the Bassett Teaching Award.” 

Now in its 32nd year, the Last Lecture brings together graduating students and the award winner. The lecture acts as a bridge between the end of exams and Senior Week, a period of fun activities and relaxation before Commencement Weekend.

Reasons for saying “yes”

Besides opting to face her fears, Raag said “yes” to the Last Lecture because of her fondness for the students. She taught 181 of the seniors and knew many others from events and activities on campus. She found great joy in getting to know them beyond their academic work—grabbing dinner off campus, walking around Mayflower Hill, navigating a corn maze, or taking them on a cemetery field trip.  

In these “real-life moments,” with all their silliness and contradictions, she saw the other side of students, “which is so much fun.” The shared moments also fostered trust between students and professor.

Female professor giving a male student wearing a ball cap a hug.
Tarja Raag receives a hug from one of her students after delivering the Last Lecture. Raag developed a closeness to the Class of 2024 as evidenced by their response to her humorous and poignant lecture.

Raag told a story about resiliency as experienced teaching this fall’s seminar on developmental psychology. In it, she shared something very personal about her son, a Marine with PTSD. The last four years have been the toughest time of her life, she said.

“We were doing a presentation on death and dying, and the presenters had us go around the room and share heavy things. We were getting closer and closer to me, and I had never shared this with students—ever. I’m like, ‘I just have to. I can’t pretend like everything’s good all the time.’ You know? And so, I did.”

The students didn’t show pity (it’s counterproductive, Raag said) or magnify her situation. “We all just sat there together and witnessed what we were going through. It was a beautiful moment.” Since then, Raag has been able to share her story more easily, which has been healing.

Life can be sweet

Without missing a beat, she segued beautifully into her philosophy on building community, which includes seeing people for who they are. “There’s so much in this world that divides us. Why don’t we just bother to find out what’s good about people?” she said.

Showing picture after picture of students and telling inside jokes, she tossed in nuggets of wisdom about how to get there. Everyone has a story that’s worth sharing. Prop each other up. Find supportive friendships, she said.

“She cares for her students, she’s committed to their learning, and her classroom is incredibly welcoming.”

Sophie Kennedy ’24

A lecture as amusing and eccentric as Raag’s wouldn’t be complete without lessons learned from her dogs. She has an old boxer in the final stages of life and a pit bull bred to fight that her son rescued. Those good boys taught her gratitude, unconditional love, and forgiveness. And, of course, it’s good to be silly. 

“Tarja has taught me to smile and bring laughter to every space in my life. She is always smiling and the first one to crack a joke in a room. Life can be sweet more often than not, it’s just up to us,” said Hailey Guzman-German ’24, a psychology and Latin American studies double major.

“Giving her the Bassett Teaching Award was a great choice. She definitely deserves it.”