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The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Centennial Medal was first awarded in June 1989 on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Graduate School.
At that time, seven medals were awarded. Since then, medals have been awarded to two to four alumni each June. Alumni are honored for "contributions to society as they have emerged from one's graduate education at Harvard."
Anyone who has earned a Master's or Doctoral degree from the Graduate School is eligible to be considered for a medal. Nominations are reviewed by senior University officials and the Graduate School Alumni Association Council's Medals Committee. Their recommendations are voted on by the Harvard Corporation.
The design of the Centennial Medal reflects both the values of the Graduate School and the accomplishments that the medal celebrates. On one side, a figure representing Truth pours water from two bowls, symbolizing the wellspring of knowledge and potential. The other side of the medal depicts palm and laurel branches. The palm branch has traditionally represented the celebration of victory after a long struggle, and it also evokes the symbolic characteristics of the palm tree itself, flourishing over a long life and bearing fruit in old age. The laurel branch conjures the symbolism of the wreath awarded in antiquity to celebrate triumph and learning.
Each year on the day before Harvard's Commencement, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences celebrates the achievements of a select group of alumni by awarding the Centennial Medal, the highest honor that GSAS bestows.