J.K. Rowling stressed the crucial importance of imagination during a speech Thursday at Harvard University's spring commencement, saying, "We do not need magic to transform our world."
The "Harry Potter" author also spoke about the benefit of failure, recalling the humiliations of her time in poverty before her career took off with her string of novels about a bespectacled boy wizard.
Before the speech, some members of Harvard's class of 1936 paid tribute to Rowling by carrying brooms during an alumni procession.
President Drew Gilpin Faust also welcomed witches, wizards and Muggles — non-magical people in Rowling's books — to the commencement. Faust noted that there was a larger number of young children than normally expected for a Harvard graduation and that she knew she was the just "the warm-up act."
Rowling, who was given an honorary doctor of letters degree, urged the Harvard grads to use their influence and status to speak out on behalf of the powerless.
"We do not need magic to transform our world," she said. "We carry all the power we need inside ourselves already; we have the power to imagine better."
Imagination gives one the ability to empathize with others, she said.
"Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation," Rowling said. "In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity; it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared."
Rowling described a low point seven years after graduating from college, when she was a poor single mother.
"The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are ever after secure in your ability to survive," Rowling said. "You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity."
She called such knowledge "a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more to me than any qualification I ever earned."