With blessings, cheers, and relief, the Class of 2016 celebrates a milestone

Photos: Scenes from Commencement 2016

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One minute, the Old Campus was serene. Small sparrows flitted about and landed on some of the thousands of empty white chairs lined in neat rows. Family members and other guests talked quietly amongst themselves or readied their cameras for the big moment. A cool breeze blew across the sun-dappled quadrangle as the Harkness Tower carillon played a hymn. A few balloons bobbed in the air.

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And then the scene changed. Members of the Yale University Concert Band took up their instruments and began playing a series of lively marches, and graduating students from Yale College and the university’s graduate and professional schools converged on Old Campus. Some parents held up larger-than-life-sized photos of their graduating sons or daughters, while others raised homemade banners emblazoned with the words “You did it!” Some stood on chairs to get the best views of the arriving students. The noise revved up as family members and other loved ones cheered and applauded as the black-robed graduates marched in.

The cheering grew the loudest after President Peter Salovey approached the podium and said: “To the students of the Class of 2016, and their parents, families, and friends: Welcome to the 315th Commencement of Yale University.”

He congratulated the smiling graduates, saying, “We gather to recognize the extraordinary accomplishments of all of you who have worked so hard to complete your programs of study. We salute your efforts, diligence, talent and your intellect. We also join you in expressing gratitude for all who have supported you in those endeavors — your families and friends, teachers, and other members of the Yale community.”

A call for peace, and a symbolic conferral

University Chaplain Sharon Kugler then led the crowd of nearly 10,000 in a prayer, asking that the graduates and their guests, who share a “beautiful but aching world,” aim to possess “an intelligence that is inspired by justice, guided by tenderness, moved by holiness, and always, always informed by love”.

She continued, “From this moment on, fill our hearts with an imaginative daring, one that stirs us to become peace — shanti, shalom, salaam.”

In a time-honored tradition, the dean of Yale College and the deans of the Graduate School and each of the professional schools (Art, Architecture, Divinity, Drama, Forestry & Environmental Studies, Law, Medicine, Management, Music, Nursing, and Public Health) in turn came forward to state the number of degree recipients in their respective schools and to ask Salovey to confer degrees upon their graduating students. Salovey responded to each request by saying, “By the authority invested in me, I confer upon you [the degrees] as designated by the dean and admit you to all their rights and responsibilities.” Student representatives accepted the symbolic degrees on behalf of their schools to the cheers of their peers. Actual degrees were presented to each student in separate ceremonies in the residential colleges and in the various schools.

A bit of silliness … with string

If there had been a competition for the rowdiest graduates, the clear winner would be those from the School of Nursing, who threw showers of glittering confetti in the air and wildly sprayed each other with Silly String. However, each group of graduates shared its unique celebratory gestures. School of Drama students, for example, wore red clown noses, while School of Forestry & Environmental Studies graduates had leafy green sprigs atop their mortarboards, and Divinity School graduates sported halos. As is customary at the Commencement ceremony, Yale College graduates let out the most sustained cheer when their dean, Jonathan Holloway, requested that Salovey grant their degrees.

All told, some 3,627 degrees were conferred. For the 230 graduating students in the Law School, their degrees are provisional, as their term actually ends after Commencement. In addition, students in the university’s Physician Associate Program participated in the ceremony but will not complete their degrees until December. 

As the students from the various schools were called, parents and other guests frequently rose from their seats and moved in closer to take pictures. They sported every type of digital camera, using their phones, iPads, and heavy-lensed DSLR models.

Honoring significant contributions

At the ceremony, Salovey awarded honorary degrees to nine illustrious individuals. They are:

Rosalie Silberman Abella, the first Jewish woman and the youngest person ever appointed as a judge in Canada (she serves as a justice on the country’s Supreme Court) whose work has led to the creation of the concept of employment equity;

Jennifer Doudna, a scientist whose research on the structures and behavior of ribonucleic acids has led to groundbreaking genome-editing techniques with major implications for the treatment of genetic diseases;

Calvin Hill ’69, a former professional football player who has been dedicated to community service since his days playing football at Yale, where a daycare center was named in his honor;

Audra McDonald, a singer and actress who holds the most Tony Awards of any performer and is an advocate for marriage equality and for the homeless;

Haruki Murakami, a Japanese author of novels, short stories, and nonfiction, including the award-winning “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” and “Kafka on the Shore”;

Arnold Rampersad, a biographer and literary critic whose works chronicle the lives of such African American luminaries as W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Jackie Robinson, and Ralph Ellison, among others;

David Saperstein, the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom and head of the Office of International Religious Freedom in the U.S. Department of State, who has dedicated his life to social justice and civil rights;

Alice Waters, a chef and restaurateur who pioneered the local and organic movement, including a healthy and sustainable food program at Yale; and

George C. Wolfe, a Tony Award-winning playwright and director whose stage hits include “Jelly’s Last Jam,” “The Normal Heart,” “Angels in America” and “Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk.”

See the honorees citations and biographies.

They made it!

Following the conferral of honorary degrees, the graduates sang the hymn “O God, beneath thy guiding hand" and received a blessing from Divinity School dean Gregory Sterling, who prayed that the graduates be given the courage “to see injustice clearly, and to refuse what is for what could be” and “to dream what others have considered impossible.”

As the graduates marched for one last time off the Old Campus to music performed by the Yale Concert Band, their relief at having reached this day was evident in their cheers, exclamations, and, sometimes, their signage. One student, for example, had glued in sparkly letters on her mortarboard “I’m Free ’16,” while another’s mortarboard proclaimed “I MADE IT!” in white lettering (with the “A” in pink). Hopping down the steps on the Elm Street side of Old Campus, one Yale College could be heard telling another, “Well, we did it. We graduated!” his voice reflecting both his surprise and sense of accomplishment.

As the parents of Ryan Truby made their way to Morse Recital Hall for the next celebration of their son and his fellow School of Music graduates, his mother, Monique Truby, said she was feeling immense pride. She explained that Ryan, a violinist, had previously been trained only in French in his home city of Montreal, and so was “a little out of comfort zone” when he came Yale. “He did okay,” she said, smiling.

Added Ryan’s dad: “My eyes are wide open to the spectacle [of Commencement]. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’m enjoying it immensely, and I’m very touched.”