‘The World Is All Before You’

The global economic crisis may have many of Yale’s newest alumni feeling apprehension about their futures, but they were nothing but high-spirited as they gathered for campus graduation celebrations.

During the Commencement ceremony on the Old Campus on May 25, the more than 3,500 graduates rose to their feet and roared as former First Lady and now U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton LAW ‘73 was presented an honorary Doctor of Laws degree by President Richard C. Levin. They applauded heartily as dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones gracefully performed an impromptu dance as he approached center stage to accept his honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree. As Levin officially proclaimed them Yale graduates, they cheered and hooted exuberantly.

- Honorary Degrees Program (pdf)
- Yale College Class Day Student Prizes 2009
- Yale College Class Day Faculty Prizes 2009
- President Levin’s Baccalaureate Address

Nevertheless, the fragile world economy was a topic that couldn’t be ignored during the two days of campus celebrations for Yale’s newest graduates. It served as the subject for the Baccalaureate Address Levin delivered to the nearly 1,300 Yale College graduates on May 24 in Woolsey Hall and was a central element in a Class Day speech to the Yale College seniors by noted author, editor and satirist Christopher Buckley ‘75 on Old Campus later that afternoon. It was even one student’s inspiration for a Class Day hat; her conspicuous cardboard headgear proclaimed in large black letters: “Will work 4 food.”

Both Levin and Buckley told the Yale College Class of 2009 that while the job market may not be as fluid as it has been for previous college graduates, there are still plenty of options for them in this time of economic challenge.

‘Opportunities are everywhere’

In his Baccalaureate Address on “The Economy and the Human Spirit,” Levin, who is also an economist, forthrightly described the world economy as “a mess,” but promised the graduating seniors: “It will get better. It is just a question of when.

“I know that the process of finding a first job has been more difficult and stressful for you than for your immediate predecessors, and I know that many of you do not yet have definite plans for the year ahead,” Levin acknowledged. “But do not be discouraged. There are exciting opportunities waiting for you, and little reason for despair.”

Levin pointed out that their Yale education and college experiences have well prepared them to help shape the future should they become engaged with current issues on the national agenda, among them health care, education reform, new energy technologies and global warming.

He suggested that the graduates consider following in the footsteps of many other Yale alumni by contributing to “international cooperation and understanding” via government or foreign service, the Peace Corps or the military. Others, he proposed, might think about becoming innovators in the fields of new media, new energy technologies or in establishing “greener and more socially responsible” businesses.

“I cite these specific paths not to limit your imagination, but to encourage you to recognize that opportunities are everywhere,” said the Yale president. “The education you have acquired here has given you the breadth and flexibility to take on the widest array of possible challenges, and it has given you the depth and rigor to make a meaningful difference wherever you chose to apply your talent.”

“The world is all before you,” concluded Levin. “Choose your direction, and prove that this time of crisis is also a time of opportunity. You can do it. Yes, you can.” (The full text of the address, can be found at http://opa.yale.edu/president/message.aspx?id=86.)

‘Cool lines’

Buckley kept members of the Yale Class of 2009 chuckling for much of his Class Day speech, which was punctuated with quotes by Mark Twain, Dorothy Parker, Yogi Berra, Marilyn Monroe and Boris Yeltsin, as well as a Yiddish proverb.

The economic crisis, he told the graduating seniors, makes their futures “hard to predict.” But, for that, he said, they are “lucky.”

“I say ‘lucky’ because I think one of the most exciting things about life is its unpredictability,” Buckley commented.

While he acknowledged that it may not be the best time to be “starting out on life’s journey,” he urged: “take heart — it might be a better time than you think.”

He joked that — as a Republican — he can’t agree with the adage “Money is the root of all evil,” but told the seniors that Marilyn Monroe “was on to something” when she said, “I don’t care about money. I just want to be wonderful.”

“Some of you, I’m guessing, will not be going into the training program at Lehman Brothers or A.I.G. or one of those ‘best and brightest’ Wall Street firms that came up with such great ideas as ‘credit default swaps’ or ‘collateralized debt obligations,’” Buckley commented.

“But did you really want to model your lives on characters in Tom Wolfe novels? I always wanted to be Tom Wolfe, but I never wanted to be Sherman McCoy,” he continued, referring to the egocentric bond salesman who is a central character in Wolfe’s novel “The Bonfire of the Vanities.”

He told the graduating seniors that “there are always two ways of looking” at any situation in life. To illustrate that point, he related a conversation that took place between former British prime minister John Major and former Russian president Boris Yeltsin. When Major asked Yeltsin to sum up the state of Russia in one word, the Russian leader responded, “Good.” Major then asked Yeltsin to summarize his country’s state in two words.

“Yeltsin said, ‘Not good,’” recounted Buckley, igniting peals of laughter from his audience.

“So this crummy economy that we’ve provided you may have an upside,” he said. “You may end up in a better place for it. Your lives may be deeper and more enriched.”

During his speech, Buckley reflected on the differences between his graduating class and the Class of 2009, noting that in his student days, “we were preoccupied with the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union; China was still a commie dictatorship; computers were something only those total loser computer science majors cared about; and the idea of an African-American U.S. president was about as plausible as … Ronald Reagan as president.

“Today,” he continued, “we no longer worry about nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Which frees us up to worry about one of Pakistan’s 100 nuclear weapons arriving in New York harbor aboard a container ship.

“I never thought I’d be looking back on the Cold War with nostalgia,” he quipped.

The development that is the “most amazing — most cool of all” is America’s election of its first African-American president, said Buckley, who is the son of the late William F. Buckley Jr., founder of the conservative National Review magazine. The younger Buckley received wide media attention when he announced his support for Obama’s candidacy.

Buckley also lauded the current college-student generation for devising a one-word, “all-purpose answer” to the “pressing existential question” of “What does it mean?”: Whatever.

“We didn’t have that word in my day,” he told the students. “And on behalf of my generation, I want to say, thank you. It’s just brilliant and philosophically air tight. There is no proposition, no argument, dogma, asseveration, boast or claim that can’t be stopped dead in its tracks by an American teenager with an iPod in his ears going, ‘Whatever.’”

To the amusement of his audience, he then tested out the word as a response to some famous phrases.

” ‘To be or not to be.’ Whatever,” said Buckley. ” ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’ Whatever. ‘Mission Accomplished.’ Whatever.”

After complimenting the parents in the audience for seeing their children through the college experience, Buckley gave some parting words to the soon-to-be-graduates. “I wish you every success as you enter that never-ending graduate school called life,” he said. “Have adventures! Make journeys! Make memories! Make future Yalies! Say the cool lines!”

He went on to give some examples of “cool lines,” among them “sponge, clamp, sutures,” “I’d like to thank the Academy,” “The Eagle has landed,” “Up periscope!” and “I … do solemnly swear…” (for the presidential oath). While mentioning the latter, Buckley poked fun at the mix-up that took place during Obama’s swearing in by Supreme Court Justice John Roberts — who, he noted, was “Harvard-educated.”

“[W]hatever life has in store for you, and may it hold every blessing and every happiness, there’s one very cool line that you can already say,” concluded Buckley. “Yale, 2009. It’s whatever-proof.”

(The full text of Buckley’s speech can be found online at http://opa.yale.edu/media/pdf/Yale-Class-Day-Buckley-20090524.pdf.)

High honors

Six teachers were honored at the Class Day ceremony for their outstanding commitment to their professions and 21 students were recognized for their accomplishments in academics, athletics, commitment to public service and personal qualities.

Two of those students won two top prizes: Jarrad Aguirre, who was awarded both the David Everett Chantler Award (for courage, strength of character and high moral purpose) and the Alpheus Henry Snow Prize, given to the senior whom the faculty believes has “done the most for Yale by inspiring in his or her classmates an admiration and love for the best traditions of high scholarship.”

Emily Morrell was presented both the Roosevelt L. Thompson Prize (in recognition for public service) and the James Andrew Haas Prize, given to the member of the senior class “whose breadth of intellectual achievement, strength of character and fundamental humanity shall be adjudged by the faculty to have provided leadership for his or her fellow students, inspiring in them a love of learning and concern for others.”

Hats and a laundry basket

The Class Day festivities also included reflections on the experiences of the Class of 2009 in a “Class Insight” presented by Steven Kochevar; a humorous video representing the “Class History” written by Ned Fulmer and Molly Green, and directed by Andrew Chittenden; and a reading of the Ivy Ode by Katie Hattemer.

Hattermer’s ode, titled “Welcome Back Dinner,” expressed the desire she and her classmates felt after returning from spring break to linger just a bit longer with each other over dinner and during other social occasions — knowing their college years were quickly winding down. Hattermer read, in part: “Time’s not a one-way river but a tree,/and we’ll shimmy down this branch, hold on tight and stay./Even when the reverie ends I can’t shake/that glimpse of the vista of breakable time.”

The Old Campus was ablaze with vibrant color as the seniors, in keeping with a Class Day tradition, were decked in creative hats or headgear. These ranged from the simple (baseball caps, football and bike helmets) to the elaborate (a towering handmade replica of Harkness Tower) to everything in between, such as stuffed Sesame Street or Dr. Seuss characters, a giant Hershey’s Kiss candy and soccer balls. Mark Longhurst, a senior from Sydney, Australia, chose simply to plop a white plastic laundry basket over his head. When asked about the significance of his head-topper, he quipped, “It symbolizes my lack of preparation.”

Relief and pride

On Commencement morning, proud parents and family members positioned their video cameras along walkways and on lawns to film their loved ones during their procession onto the Old Campus. Joining the Yale College seniors for the Commencement ceremony were approximately 600 graduates of Yale’s Graduate School of Arts & Sciences and more than 800 graduates of Yale’s professional schools.

The boisterous crowd of graduates became quiet when University chaplain Sharon Kugler offered an opening prayer fitting for Yale’s diverse and multi-faith community. “As students of your handiwork we delight in the treasures you have bestowed upon our hearts, minds, bodies and souls,” she said. “Now we ask you: Bless our hands with tenderness for all we touch. Bless our lips with wise words so we may speak in healing ways. Bless our eyes with impassioned vision so we are never blind to possibility and bless our hearing so we may be open to all understanding. From this day forward let us walk this beautiful but hurting world as vibrant living examples of shalom, of salaam, of shanti, of peace, together in our many strengths, voices and faiths and as your loving people… .”

In addition to paying homage to Clinton and Jones, the University conferred honorary degrees on eight other distinguished individuals at the Commencement ceremony. Graduating students were vocal in their admiration for the accomplishments of these honorands as well. They included sculptor Richard Serra, social entrepreneur William Drayton, writer John McPhee, theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez, former Yale provost and current University of Cambridge vice-chancellor Alison Richard, composer Sofia Gubaidulina, scientist Leroy Hood and economist Thomas Schelling.

Following the celebratory conferral of student and honorary degrees, whistles and joyful chattering were mingled with the music of the Yale University Concert Band and later, Yale’s carillon, as the students — now graduates — and their families assembled for more photos of the milestone occasion. Classmates hugged and congratulated each other as they made their way off of the Old Campus for more intimate celebrations in their residential colleges and schools.

After one celebratory gathering on Commencement weekend, senior Jarrett Drake summed up his strongest emotion with one simple word: “Relieved.”

Drake, a history major from Gary, Indiana, said he does not yet have a job or future plans, but he has decided to stay in New Haven, his home for the past four years. It was here, he noted, that he recently played football for the Yale Bulldogs and was involved in the theater on campus, among other pursuits.

“New Haven has a lot of potential,” he said, adding he enjoyed his time in the city.

His father, MacArthur Drake, whose oldest daughter also graduated from Yale, added that he, too, felt tremendous relief about his son’s graduation.

“It’s good he’s made it,” he commented, smiling joyfully. “It’s good.”

— By Susan Gonzalez

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