Yale’s 309th Commencement: Pomp, ceremony and r-e-s-p-e-c-t

“Proud, proud, proud!” were the words that grandmother Barbara Goldstein of New Mexico used to sum up her feelings during Yale’s 309th Commencement ceremony on May 24, when nearly 1,300 undergraduates and more than 3,000 graduate students were collectively granted degrees in a boisterous morning ceremony on the Old Campus.

Another word — “respect” — also held significance during the ceremony, which took place under skies in which early-morning clouds gave way to hazy sunshine. Honorary doctorates were conferred on 10 noted individuals to honor their artistic, scientific, cultural and civic contributions. These included the “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin, who was cheered by the more than 10,000 attendees at the ceremony as she stood to receive her degree, while the Yale Concert Band performed a short bar of the singer’s trademark song “Respect.”

In words of congratulations by President Richard C. Levin, a prayer by University Chaplain Sharon M. Kugler and a benediction by Divinity School Dean Harold W. Attridge, the new graduates of Yale College and the University’s 12 graduate and professional schools were urged to use their knowledge to make the world a better place.

Clad in black graduation gowns made of recycled plastic — as part of the University’s efforts to become a more sustainable campus — the graduates smiled and snapped photos of each other with cell phones and cameras as they processed onto the tree-lined Old Campus. Conspicuous in the crowd were the 135 graduates of the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES), who wore atop their mortarboards shrubbery, flowers and other greenery — some reaching as high as three feet — as well as one grateful graduate who had painted on her own mortarboard the message “I love u Mom.”

After Levin saluted the graduates for their effort, diligence, talents and intellect, Kugler offered an opening prayer.

“Bless our hands with tenderness for all that we touch,” she said. “Bless our lips with wise words so we may speak in healing ways. Bless our eyes with an impassioned vision so we are never blind to possibility. Bless our hearing so we may be open to all understanding. From this moment on, infuse our hearts with an imaginative daring, one that stirs us to become living, vibrant examples of shalom, of salam of, of shanti, of peace.”

Yale’s graduates — who hail from 50 U.S. states and 50 nations — cheered and hooted as the deans from the respective schools conferred their symbolic degrees in the morning ceremony. The graduates were presented their individual diplomas in more intimate ceremonies following the gathering on Old Campus. Students from the Law School and the medical school’s Physician Associate Program were granted provisional degrees, as their programs end at a later date.

At the ceremony, 14 graduating seniors from Yale College who had received awards in the preceding day for their outstanding scholastic and personal achievements were also recognized. 

Levin told the graduates that this year’s honorary degree recipients were chosen to serve as “examples” to the new graduates for their “creativity, curiosity, discipline, integrity and a passion for social justice.”

In addition to Franklin, who was awarded a Doctor of Music, the other honorary degree recipients and their degrees are: Robert Alter, a scholar of Hebrew scriptures — Doctor of Humanities; Steven Chu, the U.S. secretary of energy — Doctor of Science; Michael Feinberg and David Levin, who co-founded the Knowledge Is Power charter school program — Doctor of Humane Letters; Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s best-selling novelist — Doctor of Letters; Sir Michael Rutter, a psychiatrist who has been called “the father of child psychology” — Doctor of Medical Sciences; Ellen Johnson Sirleaf — the president of the Republic of Liberia and the first woman elected president of an African nation — Doctor of Laws; Dame Marilyn Strathern, one of the world’s leading anthropologists — Doctor of Social Science; and Zhang Yimou, a Chinese filmmaker and theatrical designer who created the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. (For more on the honorary degree recipients, click here.)

Soap bubbles and balloons imprinted with “Congratulations, Grad!” floated in the air as the graduates sang a traditional hymn and received a benediction from Attridge, who urged the new students to go forth turning their learning “into lives dedicated to truth, goodness of purpose, light, peace and justice for all.”

Goldstein, the smiling grandmother, was among the many family members anxious to see their graduating loved one at the ceremony’s finale. She was on hand to see Gillian Paul, who is from Virginia, receive her Master of Forestry Science degree from F&ES.

At the close of the ceremony, the father of graduating Yale College senior Ariel Franks of St. Louis, Missouri, stood by a High Street gate, hoping to see his daughter in the recessional. He, too, said that the word that best described how he felt at that moment was proud.

“I’m proud of her intelligence, her sense of kindness and her drive to accomplish,” he said. “She’s had a wonderful time here.”

A video of the Commencement ceremony can be seen on Yale YouTube Channel.

 — By Susan Gonzalez